The pandemic-driven decline in dining out has had a silver lining for home cooks: High-quality produce and meats typically destined for restaurants are increasingly finding their way to people’s kitchen tables.
The pandemic has transformed how people buy food. A surge in online grocery shopping sent grocers scrambling to satisfy customers’ expectations of convenience.
There are also more ways for shoppers to forgo the grocery store altogether and buy fresh food direct from suppliers, as business disruptions drive farms and restaurants to seek new revenue streams.
One of Chicago’s top restaurant produce distributors, Fresh Midwest, is now in the home delivery business as well, offering fresh meat and produce as well as snacks prepared in-house and meals and meal kits developed in partnership with restaurants.
Patrick Fitzgerald, who created Fresh Midwest with his twin brother, Mike, had been interested in selling direct to consumers for some time and saw an opening after grocery delivery pioneer Peapod shut down its Midwest operations in February. The onset in the U.S. of the coronavirus pandemic a month later, which caused wholesale orders to drop as restaurant clients saw business wiped out, created a “perfect storm,” he said.
Niles, Ill., company Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks has been delivering food from local farms to consumers since 2006, and people for years have been able to order boxes of produce through community-supported agriculture programs. But demand has boomed as people concerned about their health and immune systems seek more nutritious food.
Nichols Farm and Orchard in Marengo, Ill., a major presence at Chicago farmers markets, in March started delivering its mushrooms, carrots, jams and other products to customers’ homes.
Village Farmstand opened a storefront in suburban Evanston during the summer to help area farmers address a key challenge they encountered as they tried to sell directly to consumers: how to sort through and package their product into sizes meant for families rather than the restaurants they were accustomed to serving.
It works with nearly 60 farms and sells seasonal produce, pasture-raised meats and artisan flours online, offering pickup and, as of last week, home delivery to certain suburbs for a $10 fee. It also is working with restaurants to create frozen meals and meal kits.
“This is a new age of grocery shopping that’s way more convenient and way more flavorful,” said founder Matt Wechsler, a filmmaker who connected with the local farming community through documentaries he made about sustainability in agriculture.
Farmers who worried they would be crushed this year by the fall in restaurant orders have found a consumer audience willing to open their wallets for farm-fresh food. Village Farmstand’s prices are comparable to buying organic at Whole Foods, Wechsler said.
“Some of our farms are having their best year ever,” said Wechsler’s business partner, Marty Travis, who owns Spence Farm in Fairbury, Ill., and does the marketing and delivery for the other farms in the group.
The farms have increased production enough that if restaurants start ordering at normal levels again, Village Farmstand can continue to serve the consumer market, Travis said.
There are plans to replicate the model elsewhere, including in towns that do not have grocery stores.
Jim Slama, CEO of nonprofit FamilyFarmed, which promotes a locally grown food system, thinks the new models are here to stay.
“It’ll be a whole year of changed habits,” he said. “And people are liking it.”