How Local Food and Drink Businesses Are Getting Crafty Through Crisis
As Coronavirus hit, businesses moved to touchless takeout, curbside pickup and delivery while also getting creative with new product ideas like margarita mixers, Waffle Quarantine packs, birthday doughnut-decorating kits and more.
This article was updated on April 22, 2020.
Rhode Island’s food businesses are already very crafty, but in the face of the Coronavirus crisis, they are downright scrappy. Instead of throwing in the towel and shuttering for an unknown period of time, some have found ways to move their business models to touchless takeout with online ordering and contactless curbside pickup and delivery while keeping sanitation and social-distancing measures in place.
Some have even come up with new product ideas to turn a tough situation into a source of comfort for customers. From margarita mixers and waffles to bagels, cheesesteaks and doughnuts, these businesses are continuing to bring a sense of cheer to their neighborhoods, one delicious bite and sip at a time.
When dine-in service first decreased in mid-March at Dolores – the new Mexican restaurant on Hope Street in Providence – Joaquin Meza and team got an idea that made people think the glass is half full. He and staff had already prepped a bunch of syrups for the bar a few days before business started slowing down, until it eventually was banned. They decided to save the syrups by bottling them.
“Horus Alvarez, who works the bar, asked if I could buy bottles and try to make them look nice,” Meza says. “I got online and ordered the bottles, and they arrived the next day. I put the labels together myself on Photoshop (learning as I go).”
Now, alongside family-style carnitas and barbacoa tacos with housemade corn tortillas and chicken mole dishes, Dolores offers alcohol-free mixers. They come in flavors like house margarita, passionfruit, hibiscus and spicy margarita (just add tequila or mezcal at home) as well as pina colada (just add rum). Each bottle costs $12 and mixers include enough mix for four drinks, plus ice, salt and lime are provided for margaritas. The restaurant also offers a thirty-two-ounce bottle of horchata for $10.
Meza says part of the idea to do booze-free mixers came from emulating the Blossom Bar in Brookline, Massachusetts, which sells bottled cocktails. “We also saw how in NYC, Baltimore, DC and Dallas, friends who have restaurants there were selling cocktails to go, and we knew the governor wasn’t going to allow that here, so the only alternative was offering the option for people to make their own at home,” Meza says.
Meanwhile, Dolores also needed to execute an online ordering system for takeout food, to avoid contact at their takeout window. To do that, Meza enlisted his eighteen-year-old son, Jair, to set it up on the website through Upserve. “There was a necessity to offer a cashless, hands-free transaction option, and we needed to roll it out ASAP,” Meza says. “Since we use Upserve for our POS needs, they already have the option to use online ordering. So I contacted them and they were able to get it up and running very quickly.” 100 Hope St., Providence, 401-409-2075, dolorespvd.com
When Shane Matlock’s The Burgundian: Coffee and Waffles food truck was in the shop, he needed a “liege waffle” solution. At the same time, he was working on opening his brick and mortar shop in Attleboro, Massachusetts, and there was still a lot of work to be done. His takeout options were limited for keeping the business running until he got the idea to sell frozen liege waffles and was encouraged to roll out a DIY version by supporters. He initially launched the packs during the Super Bowl and it was a hit.
“It’s sort of the ‘woke waffle,’ canceling out what we thought frozen waffles were,” Matlock says. “Bring them home, reheat them, and you have next level waffles at your disposal anytime.”
During the COVID-19 slowdown, he’s selling Waffle Quarantine Kits, which contain four, eight or twelve waffles each served with a small container of Nutella, cookie butter and cinnamon and sugar and you can add on a can of whipped cream. They are frozen and come with reheating instructions. This week, hes offering pickup for pre-orders on Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. at Hope and Main, on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 55 Park Street in Attleboro (their new home) and on Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. at Long Live Beerworks. Customers fill out the takeout request form and pay in advance, then they will be sent a confirmation email with pickup instructions, ending in a delivery handoff, directly to cars.
“We’ve started partnering with breweries who are doing curbside beer pickup, and allowing our customers to order and pick up at the brewery,” Matlock says. “We encourage them to get some beers at the same time. It’s a win-win for sure!”
It has been tough for mobile food businesses as all events have been cancelled, some extending into summer, but the popularity of the waffle kits gives the Burgundian hope. “We took a weekend to lick our wounds and come up with a plan, and our Waffle Quarantine Kit orders have grown exponentially,” he says. “It’s really cool to see people come out and support us and others.”
