It's a good alternative to visiting to the grocery store.

By Amy Sherman
May 26, 2020
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box of vegetables including lettuce, Swiss chard, garlic scapes
Credit: Frederic Lagrange

Social distancing can mean lengthy waiting lines to get into grocery stores, and once inside there are risks of exposure and potentially depleted shelves. Fortunately, when restaurants started shutting down in response to the pandemic, some restaurant suppliers quickly pivoted from selling to businesses to selling to consumers. Just like shopping at stores like Costco, the experience may be a bit "no frills" but it offers great values, less contact points, and fresher products that go from the producer to a warehouse to you—cutting out the retail store entirely.

Large restaurant suppliers, such as The Chefs' Warehouse, and smaller ones, such as Four Star Seafood & Provisions, report having lost close to 90 percent of their business when shelter-in-place orders were issued beginning in March. Since it was founded in 1985 in New York City, the focus of The Chefs' Warehouse has always been food-service driven. They have been selling to home consumers for many years, but that side of the business was always small, says John Magazino, director of category development, who adds, "As soon as the effects of the current crisis began to take hold across the country and with the closure of so many restaurants, we knew that our role in providing high-quality food would have to shift to home deliveries to American families." In less than two weeks they launched a new consumer facing website Shop Like a Chef, which now services 13 major U.S. markets. In each of these markets, deliveries are made using their own trucks within one to three days of placing an order on the website. There's free delivery for orders of $250 or more and a $35 service charge for smaller orders.

Cheetah, an e-commerce platform for restaurants and small businesses that has been around since 2016, offers shopping through an iPhone and Android app, transparent pricing that is the same for consumers as it is for restaurants, and next-day pickup at delivery locations through micro fulfillment centers. Explains CEO and Founder Na'ama Moran, "Our biggest innovation is turning our trucks into mobile warehouses. If there's demand somewhere, we can move them around in a way no retail store ever could." There are no minimum order sizes but so far the service is available just in the San Francisco Bay Area.

While many companies are focused on delivery in local markets, some do offer shipping nationwide. Four Star Seafood & Provisions was founded by chefs who wanted to provide the freshest possible seafood from the boat direct to restaurants. They've expanded to provide other ingredients and were planning on opening a retail shop when COVID-19 hit. Says cofounder Adrian Hoffman, "On March 13th we saw we were going to be in trouble. The 14th and 15th we knocked out the online store, which launched the day before lockdown in San Francisco was announced. It's really working out! It's exactly what everyone seems to want, and it has created enough cash sales to pay down our vendors." They are offering free delivery in San Francisco for orders of $100 or more, overnight shipping to all of California and Nevada and two-day shipping everywhere else.

How Do You Find a Restaurant Supplier, and What Can You Order from Them?

Your options will vary depending upon the supplier and location. A simple search for "restaurant wholesalers and suppliers selling to public" may turn up some local companies that deliver near you. Each will have different inventory, prices, and sizes. Some companies focus on high end products. Four Star Seafood & Provisions has products that you may not have seen before such as fiddlehead ferns, Himalayan truffles, and crosnes. If you're an adventurous or experienced cook, you may enjoy trying some of these specialties. Other companies sell basics that you may have had difficulty finding such as toilet paper or all-purpose flour. However, because they are used to supplying restaurants, products come in sizes that may be daunting for the average homeowner. Consider placing a group order, buying for family, neighbors, or others in your apartment building.

How to Handle Large Orders

Chef Scott Youkilis of Cheetah has been making cooking videos and is fielding questions from new customers. He recommends "thinking like a chef" when purchasing from wholesalers such as buying deli containers, filling them up and stacking them in your cabinets. Says Youkilis, "You don't want to lug a 50-pound bag of flour around. In restaurants we'd always take everything out of the bags. You have to get organized. Transfer products to smaller containers, date them, mark them with sharpies. What are you going to do with 15 pounds of green beans? Trim, cook, blanch, then freeze them." He also recommends buying whole chickens and learning to break them down. While some products may not freeze well, such as cucumbers, they can be pickled. Think about what will last longer, such as cheese in blocks rather than pre-sliced.

While the future still feels very uncertain, one thing is for sure:Wholesalers are adding inventory to meet demand, and while the crisis will eventually pass, shopping from restaurant suppliers is here to stay.

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