Burger, fries . . . and toilet paper with that order?
Yes, that is the new normal as restaurants across the region looking for a financial lifeline begin to sell groceries. Restaurants have been struggling since Governor Charlie Baker restricted them to pickups and deliveries only, starting March 17, as a part of the effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
But now municipalities such as Somerville and Arlington are cutting the red tape and making it easier for bars and restaurants to sell items like meat, produce, and toilet paper. The City of Boston, according to a spokeswoman, is also exploring how to give restaurants the go-ahead to sell groceries and may have a decision soon.
Some restaurants have been doing it on their own since the Massachusetts Restaurant Association reminded members that their licenses allow them to sell prepared meals and provisions. Panera Bread, for example, recently rolled out Panera Grocery, allowing customers to buy items like a gallon of milk, a bag of grapes, and avocados.
In Somerville, Dark Horse Public House began selling groceries nearly two weeks ago at the suggestion of its food wholesaler. The bar had tried takeout and delivery but found little demand and closed its doors.
Still, Dark Horse managers wanted to try their hand at selling groceries, given how stressful food shopping is these days. Restaurants could offer curbside grocery packages and minimize human contact since many people, especially those with preexisting medical conditions, are reluctant to venture out into stores and risk catching the virus.
“It’s very much an un-fun experience,” said Dark Horse manager Roisin O’Rourke.
When the pub posted on Instagram about prepackaged grocery boxes delivered for $20 a pop, it immediately got 60 orders.
O’Rourke estimates the restaurant has since sold about 5,000 pounds of food. Customers order online from a “grocery box” menu, which can be picked up at the restaurant or delivered. An $18 dairy box, for example, features eggs, milk, butter, and yogurt, while a $25 baking supplies box comes with brown sugar and 25 pounds of flour.
When the economy shut down, Dark Horse laid off its staff of 15, mostly bartenders and barbacks. The grocery side hustle won’t be enough to pay the utilities and the rent, but it’s a way to help the neighborhood and remind everyone the Dark Horse is still around and could use their support.
“It keeps your name out there,” O’Rourke said. “Small to medium businesses drive healthy economies. It’s not Amazon and airlines. It’s little places like us.”
That’s the reason Kristen Strezo ordered a produce pack, plus some tofu, from Dark Horse, explaining that it’s important Somerville residents “do everything we can do" to support local businesses.
Earls Kitchen + Bar, which has a location in Somerville’s Assembly Row and another at Boston’s Prudential Center, continues to do delivery and takeout, and on Saturday it launched Earls Grocery.
Along with your $16.50 order of bacon cheddar burger and fries, you can select a variety of provisions, including a $90 protein pack (ribs, burger patties, and salmon fillets) and a $45 produce pack (which includes romaine lettuce, cucumbers, avocados, herbs).
And of course, there’s the hard-to-come by toilet paper for $1 a roll (with a maximum of 6 per order).
Lynn MacDonald, regional director of Earls Kitchen, said the Canadian chain launched groceries as a convenience to customers who may not want to make multiple trips during a pandemic. At Earls, customers can buy prepared foods, meal kits, groceries, and alcohol. A new state law allows restaurants that are doing takeout and delivery to sell beer and wine to go.
MacDonald said customers like the “one-stop” shopping, but Earls also rolled out groceries so that it could rehire some employees. While the restaurant has retained its salaried workers, such as its management team and chefs, it had to let go wait staff and others when the economy was shutdown.
“Our main goal in launching groceries in Massachusetts is that we wanted to bring back our hourly employees,” MacDonald said.
For Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, the decision to allow restaurants to sell groceries, made Saturday, was a no-brainer. Restaurants can offer pickup or delivery service of grocery items as long as Somerville is operating under a local state of emergency. Businesses just need to provide a safety plan for storage and distribution to the city for approval.
There’s not even a fee. (Arlington is also waiving fees and said Thursday that it’s offering a fast-track process for restaurants that want to sell groceries.)
Curtatone said at least 10 restaurants have signed up, and he anticipates more will participate.
In recent years, Somerville, with more than 200 restaurants, has become a favorite of foodies.
But in Massachusetts and in cities across the country there’s fear that many restaurants may never reopen again.
“That would break my heart,” Curtatone said. “We want to do our part to help.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.