The Feed / Supermarkets

Imagine walking into a giant supermarket and, instead of packaged salads and pre-made meals from an interstate conglomerate, there is a container of birria from Fernandez restaurant, fresh tortellini from Bencotto in Little Italy, fresh baked bread from Panchita’s Bakery, ice cream from Stella Jean’s, taco kits from Miho Catering Co., stews from Hanna’s Gourmet. Instead of DiGiorno and Lean Cuisine, the freezer section is stuffed with meals made from scratch by local restaurants and caterers.

The idea is this: What if grocery stores dedicated one whole aisle to selling food and drink from local restaurants and caterers to help them through the crisis?

Grocery business in the US is up nearly 10 percent over last year (frozen food sales are up 17.4 percent), as Americans opt to stay safe and stay home. The stores can’t stock their shelves fast enough. (Where’d all the bread go?) Restaurants and caterers across the country face ruin. In San Diego, we’ve already lost Jaynes Gastropub, Balboa Bar & Grill, Ebisu Sushi—the terrible list goes on.

“Right now we’re living on PPP money and sunshine,” one high-profile chef told me. “When winter comes and both of those run out, we’re in real trouble.”

Some restaurants have adapted their business models and are okay. But many don’t have the operations to switch to the to-go model. Some don’t have parking lots or streets where they can set up outdoor dining.

What if giant supermarkets waived their commission on sales from this aisle? Again, their numbers are up. They’d be a little less up if they waived the commission for a set time (one year?), but imagine the goodwill (and invaluable PR) supermarkets would gather by helping local restaurants survive the pandemic.

Imagine if Ralph’s or Whole Foods or Vons or Sprouts were able to save even one local restaurant. Or two. Or ten. That supermarket would win my loyalty for life.

This would be an especially good idea for national chain grocers, who are always looking for a way to be a part of the communities that they’re not headquartered in.

Restaurant vendors would have to honor the quality and standards of the supermarkets. And the restaurants featured should probably rotate on a weekly basis to ensure fair access. Priority could be given to restaurants with no patio and no investors.

I don’t pretend to know the operational math that supermarkets would have to navigate in order to pull off this idea. I’m sure it would be a pretty significant sacrifice. I plan to reach out to grocers this week to explore the feasibility. But this is my blog. Throwing out ideas in early stages of development is the spirit of blogs. I am currently accepting all feedback and thought exploration on this idea, including outright insults.

Thanks.

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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