Matlock hopes his waffles can bring a source of comfort to customers, especially as he continues the process of transporting a waffle bus across the pond while preparing to open his first brick and mortar. His plans for the new space include brunch, coffee, beer and cocktails, which will all be served in better times.
For now, you can bring the Burgundian home. “Because there are so many aspects of life that are completely upside down, I think everything is looking for something…anything…that can remind them of life on the outside,” Matlock says. “If we can somehow transition our event-based model to one where people can still experience the magic of what we do on their own, I think that’s a win for everyone.” 55 Park St., Attleboro, Massachusetts, weareburgundians.com, facebook.com/theBurgundianCnW, instagram.com/burgundian_coffee_waffle
Over at Rebelle Artisan Bagels, Milena Pagán always had an online ordering system in place, but now the challenge is directing 100 percent of business through online sales rather than the usual, which was fewer than ten percent. “We converted from our normal operations to online-only for pickup literally overnight, starting on Monday, March 16,” Pagán says. “Nobody’s restaurant operations are designed for 100 percent online ordering, so in a sense it is like re-launching a business completely.”
She also saw an influx of first-time customers as other businesses closed and Rebelle shifted to online ordering and curbside pickup. “Two weeks into it, we are still adapting to our new processes and trying to meet expectations from our existing and new customer base,” she says. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride, equal parts terrifying and exciting.”
She and her husband, Darcy Coleman, run the business together, and while they provide curbside pickup outside of Rebelle, they decided to avoid third party delivery options. Instead, the husband and wife team are delivering a collective sixty to ninety orders on weekends in their own cars to fill orders. “Our customers interested in delivery are advised to sign up for our emails, since that is where we announce the delivery times that are open and what the route will be for the weekend,” Pagán says.
Rebelle is running the full menu during this time, but it has also introduced some collaborations with other businesses. On weeknights, they host al taglio pizza pickups from Federal Hill Pizza at the shop. They are also spreading cheer through selling beautiful bouquets created by the Floral Reserve, which are available as a pre-order pickup option on Fridays. They are even experimenting with a Grocery Bag this week for regulars, which includes local dairy and eggs with recipe ideas.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however. Adjusting to a new way of doing business isn’t always seamless for staff and customers. This is not the time to write negative reviews when a business is busting its tail to support staff by keeping jobs and providing food during a pandemic. “We have been fortunate to maintain a level of sales that justifies staying open and fully employed,” Pagán says. “The uncertainty makes it hard to plan for the business, so we are focusing on remaining nimble, reducing non-essential expenses, and continuing to drive engagement with our customers.” 110 Doyle Ave., Providence, 401-349-1263, rebelleartisanbagels.com
Tilly’s already had an efficient online ordering and delivery system in place when they opened in 2016. So when owners Jonathan and Kristen Beres saw the worldwide impact of Coronavirus taking hold, they began making changes to their business well before the restaurant shutdown was ordered. They moved to complete online ordering the day before the governor mandated dine-in service to stop.
“We started bulking up on to-go supplies and hiring more delivery drivers. On weekends, we now have up to five people delivering so that people can still get food hot and on time,” says Jonathan Beres. “We know everybody is going through a rough time so we wanted to make sure that was mission number one. Nobody wants late or cold food!”
Tilly’s also rolled out breakfast options more than five months ago, and they’re continuing to offer them during the Coronavirus crisis as many breakfast places have closed. They’ve also added plenty of non-cheesesteak options like sandwiches and mac and cheese, plus popular $5 kids’ lunches that include a choice of cheesesteak, cheeseburger, chicken tenders, grilled cheese or mac and cheese, plus housemade chips, a cookie and a banana.
Thankfully, Tilly’s has not had to lay anyone off since they have a small staff to begin with. The owners check in with employees daily to make sure they are okay working and they must report health status before coming into their shifts. Tilly’s is only doing curbside pickup and contactless delivery. While they are promoting takeout on all social media channels, they are still down 40 percent revenue compared to this time last year. The departure of college students has hurt the business, and Beres hopes they can make it through the summer.
To keep spirits high, they’ve been celebrating employees with Staff Meal Sundays by trading with or buying meals from other popular businesses like Tallulah’s Tacos, Arcadia Pizza and Taste of China in Exeter. They started an Instagram account, @staffmealsunday, to cross-promote other businesses, and they also have a private Facebook page for sharing meals. Participating restaurants can email email@example.com to trade meals. Employees can also order groceries through Tilly’s at wholesale prices and have food for their families delivered straight to their workplace.
