Katie Cannon used to go grocery shopping four to five times a week, driving from store to store to get everything on her list while placing simultaneous online orders through apps like Instacart.
In the eight weeks since Minnesota restaurants closed their dining rooms to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Cannon has barely set foot in a supermarket or co-op. She doesn’t need to. Chefs, butchers, bakers, bartenders and farms that typically supply restaurants with ingredients are now bringing groceries right to her Golden Valley door.
In the past few weeks, she has ordered multigrain bread, microgreens, farm-fresh eggs, locally brewed ginger beer, cocktail ice and even a mask made out of chef aprons, all from local vendors who are seeking new avenues to get their products directly to consumers amid a pandemic. When Cannon did go out to shop, it was to buy produce from a restaurant that has turned its former dining room into a farm stand.
Minnesota restaurants and bars have been forced to find increasingly hands-off ways to sell their products. First, it was a pivot to takeout. Then came take-and-bake, allowing diners to finish the dish in their own ovens.
Now, chefs are stepping further back, by selling their menus for parts. By offering whole ingredients, raw meat and seafood, and housemade condiments, they’re essentially launching gourmet, boutique grocery stores, each with an inventory highly specific to their mission as a food business.
“It’s an extension of our menu,” said Mike Brown, chef and co-owner of Robbinsdale’s Travail Kitchen, which recently launched a weekly marketplace for both prepared and raw foods that brought in 100 orders in its first week. On the menu: rack of lamb; chocolate chip cookie dough; and ramps — raw, pickled or ground into sausage.
“We’re trying to bring the restaurant experience to the home as best as we can,” Brown said. “How do we give people options, even though they have to cook it themselves? Here is a way to get somebody a product they can’t get anywhere else, and give them a small experience they can’t get anywhere else.”
It’s a modern solution made possible by the internet, where micro-stores are easy to set up on platforms like Tock and Square. But the trend has retro roots, harking back to a time when people made requests of their butchers, and the milkman left glass jugs on the porch.
“It’s more of a personalized experience, with 2020 digitally native tools, to do the same thing that we did in 1950,” said Steele Smiley, founder and CEO of Crisp & Green, the Wayzata-based salad chain that recently began selling whole and chopped vegetables, cheese and dressing to customers in addition to composed salads. “We have that trusted relationship with guests like the milkman. What else can you put in that pipeline?”
The peek inside restaurants’ vast pantries allows discerning gourmets and avid cooks like Cannon — a food photographer for the Minnesota Farmers Union — to re-create restaurant-quality meals at home.
“It is nice to have those little luxuries that feel like they did before,” Cannon said. “You just need that little bit of ease and happiness to feel normal.”
It also saves them from a trip to a supermarket, where social distancing can be a challenge.
Eggy’s Diner, on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building off Loring Park, always sold a cup of sugar or some eggs to residents who were in short supply. Now, they’re putting out platters of yellow onions and rolls of toilet paper for sale on tables near the windows, for passersby to see.
“It’s one more option for people in the neighborhood,” said Eggy’s general manager, Michael Juarez. “It’s a convenience.”
Another benefit to shoppers is that buying from restaurants takes them out of the fragile food supply chain that stocks supermarket shelves and coolers. When signs of the pandemic first reached Minnesota, staples such as flour, eggs and beans became scarce as people stocked up and began cooking more at home.
Because many Twin Cities restaurants deal directly with small local farms, the fresh food they buy and sell is a little easier to come by.
Need flour? Northeast Minneapolis-based Baker’s Field is in stock and available to order from Kieran’s Kitchen Northeast, a cafe that sells products from Food Building tenants, including Red Table Meat Co. and Alemar Cheese.
Rice? Minneapolis sushi restaurant Kado No Mise has Japanese pantry basics, including a sack of Hokkaido-grown short-grain Yumepirika rice.
Even sourdough starter? St. Louis Park’s Honey & Rye Bakehouse will sell you a portion of its seven-year-old starter with instructions on keeping it alive.
Besides pantry essentials, shoppers are also ordering fun foods they normally had to leave home for.
