A new kind of neighborhood grocery store has emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic emptied both restaurants and supermarket shelves.
To keep their businesses afloat and meet customers’ needs, some restaurants are offering a wide variety of pantry items right alongside food from their takeout menus.
Perhaps no restaurant has made this transition more smoothly than La Bottega in Vancouver’s Uptown Village.
Peter and Lisa Dougherty had just renovated their beloved Italian restaurant before the pandemic hit. The new configuration made it easier for customers to grab lasagna, gelato, tomato-basil soup and wild boar ragu from refrigerators by the front door. The remodeling project also expanded the restaurant’s front glass case, filled with luscious desserts, olives, meatballs and luxury cheese like pecorino and asiago fresca.
La Bottega already had a retail section filled with imported olive oil, anchovies, capers and balsamic vinegar, along with a wine cellar filled with fine wine from all over the world.
To that previous array of grocery offerings, La Bottega has laden its dining tables with loaves of bread from Grand Central Bakery and hard-to-find items like dried pasta, rice, flour and yeast. On the back wall is a refrigerator filled with milk, butter, vegetables and more cheese. Tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini and portobello mushrooms fill another table. La Bottega also stocks toilet paper, tissues, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer.
Patrons may never want to step foot in a grocery store again after perusing the bounty of items in such a clean, open space.
La Bottega has always sold some retail items, but when customers told them that they couldn’t get butter, eggs, and milk, the Doughertys decided to make these items, which they could easily source, available to the public.
“This isn’t going to be over,” Peter Dougherty said. “We’re going to make it by expanding and being inventive.”
He said that flour, yeast, beans and rice are popular items. Their busiest days for groceries are Wednesday and Thursday, while Friday and Saturday are popular days for takeout.
Rally Pizza hasn’t gone through as extreme of a transformation as La Bottega, but it has added a pantry-items tab to the online ordering system. Baked goods like thick round loaves of sesame semolina bread, bake-at-home oatmeal scones and blondies are available. Rally also offers housemade items that aren’t normally available: granola; Oregon blackberry, strawberry-rhubarb and other fruit jams; and a pizza kit with dough, sauce and hand-pulled mozzarella. Customers can also buy Reister Farms eggs, Shepherd’s Grain flour and Water Avenue Coffee online and pick it up at the restaurant.
“Primarily, we wanted to offer our customers the ability to reduce their grocery store trips (and amount of potential exposure) by carrying pantry staples like flour and coffee at a low cost. The added bonus is that selling more of those items also allows us to keep buying from our local purveyors, like Shepherd’s Grain and Water Avenue Coffee, so it’s a win-win,” Rally Pizza owner Shan Wickham said.
Wickham and her co-owner and spouse, Alan Maniscalco, just started making bread, granola and jam for fun and decided to sell them to customers. They created the DIY pizza kits as a project for kids who were home from school, but they turned out to be popular with customers of all ages.
Other places, like C’est La Vie and Rusty Grape Vineyard, have created weekend markets packed with pantry items and take-and-bake meals.
C’est La Vie holds its weekly Petit Market from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Owner Keri Buhman said the line starts to form at 8:15 a.m. Only two people are allowed in at a time — one in the store and one in the restaurant. Inside the store, Buhman typically stocks local goodies, wine and cheese. At the bottom of the cheese case, she has added new items, like date-night charcuterie boards filled with sliced cheeses, meats and accompaniments.
The glass case by the entrance to the store is filled with produce — mixed salad greens, Brussels sprouts, carrots and leeks, as well as fuzzy Ash Tree Farms lion’s mane mushrooms. Under the produce are grab-and-go meals — chicken cordon bleu lasagna, coq au vin with mushrooms and potatoes, tomato basil bisque, crab cakes, and Tillamook mac and cheese.
In the room next door, the long wood table usually filled with guests eating crepes and sipping mimosas is covered with grocery staples like rice (paella style and arborio for risotto), dried pasta, flour, yeast, brown sugar, produce and loaves of Grand Central Bakery bread. By the register, customers will find a few other baked goods including scones, croissants and Buhman’s unbelievably good peanut butter miso cookies.
Rusty Grape Vineyard recently reopened as a weekend Italian market renamed La Uva Fortuna Farms.
“It means the fortunate grape,” owner Jeremy Brown explained. “It’s fitting, because if we survive this we’ll be fortunate.”
Brown’s travels with his wife, Heather, in particular their 20-plus trips to Italy, inspired this new marketplace.
“We’re trying to be very Italian in our selection,” Brown said, adding that he wants customers “to find something they can’t pick up at Fred Meyer.”
At the same time, Brown isn’t interested in opening a boutique shop of expensive items. His goal is to recreate the type of market found in Italy, filled with high-quality items at affordable prices. Rusty Grape’s take-and-bake meals, particularly the chicken Marsala, are popular. Meals can be ordered ahead of time through a tab at the top of the page on the Rusty Grape Vineyards website.
If you just need toilet paper, The Diner provides a free roll, attractively wrapped in The Diner logo, with every order. In other times, a restaurant giving out toilet paper with food orders might create the impression that the meal is likely to cause gastrointestinal distress. But these are strange times. Every business owner is scrambling to meet customers’ needs — and survive.