Tilly’s also just launched a GoFundMe account to feed healthcare workers. “For every $15 donated, we will offer specific lunch or dinner options for free to any Rhode Island health care workers,” Beres says.
3711 Kingstown Rd., West Kingston, 401-783-7711, tillyscheesesteaks.com
Knead is getting crafty by starting the Ding-Dong Doughnuts promotion where you can have them deliver doughnuts to cheer someone up, and they also are selling happy birthday doughnut kits to decorate at home. Many are using these ideas as ways to celebrate birthdays and other events in changing times. The birthday kits come with eight unglazed doughnuts, buttercream frosting, sprinkles, candles and more.
Unfortunately, owner Adam Lastrina says business is still down 70 to 80 percent now that wholesale accounts have halted, people are working from home away from downtown, and they have decreased the days they are open on the East Side to only two days per week, Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Plus, their downtown location at 32 Custom House St. was recently damaged due to a literal dumpster fire outside the building, which is quite the analogy for what’s been happening in the world. Lastrina assures production continues in their Cromwell Street commercial kitchen as well as sales at the Elmgrove shop.
“We were fortunate that there was not a lot of damage inside. The fire department was there in less than ten minutes and surely saved the building,” Lastrina says. “That location has been closed up for a month, so everyone is safe. We also now produce out of our Cromwell kitchen, so there’s no real disruption to service and production. Just more stress on top of all the other stress!”
As for the production of doughnuts, they are taking health and safety precautions very seriously by using the isolated commercial kitchen on Cromwell Street with minimal staff and conducting sales at the retail location on the East Side, which allows for easy, simple, curbside pickup. “All orders are pre-paid, so we don’t have lines,” says Lastrina. “Customers simply walk up, share their name and their order is passed off. In and out in well under a minute.”
Some people would classify good doughnuts as critically essential, and that’s good news for Knead, which is able to provide them safely while keeping many staff on the job. “During these crazy days, doughnuts have this strange power. They comfort. They provide a brief moment of normalcy,” Lastrina says. “A fun, delicious treat to share with your family. A rare opportunity to stick to the old weekend ritual before our world changed.” 135 Elmgrove Ave., Providence, 401-865-6622, kneaddoughnuts.com
PVDonuts will be re-opening on Friday, April 24 after temporarily closing for two weeks. They recently worked with other food businesses to put together a sold-out breakfast box full of local goodies to benefit the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
One of the most jarring things about this pandemic is that long lines are no longer permitted outside the shop, which is only allowing seven people in line at one time. They’ve lined the sidewalk with poles that are a socially-distant six feet apart for people to stand, and they are limiting two people in the shop at a time, six feet apart, of course. They are taking pre-orders for when they re-open, but there will be limited availability for walk-in customers on site from 8 a.m. to noon. They recently released a Maypril menu for the rest of April into May. Unlike the past, they’re avoiding releasing crazy, creative doughnuts although they have stocked the ever-popular Dunkaroos treat.
“All we’re concerned with right now is selling the doughnuts we make each day so we can maintain the health of our business throughout all of this,” says PVDonuts owners Lori and Paul Kettelle.
Safety is of utmost importance, so they are sanitizing the counter and register in between each transaction, allowing two people in the shop at a time, having people stand at designated x’s by the counter and only accepting credit card payments. They are also keeping the front door open during business hours, while still cleaning it throughout the day.
They’ve decided to temporarily shut down for two weeks with a plan to reopen on Friday, April 24. They wrote about their decision in an Instagram post: “In order to be here when this is all over – and we absolutely will be – we need to take a couple weeks in order to prioritize the health and safety of our team members, our customers, and ourselves, especially as we head into what is predicted to be the peak of infection rates in Rhode Island.”
This is their last chance to spread a little joy to their customers through tasty treats (for the next two weeks anyway). “We believe that doughnuts make people happy – sincerely. Who doesn’t enjoy a good doughnut?” the couple says. “It’s important that even with everything going on, we remember to smile, laugh and enjoy ourselves and the little things in life. If we can encourage acts of happiness through donuts and provide some encouragement during trying times, then we’re more than happy to do so.” 79 Ives St., Providence, pvdonuts.com