In times of stress, people find comfort in snacks. During the pandemic, restaurants too.
When Atlanta restaurants closed their dining rooms at the start of the pandemic, nearly all of them began offering take-out, even though they had never had one before – a move meant to keep them alive. and for many just a temporary solution. But restaurant owners have also started to experiment with other ways to make money, such as selling packaged foods in addition to their regular menu items. TO Snackbox Bistro in Doraville, sachets of spicy chili crisps and Lao cured beef appeared on a shelf near the cash register; at the Krog street market, Club Ticonderoga started offering bottled cocktails with their take out menu. For these and other places, the experiment has proven to be a success: although sit-down catering has made a tenuous comeback this year, the restaurant-grocer is an innovation that is likely to stick around.
(Check out our roundup of the many fabulous items available in Atlanta today here.)
“I think a lot of small businesses realized – and I know for us it was true – that people wanted a way to support us when they couldn’t have dinner,” says Rosa Thurnher, co-owner of El Ponce, a Mexican restaurant in Poncey-Highland. Even before the pandemic, Thurnher and co-owner Jarina Naone had a side project selling food at the Freedom Farmers Market. But with the restaurant world in turmoil, the couple saw an opportunity to also offer packaged products outside of their restaurant, as a way to “always be relevant for people who didn’t want to be in person,” explains Thurnher. Today El Ponce sells frozen tamales and empanadas, aguas frescas, chamoy and various salsas to take home; Thurnher and Naone also transformed El Bar, previously known for its festivities, into a boutique called Tiendita, offering items and crafts from women and brands owned by natives.
For some restaurateurs, GPCs (consumer products) were not an echo on the radar before the pandemic. “We had such a hard time keeping up with all the mechanics and operating systems of the restaurant that we had never even looked in that direction,” says Kara Hidinger, co-owner of Staplehouse, who enjoy your food declared, in 2016, to be the best new restaurant in the country. (Atlanta magazine was about as exuberant.) “But, you know, when it all stops and you look at a blank slate, you have to get creative to use the space we have and make us home. “
Last October, under chef and co-owner (and Hidinger’s husband) Ryan Smith, the restaurant became a market selling cold meats, pastries and groceries. Adding packaged items made in-house seemed like a natural next step, Hidinger says, adding that Smith “was like, how do you get creative and bring that name, Staplehouse, back to the origins?” Today, shoppers can take home flavored crackers, pasta made with Root Baking flour, and a variety of condiments, including XO sauce and salsa macha, all produced in the kitchen at Staplehouse.
As restaurants embrace these new categories, they also seek to present products in a more polished fashion than the typical plastic container. Hidinger worked with his older brother Scott, a Los Angeles-based creative director, on branding. “We started to think about taking out all the whimsy and being really direct and approachable, but kind of light and fun,” says Hidinger.
In El Ponce, Thurnher and Naone worked with Whitney Bolster from Ampersand, an Atlanta-based branding studio whose work appears locally at hotels like the Wylie and nationwide with brands like the Honey pot. Bolster strives to give the products a distinctive visual identity (red and vibrant flowers in the case of El Ponce) and help create a copy with details about the product. When brands contact Bolster and his team, it’s usually because they’re at a stage where they’re ready to grow. And while it can be difficult for brands to start from scratch to introduce CPGs to markets, restaurants have the opportunity to organically test what works, says Bolster: “With El Ponce, the products that ‘They pack are beloved items that have been available at the restaurant. Some of the articles that I feel Rosa and Jarina developed as a result of people taking take out food.
Some restaurants are outsourcing their packaged foods to working with brands like Grant Park’s Beautiful brackish sea, which typically sells infused sea salts and sugar blends from retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Whole Foods. Owner Suzi Sheffield says she’s increasingly hearing from chefs interested in partnering with her to make their own salt blends for sale. It’s mostly financial, but the pandemic has given chefs the chance to scratch a creative itch, Sheffield says. “At the start of the pandemic, everything stopped for a minute and you had to reinvent yourself quickly. But I think it kind of lent itself to finally ticking off a list, like, Hey i always wanted to do this. “
When chefs love Jennifer hill booker and Kevin Gillespie (Gunshow, Cold Beer, et al) work with Sheffield, they have free rein at his studio in Grant Park. Experimenting and mixing their seasonings there, they can then choose a container for mixing – a glass jar with a boutique spoon is desirable, but also more expensive than a tin container. Because Sheffield products are shelf stable, chefs don’t have to worry about selling them so quickly. It’s not as cheap as producing and packaging food in-house, but it’s still potentially profitable.
Now that Staplehouse is settling into its market concept, Hidinger plans to sell packaged food for the long haul. “For us, it’s not a temporary pivot,” she says. “It’s a long-term goal to develop the market and continue to operate with this model. So I hope for our small business and other small businesses that the packaged products are here to stay. “
Packaged foods have helped restaurants stay viable, but they’ve also helped reframe a tall order into something positive, says Bolster: “When we think of resilience, we think of strength – you can resist anything, you are tough. But really, it’s about flexibility and being prepared to change your story and change your path based on new information. And I think this packaging opportunity really came from that kind of mindset that they have.