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Restaurants Opening Markets: A New Model?

Will more chefs turn their concepts into grocery stores?

By Timothy Malcolm March 20, 2020

Beer, wine, and more are available at Local Foods.

Image: Lisa Gochman

Since Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered all restaurants had to stop dine-in service, a few eateries in the City of Angels turned into markets. People could visit spots to pick up produce, meat, dairy, pantry staples, and even cleaning supplies. Since the restaurants had them already, why not flip those foods and items for some cash?

This week, as Houston restaurants shuttered because of a similar order, a few restaurants have taken note and are also acting like miniature grocery stores.

"We're selling our produce, the vegetables that we have ... to be honest, I'd rather sell it to someone who needs it than have it spoil in our fridge," says Amalia Blakeslee Pferd, co-owner of hot dog eatery Good Dog.

Blakeslee Pferd decided Wednesday night to turn both the Heights and Montrose locations into a grocery (they're still selling Good Dog food curbside, plus hot dog family packs) open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Specifically, they have lettuce, onions, potatoes, apples, eggs, beans, pasta, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and other goods. 

While this will carry on for as long as Good Dog can keep it going, Blakeslee Pferd says she has always wanted to run a bodega, and the idea may stick.

"I think it's a good idea for all stores and restaurants to do right now," she says. "If you're going to go pick up a to-go item, why not have some eggs while you're out?"

Some goods at the bodega at Good Dog Montrose.

That's also the idea behind the market at Local Foods and Benjy's in Rice Village, open from 11 a.m.–8 p.m. daily. Restaurateur Benjy Levit has opened a market that includes produce, meat from Black Hill Ranch, cheese from Houston Dairymaids, Katz's Coffee, beer, wine, and condiments and staples like hot sauce and olive oil.

Other restaurants either establishing markets or selling uncooked food and pantry items include The Flying Saucer (grocery boxes with eggs, potatoes, produce), and Henderson & Kane (the barbecue stop and general store has local products, sugar and canned goods, among others).

The new normal?

One restaurant owner is definitely in it for the long haul. Jonny Rhodes, chef and owner of tasting-menu restaurant Indigo in Trinity Gardens, will open a market around the corner from his restaurant on April 1. The market, which will be open Monday–Friday at full operation, will offer produce—some of it from the restaurant's own garden—meat from places like Yonder Way Farm, dairy, beverages, and both sweet and savory preserved food.

That last part is essential to Rhodes's mission; his restaurant is based on teaching through food the history of survival in African, African-American, and indigenous communities, amid various forms of slavery extending to the present day. To Rhodes, the arrival of COVID-19 in America is a moment that comes right back to the lessons he has been teaching diners at Indigo.

"These are all the things we've been talking about for the past year to 18 months," Rhodes says. "We have all these preserved foods and bulk items saved up, and with grocery stores being empty, imagine being where I'm from and not having a grocery store? What are the black and brown people who are living in poverty supposed to do?"

So Rhodes is turning his attention to providing for people while teaching them how to be self-sustaining, focusing more on cooking at home than ordering to-go meals at restaurants. The market is a major step toward fulfilling his goals.

Rhodes plans to re-open Indigo when the time is right (at this point he's going to delay until fall since his menu plans through summer have been compromised), but the market will continue past the age of COVID-19, likely in a different building. While we don't know whether the restaurant-to-market trend will continue throughout the industry, Rhodes hopes it's the new normal.

"This is an opportunity for us to seize the moment," Rhodes says. "We can take back the food industry overall. It's an opportunity for us to give back to the agriculture business and control our food, because we've allowed it to control us."

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