Some Restaurants Turned to Retail During the Pandemic

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Pandemic restrictions prompted some restaurants to change their business model to make them more consumer friendly and successful by giving customers new ways to access their favorite meals.

Rice on busy 14 Street NW in Logan Circle began serving authentic Thai cuisine since 2003, but like many restaurants it took a hit when the pandemic shut down the dining room.

The team at Rice decided they had to do something to continue serving their customers and keep the money coming in, so they converted the old, dusty basement under their restaurant dining room into The Rice Market — a retail store offering all the ingredients customers need to bring the Rice dining experience home.

“People have more time to stay home, and then they know what they want because of the social media,” Rice’s Tom Sarobon said. “And then they just know what they want and sometimes they come in and they just, ‘Do you have this? Do you have this?’”

In the market, customers find everything from spices and herbs to Thai beers and sake. There are also grab-and-go pre-packaged meals, soups and sushi dishes for those looking to dash in without placing an extensive order. 

Less than a year after opening, their retail sales make up 60% of their business.

Restaurants that don’t have retail space to sell their goods on site are calling on another company that does.

“They called and said we’ve got these kitchens and we’ve got workers but we don’t have anything to make,” said Scott Crawford, chief merchandising officer of FreshDirect. “So can we make prepared foods for you?”

Many restaurants are teaming up with FreshDirect, which has been delivering groceries and prepared meals for years.       

The vaccinated population in D.C. may be overestimated in this map because some non-residents who work in D.C. are included in the totals.

“It was probably mid-April when we started hearing a lot more people calling us to help,” Crawford said. 

He said as pandemic shutdowns began, the company saw an influx of requests from restaurateurs looking to get their best sellers in Fresh’s marketplace

Among those businesses: Compass Coffee. With their locations dependent on foot traffic that stayed home, the company pivoted to online retail. 

“They have an approachable price point, they have a great quality, they’re doing their own roasting, they just built their own roastery and they didn’t have any volume to put through it, so we looked at their product and we went on to sell them as well,” Crawford said.

Compass Coffee says their ecommerce sales grew tenfold since the start of the pandemic. They’re now selling coffee in 1,500 stores in the D.C. area thanks to partnerships with brick and mortar grocers.

While restrictions ease, there's no sign of these pandemic partnerships ending anytime soon

“Watch the food trends, they tend to start in restaurants and then move into grocery, so we’re happy to embrace that and we’re also happy to embrace entrepreneurial spirit.”

Rice expects the retail business will continue to increase as dining returns to full capacity this week. 

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