NEW YORK >> Where there was once a collection of plants and a dart board above the wooden counter at Glou + Glick, a wine bar in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, there is now a shiny new shelf stocked with pancake mix, kosher salt, tomato paste and hand soap.
The items are for sale.
Glou + Glick is not alone. Many restaurants in Brooklyn, most of which have ended full-menu takeout services, are continuing to order raw ingredients and pantry items from their suppliers to resell them to locals.
It is a COVID-19 pandemic pivot that makes sense when grocery stores have long lines and dwindling selections.
“I saw firsthand the experience of needing one staple, waiting in line, and then they don’t have the hand soap, they’re out of yeast and flour, they don’t have any eggs,” said Jef Diesel, owner of Glou + Glick.
So Diesel has continued to purchase many of these staples wholesale, even though his business is otherwise only offering baked goods, a few prepared foods and wine.
“If you’re going to come in and buy two bottles of a cool pét-nat,” he said, referring to a trendy sparkling wine, “and you’re out of sugar or kosher salt, you’re already here. It’s not busy and there’s space.”
Rebecca Beeman, who lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant and works in education, recently bought a produce box from the nearby Mexican restaurant, Boca Santa.
“Avoiding the grocery store brings peace of mind right now,” she said.
Boca Santa, which is still offering a limited menu for pickup, has also been stocking CSA (community-supported agriculture) boxes. In addition to local vegetables, boxes include staples that are popular on the restaurant’s menu: corn tortillas, dried beans, salsa and dried hibiscus flowers.
“I didn’t want to just open as takeout because I feel like that’s wrong; I don’t think that’s really necessary business,” said Natalie Hernandez, Boca Santa’s owner. “So I went ahead and decided to do a box because I know getting groceries is very, very difficult, and if I still have access to getting healthy, organic stuff, why not help out with that?”
Many restaurant owners said they were torn about how to move forward during the coronavirus outbreak. While staff members pleaded to be called into work, owners had to weigh the risks of spreading the virus and question whether their cooking was really an essential service. This is what led some of them to sell supplies, along with a desire to keep skeleton crews working.
“It makes me feel better in a way doing pantry items because I understand that those are staples that the community needs, whereas doing our chicken wings — I don’t really know if that’s a necessity,” said Amanda Bender, director of operations at Mo’s Original.
The ramen joint in Prospect Lefferts Gardens is offering contactless pickup for everything from all-purpose flour to ramen noodles, homemade miso and stock.
Colonia Verde, a Latin American restaurant in Fort Greene, is delivering orders of frozen pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread), raw steaks, salsas and rice, and the evidence of its customers’ creativity is showing up on social media.
“Every single night people are posting on their Instagram stories all of the things that they’re doing in their kitchen,” said Felipe Donnelly, a co-owner and the chef at Colonia Verde. “It’s a real treat to see.”
Some of these sales are aimed at helping unemployed restaurant workers. From his Ditmas Park pizzeria, Wheated, owner David Sheridan is selling off the restaurant’s 1,000-bottle whiskey collection, with most bottles selling for between $28 and $60. The first $10,000 of the proceeds went directly to his staff.
Social interactions between pantry shoppers and restaurateurs are friendly but brief.
“I used to always say that I liked working in the restaurant business because people come in hungry and tired and frustrated, and you give them food and drinks and you make them laugh, and they give you money and they leave,” said Diesel, the Glou + Glick owner. “Now they come in even more stressed, and I don’t even have the time to watch them recover. I’ve learned to expect a five-minute adventure instead of a 90-minute adventure.”
Some restaurants have reported seeing an uptick in new customers only interested in the groceries.
“We’re just seeing this amazing growth from people that never tried us, people who can’t spend three hours a day trying to get a delivery time on Fresh Direct, and they’re looking for other ways to get food,” said Donnelly, the chef at Colonia Verde.
“You can see all the clicks on our email platform of new customers that haven’t been to our establishment before,” said Bender of Mo’s. “We actually are getting new customers out of this, which is totally interesting.”
Most restaurants are keeping retail margins low on pantry items, so a customer surge doesn’t necessarily translate into profits.
“I just don’t think it’s right to overcharge for staple items right now, especially if they’re not labor-intensive,” Bender said.
For her business and others, loans and bills are piling up.
Still, many restaurants are continuing to restock.
“The idea came when my wife and I went into the restaurant to assess how much inventory we had,” Donnelly of Colonia Verde said. “Now we’ve fully restocked various times over.”
Once social distancing measures begin to relax, Bender is open to the idea of starting a general store or continuing with weekly pantry pickups. So is Hernandez at Boca Santa.
“I always did want to have some kind of a market with Boca Santa items,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully, this is pushing me to be able to incorporate that in the future.”