While some people hoarded toilet paper at the onset of the pandemic, others stockpiled pepperoni. “When a customer bought an entire eight-pound stick of pepperoni, I knew things were getting weird,” says Alana Milazzo.
Along with her husband Matt, Milazzo owns Tredici Italian Market, the gourmet grocery, catering and prepared foods shop in Wayne. The first few weeks of COVID-19 lockdown brought massive changes to the region, and independent grocers were among those who had to weather the storm. March’s stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of restaurants increased demand for shelf-stable foods. Pasta, canned tomatoes, beans and olive oil were the first to sell out at Tredici. “We’ve never sold as much pasta as we did in the first four weeks of the shutdown,” Milazzo says.
Terra Olive & Balsamic sells premium olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Though owner Nina Gundecha had to close her shops in Kennett Square and King of Prussia, she transitioned to e-commerce rather seamlessly. Thanks to priority shipping, Gundecha is able to fulfill customer orders in just a few days. “People are definitely cooking at home more than they did, and they want quality ingredients,” she says.
White balsamic vinegar and aged balsamic oil have been the hottest items at Terra. Tuscan and garlic oils are also quite popular, along with spice blends. “We have a pepper blend that’s pretty spicy, but people are experimenting with it,” Gundecha says.
As chain supermarkets ran out of essential items and Instacart and Amazon experienced delivery delays, some West Chester residents were having trouble getting even the most basic ingredients—and Slow Hand’s Josh McCullough saw an opportunity to help his community and his employees. With a bit of research and ingenuity, McCullough transformed his hip restaurant into a quasi-grocery store. “After Slow Hand had to close in the shutdown, I sat still for the first time in my career—and it felt like torture,” McCullough says.
Even worse, Slow Hand had to lay off 140 employees. “When I saw that people in West Chester couldn’t get groceries or didn’t want to go to a grocery store, I thought we could fill that need,” he says. With help from his purveyors and a point-of-sale company, McCullough created an online store. “I called my chef and manager and said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s going to be great.’”
Starting with basic items like produce, shelf-stable products and paper goods, the online grocery and curbside pickup was an immediate success. “Eggs, dairy and produce were the big sellers,” McCullough says.
By the third day, Slow Hand was making so much money that McCullough rehired seven employees. And because the grocery model qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program, McCullough could add even more employees. “Did I ever imagine that I’d be a grocer? No,” McCullough says. “You do what you need to do to survive.”
As lockdown expanded from weeks to months, home cooks looked for ways to make meals interesting. “We could tell that customers were watching a lot of Food Network shows because they’d call asking for specific mushrooms, peppers and cheeses,” says Milazzo.
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Home baking has increased demand for specialty yeasts and 00 flour. “Now people really do have time for the bread to rise,” Milazzo says. “It’s been great to hear how adventurous customers are getting with baking.”
Eventually, even avid home cooks hungered for new foods. Tredici and Slow Hand segued into professionally prepared dishes, assuring customers that safety protocols had been followed in their kitchens. Tredici resumed its lunch specials and family-sized platters, including a variety of sandwiches and Italian-themed dishes. Slow Hand started with comfort foods like gumbo and chicken empanadas, before trying more creative dishes like white miso zucchini steak with vadouvan, eggplant puree, emmer wheat berries, cilantro yogurt and flatbread.
Slow Hand’s grocery model proved so successful that McCullough eventually recruited neighboring businesses. He made deals with Yori’s Bakery and Gemelli, the gourmet gelato shop. Now he sells their sweets through his online store. When to-go cocktails were legalized, McCullough added them, too. “Whatever you need, we have it,” he says, “or we know someone who does.”