For restaurants in Corktown, March means one thing: the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This annual parade brings over 100,000 people to the historic Detroit neighborhood, filling the streets and local businesses with hungry, and sometimes intoxicated, customers. Held each year since 1958, on March 15, 2020 the parade was cancelled for the first time ever due to COVID-19.
What was anticipated to be a big business day for recently opened Michigan & Trumbull, instead brought everything to a grinding halt when just the next day, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order to close bars and restaurants to dine-in service.
“The day the shutdown happened I called my friend, who’s also my mentor, crying and she told me, ‘The places that survive are going to be the places that are willing and able to adapt,’” Kristen Calverley, co-owner of Michigan & Trumbull, tells Eater. “That’s been my mindset going into this. I just have to adapt and I’ll be fine.”
Adapting quickly became the new normal for operators like Calverley, as guidance and rules related to the pandemic changed daily. Restaurants had to look for new ways to survive, implementing cost-saving measures, such as limited menus, shortening hours, and minimizing staffing. Many restaurants in Detroit and Ann Arbor quickly moved to support community needs, selling products like toilet paper, flour, yeast, and other items that were in short supply or riskier to shop for during the beginning of the stay-at-home order. At Folk, owner Rohani Foulkes made the decision to close down entirely for five days, overhauling the space to create a neighborhood market that sold staple products and groceries. Slowly, the cafe began adding in its own menu items that could be packaged up to-go along with the basic staples.
“We take a two-touch mindset to our business,” Foulkes says. “Everything that comes into the marketplace needs to be turned into a café item. For example, blueberries are sold in pints, added to our yogurt parfaits, and turned into preserves packaged and put back onto the market floor.”
This approach inspired the Folk team to turn its sauces, dressings, dips, and waffle mix into packaged retail items for customers to prepare for themselves safely at home. “We were already making them in-house for the menu,” Foulkes adds, noting that by providing multiple options (e.g. a fully prepared waffle to-go or dry mix to make at home) they can meet the varying comfort levels felt by customers.
For some businesses that were already packaging food before the shutdown, adding more versatile pantry items seemed an obvious choice to expand their business. At Pink Flamingo To Go near Palmer Park, the carryout-only restaurant was as well-prepared as could be for the future of pandemic dining.
“We had started developing retail before the shutdown, bottling drinks and offering a soup subscription service like a CSA,” founder Meiko Krishok says. “Our focus was on products we were already making,” she continues, which is how their popular Filipino-style spicy banana ketchup and granola got added to the carryout menu.
Changing a business model is no easy feat, and these restaurants faced significant challenges when adjusting to the new package-heavy environment. Supply costs quickly became an issue for Spencer in Ann Arbor, when a nationwide jar shortage from the rising demand for at-home canning nearly doubled the cost of its glass jar packaging.
Operating takeout-only, Spencer repurposed its mason jar water glasses to sell seasonal homemade spice blends and condiments used on the dinner menu, like fried shallot za’atar, tomato skin togarashi, and peach jam.
When looking to purchase new jars in August as their retail sales picked up, the nearly doubled price came as quite a surprise. To navigate this challenge, Spencer now charges a $1 deposit on all reusable jars.
For restaurants, packaged retail items aren’t going away once diners come back inside. “Once diners are in the establishment, the products will only do better because they will be visually present,” says Calverley, whose restaurant began selling a line of spice blends and sauces including cilantro ranch dressing, Haute Honey, and BBQ chip seasoning.
For now, Zoom cooking classes, Instagram demos, and online recipe guides are all anticipated ideas from these restaurants looking to add value to their retail items. “People see restaurants as a special place,” Abby Olitzky, chef and co-owner of Spencer, says. These retail items are a way to bring that special touch home.
Southeast Michigan restaurants selling retail items:
- Folk (pickup and soon-to-launch delivery)
- Mercato SheWolf (pickup and delivery)
- Michigan & Trumbull (pickup, delivery, and nationwide shipping for Haute Honey and BBQ seasoning if you call or leave special instructions)
- Pink Flamingo To Go (pickup and delivery)
- Sister Pie (pre-order pickup)
- Spencer (pickup and delivery)