The Parmesan and black pepper penne with charcoal-grilled chicken from Coltivare.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic altered our world, restaurants by and large kept their creations in house. You couldn’t typically find, say, Chris Shepherd’s Korean braised meat and dumplings at any old place—you had to visit The Hay Merchant to enjoy it.

But the pandemic has caused disruptions that have forced established industries to pivot quickly. Some of these pivots, like the ability to get alcohol to-go from a restaurant, may last far beyond the end of stay-home orders and self-quarantines. Or another: restaurants selling their most famous fare outside of their brick-and-mortar spots and at the local supermarket.

Around April 1, H-E-B announced that you could find heat-and-eat items from some of Houston’s most popular establishments and chefs at multiple local markets. Among the initial offerings were Dr. Pepper short rib and grits from Cherry Block Craft Butchery at Bravery Chef Hall; turtle soup from Brennan’s of Houston; Parmesan and black pepper penne with charcoal-grilled chicken from Coltivare; and Shepherd’s Korean braised meat—in this case beef—and dumplings. Since then, H-E-B has added creations by chef Hugo Ortega, and Kroger has gotten into the act with offerings from Burns Original BBQ, Frenchy’s Chicken, and Peli Peli.

For the restaurants included, being in the grocery store means exposure they can’t otherwise get today.

“I think it can be a good exchange, a good way to get our names out,” says Ryan Pera, partner at Agricole Hospitality, which operates Coltivare. “H-E-B has a similar quality level to what we aim for, there’s overlap with the customer base that we have, and I think it’s a new way to expand and still reach people.”

It remains to be seen whether restaurants will forever have a spot at the heat-and-eat section of the supermarket, but for those involved, the process of getting food from the kitchen to the grocery shelf is like taking on a whole new business model. Pera spoke with Houstonia about how its heat-and-eat experience has gone.

Getting on board

Agricole has kept a strong relationship with H-E-B President Scott McClelland, going back to the grocer’s scouting of the Heights as it sought expansion in Houston. So, when Pera learned that H-E-B was rolling out heat-and-eat food from Shepherd’s Underbelly Hospitality, plus Cherry Block and Brennan’s, he asked partner Morgan Weber to see if Agricole could get in on the process.

“They have been incredibly generous,” says Pera about H-E-B. “They’re literally selling it at no cost to us. What they order is what they pay for, and we’re not paying for any loss.” Plus, 100 percent of sales go directly back to the restaurants. According to Kevin Blessing, H-E-B group vice president of bakery, deli, prepared meals, restaurants, and culinary, partly as a result of the program, participating restaurants across the state have rehired approximately 400 employees total.

Picking the dishes

Once on board, Agricole met to determine what food made the most sense for H-E-B heat-and-eat meals.

“We thought people wanted comfort and wanted what they were used to,” Pera says. So Coltivare pastas made perfect sense. They rolled out three dishes: rigatoni Bolognese, 44 Farms braised beef lasagna, and the Parmesan and black pepper penne.

That last one is a riff on the somewhat legendary Coltivare offering of black pepper spaghetti, changed because the team felt penne held up better in transport and on the cool grocery shelf. “We really did not like the spaghetti once it sat in box for more than 30 minutes,” Pera says.

Research and development

Coming up with the right specifications for all the dishes took a few rounds of research and development, though that looked a little different during a pandemic. Instead of everyone in one kitchen trying the dishes, team members were asked to come by a central refrigerator at Agricole’s East Downtown office on their time to pick up a sample and take it home to test. “I don’t know if it’s silly or not, but we’re trying to be conscious,” Pera says.

Some dishes took less time than others to perfect for the format. Still, Agricole had to figure what kind of container and reheating method was best (for the Coltivare pastas customers should simply put the whole container in the microwave), and how to get everything down to 30 degrees in storage, H-E-B’s required temperature for heat-and-eat meals when being transported to the market.

“If you need a cooler, you can’t just go to Academy and buy a cooler,” Pera says. “It’s all these things that (food production) businesses are used to doing, but we’re not used to it.”

Turns out the answer actually was a cooler: a large Yeti, in fact. Agricole managers delivered the packages to the markets during the first several days, training other employees on protocol so they could take up the job immediately. It took Agricole eight days to get from that first phone call to McClelland to the first delivery to H-E-B.

Settling in

Paul Lewis leads a team of three who make the more than 2,000 units per week inside the kitchen at Indianola, the Agricole restaurant where Lewis is executive chef. They work daily to ensure there’s a new batch of meals every day at H-E-B. They wear masks, change gloves constantly, and each chef is in charge of his own batch.

For now, this working, and Pera hopes to continue this heat-and-eat relationship through the summer, at least. Plus, customers should be looking forward to more options: Pera says an Eight Row Flint queso might be coming to H-E-B soon.

“We just have to find all our ducks in a row,” Pera says. “Maybe we can figure out the right cost on it.”

As for H-E-B, the partnerships with all participating restaurants has been fruitful.

"Our initial goal of the program was community based, to provide local restaurateurs and their staff with a way to keep their businesses going during the stay at home orders," Blessing says. "We have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from both customers and the restaurants. ... We expect the program to continue through the summer and are happy we are able to continue to help our community in this way, Texans helping Texans."

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