Kristi opened the door to her ice cream shop and cafe, Cups and Cones, at 8 a.m. every morning. Her regular morning rush would come in and request their usual breakfast orders and coffee. Every Wednesday, after the rush has come and gone, she would then get in her car and drive 45 minutes east to Sustainable Food Center to pick up her produce boxes. Her 25 boxes from Common Market weren’t providing her restaurant with ingredients for weekly specials – instead, they were for selling to customers. The long drive was worth it because her customers were excited by the variety of local fruits and veggies.
Delivery Driver handing off produce box to employee at Nixta (Photo credit Becca Montjoy)
How the Neighborhood Pop-Up Grocery Project helped Austin farms and restaurants during COVID-19
Carissa Eckle, Hallie Casey, Amy Gallo
COVID-19’s surprising entrance to daily life has affected everyone. One of the most visible interruptions to daily life has been in our food system. Empty grocery shelves and shuttered restaurants have become a reality to people who may never before have thought about the security of their next meal.
And while everyone has been hit by this pandemic, local restaurants and local farmers have faced a unique set of hardships. When restaurants shut down in March, local farmers immediately lost up to 80 percent of their weekly sales. Fortunately, Austin-based restaurateurs were willing and able to adapt quickly, and the Neighborhood Pop-up Grocery Project was there to help.
WHAT IS THE NEIGHBORHOOD POP-UP GROCERY PROJECT?
Earlier this year, the City of Austin funded an array of COVID-related relief projects aimed at providing assistance to small businesses. The City partnered with Sustainable Food Center and Foodshed Investors to come up with a project that would help these businesses, while also providing relief for small and mid-sized farms. From this partnership, the Neighborhood Pop-Up Grocery (NPUG) Project was born.
Here’s how it worked: With funding from the City and Foodshed, SFC bought fresh local food from area growers and gave it to local restaurants at no cost. Partner restaurants opened “pop-up groceries” in their closed dining rooms and sold these local fruits and veggies at affordable prices to their customers.
Produce Boxes dropped off at SFC office by Common Market (Photo credit Becca Montjoy)
The project took a three-pronged approach to COVID relief: helping restaurants, customers, and farmers.
Restaurants were able to keep 100 percent of proceeds from produce box sales, which helped make up for lost revenue.
Customers of local restaurants were able to buy fresh produce, pantry staples, and/or dairy and meat products, at a location near them. This allowed people to reduce the distance they had to travel and the number of people they had to come into contact with to get groceries.
Local farmers felt massive market uncertainty after restaurants shut down. NPUG helped them have more outlets to sell their produce. Without this demand for food, farmers could have lost thousands in sales, and all the food already produced could have gone to waste.
Produce Boxes at The Hive (Instagram photo used via courtesy of the Hive)
IMPACT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD POP-UP GROCERY PROJECT
The Neighborhood Pop-Up Grocery Project ran from March through September 2020, connecting more restaurants with local farmers as the project proceeded. In the charts below, you can see the growth of this program over time.
Graph 1: Amount of revenue per week from May through September
Graph 2: Number of customers per week from May through September
Graph 3: Number of restaurant partners per week from May through September
Depending on their capacity and interest, restaurants would receive either pre-mixed produce boxes from Common Market, or they could select specific locally sourced produce items, dairy, meat, and/or pantry staples to stock their “grocery shelves,” -- all supplied by local farmers or food hubs.
A few Austin restaurant chains joined the project, notably Thundercloud Subs and Waterloo Ice House, which reached customers in several locations.
Overall, the project generated $133,000 in revenue for local businesses, reached more than 2,600 customers and saw 30 restaurants participate.
Kristi Lee Norton and a customer with produce boxes at Cups and Cones
CONNECTING WITH COMMUNITY
Restaurants were grateful for the extra financial support, but they also appreciated being able to interact more with their community during a time when mutual support was so vital.
Kevin Brand, owner of 512 Brewing Company in South Austin, was involved with the project for only three weeks, but he still saw a difference in the way his business interacted with the community.
“The program widened our reach to customers we wouldn’t normally interact with and provided us a sense of involvement in recovering and survival during the pandemic,” he said. “The most helpful aspect was interaction with the community.”
Rachelle Fox, owner of The Cavalier in East Austin, benefitted by using the produce from their produce boxes to make new dishes and attract more customers to her business.
“We benefited from the extra produce and were excited to create new fresh specials weekly,” Fox said. “We were able to donate some product to our neighbors in need, creating a wonderful rapport within our community.”
This project not only strengthened relationships between restaurants and their communities but also within the hospitality industry itself.
When restaurant partners did not sell all their weekly boxes, many donate the leftovers to their staff. With many restaurants experiencing slow business, the ability to support staff with an extra source of food was especially helpful.
Employee at Counter Culture carrying produce boxes (Photo credit Becca Montjoy)
Jena Umstattd, director of marketing for Waterloo Ice House, emphasized how the program supported camaraderie among their staff and online community.
“We had a lot of enthusiasm expressed by people following on our social media accounts about the program,” Jena Umstattd said. “Even though we didn't sell out of our boxes every week, they benefited our ‘Waterloo fam’ as everyone was happy to have the leftover produce when it was available. Happiness all around. Overall, it has been a great program and we were really grateful to be a part of it.”
BRIDGING THE GAP: NEW RELATIONSHIPS WITH FARMERS
This project also allowed restaurant partners to connect to local farmers. Unless they were already a farm-to-table establishment, many of these restaurants didn’t usually interact with farmers on a normal day. But restaurant partners were happy for the opportunity to get to know and support local farmers.
“Overall, this has been a good way for us to connect with some local farmers and hopefully provide them an additional outlet,” said Michael Swail of Forthright Cafe. “Our staff has really enjoyed talking about the boxes and have been enjoying the leftovers as well!”
Employee at Waterloo Ice House holding produce boxes (courtesy of Waterloo Ice House)
HOW SFC’S IMPACT WILL CONTINUE
Though the final produce box delivery was in September, businesses have continued to feel the benefits of the Neighborhood Pop-up Grocery Project. Restaurant partners reported saving 19 jobs and supplying 3,000 produce boxes and 800 dozen eggs to our community over the course of the project. By keeping these local businesses afloat during unpredictable circumstances, SFC helped sustain a healthy local economy and supported the unique food culture that makes Austin such a vibrant city.
This project converged around local food, local farmers, and the communities they serve. By building connections between farmers and restaurants, NPUG forged new supply channels that will continue on. These new partnerships can help both restaurants and farmers recover more quickly in the face of a new or continued disruption.
Community members know now that they can look to their own community, including small businesses in their neighborhoods, for food access. Restaurants have another outlet to sell food, and farmers do not have to worry about losing years of hard-fought relationships in case additional COVID-related restrictions are implemented. Keeping money local and allowing for community-led solutions creates a resilient system - a system that protects consumers, local economies, and our food future.
The next time you are looking to order takeout or get groceries delivered, ask yourself where the food is coming from. If you can, consider supporting one of our local restaurant partners and buying food from a local farmer at one of our SFC Farmers’ Markets.