When I first met my husband, who was also a chef back in 2005, we shared a dream of one day opening our own gourmet shop. We’d make sandwiches and prepared foods, sell cheeses and fine foods, and do plenty of catering to keep the lights on. We kept our pennies in a jar, and dumped our life savings into our dream: Robicelli’s Gourmet Market, which opened with long lines and plenty of local enthusiasm in September of 2008.
Four days later, the economy collapsed. Overnight, we had no catering clients. One by one, customers stopped showing up. We checked in on many over Facebook and a newfangled app called Twitter to see if they were okay. Some of them had stopped spending on anything but the bare essentials as they faced an uncertain future. More of them stopped coming to our store because they’d lost their jobs. At the end of many nights, we’d pack up the food that we couldn’t sell and give it to the former customers who lived on our walk home. We filled a lot of freezers while emptying our bank account.
The good thing about small business owners, though, it’s that we’re scrappy bastards. There’s never been a ton of money to be made in feeding people when you’re the little guy, but you don’t do it for the money—you do it because you’re a certain type of crazy and can’t imagine doing anything else. And when you’re scrappy, you don’t take anything lying down. You get up and work, because work is always the answer.
At my shop, we realized we needed to get flexible. We pulled out some shelves and added cafe seating. We started doing a super-affordable non-boozy brunch. We fell back on our pastry training and started making baked goods. What happened next is such a long and crazy story that I actually wrote a cookbook/memoir about it back in 2013. TL;DR: we lost everything anyway, because there are only so many things that you can control, and the world financial market is not one of them. But eventually, we emerged with a bakery that became one of the most well known in New York City. Over the years that followed we survived an uncertain economy, serious personal tragedy, injury, blizzards, floods, Superstorm Sandy, and more before finally giving up the ghost when my husband got sick in 2015. Thinking differently and trying new things might not always lead to fortune, but it can help you survive. And that’s what’s happening right now in the restaurant industry.
After the 2008 crash, people didn’t need a gourmet shop anymore, but they did need scones and cupcakes and other creature comforts that could be had for under $3. In 2020, when it feels like we need bars and restaurants and places to gather more than ever, we can’t have them. But we do need groceries. And leave it to scrappy restaurateurs: All across the country, clever owners are transforming their establishments into grocery stores, selling prepared meals and the necessary raw materials. In New York City, The Westside Rag reports that pre-theater spot Cafe Fiorello is now Fiorello’s Gourmet Market, and Vietnamese spot Bonmi is selling meal kits so customers can make their favorite dishes in their own homes. Brooklyn’s Clementine Bakery has transformed into a farmers market so local residents have access to fresh produce. In Baltimore, James Beard shortlisted Mexican hotspot Clavel, which is normally nearly impossible to get into, has been selling staples like vegetables and eggs; the same thing is happening at The Coconut Club in Washington D.C.
If there are local businesses near you that are pivoting their entire model to stay afloat and better serve their neighbors, drop their info in the comments. Let’s work together to pass their names around to our communities, and remember to hit them up the next time we need milk, bread, or eggs.