Minnesota Ice has adapted its arsenal of refrigerated trucks — which in normal times would be delivering cocktail ice to 200 bars and restaurants — to make home deliveries of a growing inventory of Minneapolis restaurant- and bar-made specialties: pints of Milkjam Creamery ice cream, a box with a week’s worth of meals prepared by Grand Cafe, frozen lasagna from Broder’s Cucina Italiana.
“The way it started is I literally got out of bed one morning and I was out of coffee,” said Erik Eastman, Minnesota Ice’s director of sales. “And I went, ‘I wish someone could just bring me some coffee.’ ”
Eastman called his friends at Five Watt Coffee and asked if he could sell their beans for them. Then he contacted more of his friends in the food business, offering to bring their products straight to customers. He has since added frozen Mucci’s pizza, macarons from Patisserie 46 and Cry Baby Craig’s hot sauce — by the gallon.
The list keeps growing. And proving that necessity is the mother of invention, new food and drink innovations are popping up everywhere as proprietors look for ways to diversify their revenue streams while their doors are closed.
Without much of a food menu at Meteor Bar in north Minneapolis, co-owner Robb Jones was prohibited from selling his inventory, even after restaurants got permission to sell wine and beer. All he could do was sell T-shirts through Eastman’s store.
It was a warm spring day, on the patio, that he thought of making a totally new product: a nonalcoholic juice mixture that can be blended with any spirit for an almost instant frozen cocktail.
“I had the idea, and I thought, ‘They’re an ice company. They have freezers,’ ” Jones said of teaming up with Minnesota Ice to sell four flavors of Frozen Meteorite, which come packaged in an ice cream carton.
Stine Aasland of Nordic Waffles, sold throughout the Twin Cities, took a different approach, one that had been on a back burner for awhile. She quickly produced a frozen version of her breakfast waffle, which is now sold at most Lunds & Byerlys.
Many people in the food and drink business are collaborating to get more products to more customers.
Rachel Anderson, pastry chef at Octo Fishbar in St. Paul, opened an online store through her Vikings and Goddesses Pie Co., where she sells her pies and frozen pastries, as well as empanadas from Quebracho. In return, Quebracho’s online store sells Anderson’s pies.
“We just wanted to make sure that we both have some income going forward and we both have our own systems in place to play off each other,” Anderson said of working with Quebracho chef Belen Rodriguez.
“How can we support each other, elevate each other, to navigate this together?”
Carla Mertz had been thinking of opening an online store months before the restaurant shutdown. Now, she realized, was the time.
Ninety percent of the produce and meat she grows and raises at her Iron Shoe Farm in Princeton, Minn., used to go to restaurants. Though many of those restaurants closed, Mertz still needed to sell her Red Wattle/Mangalitsa hogs, microgreens and more. She swiftly launched a shopping page on her site, which she calls the Pantry, and welcomed nearby farms to add to it.
Mertz now drives to the Twin Cities three days a week to make deliveries of Redhead Creamery cheese, Ferndale Market turkey and other farm-fresh foods beside her own.
If it weren’t such a painful time for the industry, it could almost be an exciting one.
“It’s kind of like the Wild West,” Mertz said. “You have your pioneers, the pacesetters, and the unfortunate struggles that happen along the way. But there are some great conversations coming out of it.”
As these micro-markets grow, many of the businesspeople involved admit they aren’t enough to keep the lights on.
But many of them see these pantries as one new revenue stream of many that might inoculate them against future crises in the industry. In all likelihood, they are here to stay. Others say it’s how business always should have been done.
Wise Acre Eatery in south Minneapolis grows its own food on its own farm in Plato, Minn.
During the pandemic, the dining room tables have been pushed together, and topped with wicker baskets that overflow with potatoes and turnips, and coolers stocked with beef, eggs and lettuce. One day a week, customers stop in to pick up tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of custom orders of meat that in previous times, would have been cooked in the restaurant’s kitchen. Co-owner Dean Engelmann said this restaurant-turned-farmers market is thriving.
“More than anything, this pandemic has made people look at where their food comes from in a whole new light,” he said. “Everyone’s going to have to adapt. We’re not afraid of the change, because we are the change.”