Lush Wine & Spirits sells fruit and vegetable boxes whose contents change daily. Items included are grown locally, like strawberries, heirloom potatoes and rhubarb. (Courtesy of Lush Wine & Spirits.)
Lush Wine & Spirits sells fruit and vegetable boxes whose contents change daily. Items included are grown locally, like strawberries, heirloom potatoes and rhubarb.

Courtesy of Lush Wine & Spirits.

Open Tab: Evanston eateries transform into mini grocery stores amidst pandemic

May 14, 2020

The Monthly

Just two months ago, customers lined up behind the register at Backlot Coffee, waiting to get an oat milk latte. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, customers enter the shop a few at a time, and they’re not just purchasing a cup of joe: they’re buying groceries too.

In addition to bagged coffee beans and its signature beverages, Backlot has started selling take-out food, cakes and pies, and even baking supplies. John Kim, Backlot co-founder, said the shop began offering these services to address social distancing mandates from the state.

“People don’t want to go into grocery stores,” Kim said. “Pivoting in this way feels right.”

Kim said Backlot’s food menu is designed around sitting in the café. But with dine-in service currently suspended, Backlot had to reimagine how it serves the community. Offering essential items like soup, organic eggs, milk and unique foodstuffs seemed fitting.

Backlot is not alone in its pursuit. Eateries across the country have adapted their offerings to include bulk produce and pantry staples. Some have lined their shelves with toilet paper and cleaning supplies, while others, like Lush Wine & Spirits in Evanston, set up mini farmers markets at their storefronts.

Lush manager Adam Seger said the wine bar and bistro uses George J. Cornille & Sons Inc. as its produce purveyor. The family-run business has been severely impacted by the pandemic, so to help it stay afloat, Seger increased his produce order. He now sells high quality fruits and vegetables among bottles of wine and take-out meals.

“Farmers who normally sell to restaurants are struggling to get their food to people,” Seger said. “If we don’t buy farmers’ food this year, they’re not going to be here next year.”

Lush also sells fruit and vegetable boxes whose contents change daily and include items like strawberries, heirloom potatoes and rhubarb. Seger said the boxes are top sellers, in part because they give people an incentive to try new food.

Found Kitchen and Social House, a farm-to-table restaurant, also sells fresh food and produce boxes. Customers place orders online and pick up at the restaurant. Owner Amy Morton said the food sold in Found’s new “pantry” is produced by local farmers, ranchers and cheese mongers. In addition, the restaurant supplies customers with necessities like paper towels and tampons.

Morton said during the pandemic, businesses in every industry are working to reinvent themselves. Found’s pantry is just one example.

“We’ve loved doing this, and will continue it even after the pandemic,” Morton said. “It’s a win for our farmers and the community.”

Beyond trying to avoid grocery stores, people are seeking out fresh goods as concerns over health increase. Carrie Jackson, chair of the events, communications and outreach committee at The Talking Farm, said its sustainably grown produce is minimally processed. This is in contrast to fruits and vegetables sold at supermarkets, which have more human contact before hitting shelves. Jackson said it gives customers peace of mind to know that the goods they purchase are locally grown and barely handled.

In addition to selling produce at farmers markets, through its farm box membership program and in its “pick your own” boxes, Jackson said The Talking Farm provides food to Evanston eateries like Found and Backlot. She believes these partnerships are key to ensuring that every business comes out of the pandemic stronger.

“Shopping and eating locally is the healthiest for everyone,” Jackson said. “You’re supporting small businesses in the process, which is one of the biggest things we can all do to help right now.”

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