Many restaurants weather coronavirus storm by converting to grocery stores

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Stay-at-home and social distancing orders across America meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus have put restaurant dining on hold, forcing many to close and leaving others barely surviving.

From large chains to mom-and-pop eateries, restaurants are increasingly turning to grocery sales.

The National Restaurant Association says the industry has lost 3 million jobs and $25 billion in sales since March 1.

Spokeswoman Vanessa Sink said 3 percent of restaurants have closed permanently and another 11 percent expect to do so by the end of the month.

The move to grocery sales has been swift.

The idea is catching on nationwide.

John Randall, general manager at Salt + Smoke restaurant, wears a mask and gloves as he takes an order over the phone Friday, April 10, 2020, in St. Louis.  (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Grocery items sold by restaurants vary greatly. Some offer mostly the types of things already in their pantries, such as meats, vegetables, fruit, cheese, milk and eggs.

Union Loafers in St. Louis is opting for quality, even if it means a higher price. The restaurant began selling locally produced goods such as eggs, milk, jams and meats on March 31. Co-owner Sean Netzer said patrons don’t mind the higher price — most items are selling out daily.

Charlene Gulliford at the Gandy Dancer never figured there would come a day when the Michigan restaurant known for its steaks and seafood would sell toilet paper and cartons of eggs, but the coronavirus has restaurants in survival mode.

The popular restaurant in Ann Arbor now doubles as a grocery store, offering staples such as milk and bread in addition to meats and fish from its own pantry — and yes, even paper towels and the ever-elusive toilet paper. Sales began two weeks ago and the Gandy Dancer has found an income source to make up for some of its lost dine-in business, while also filling a need since traditional grocers are struggling to keep up with demand.

“A lot of people are saying they’re happy to support us, but a lot of people are saying, ‘Thank you for helping us,’” said Gulliford, the restaurant’s general manager.

Gulliford said the Gandy Dancer’s prices are more than competitive and can even be cheaper than the grocery stores’. For example, six lemons sell for $1 and potatoes are $1 per pound, she said.

Many of the restaurants-turned-grocery stores are offering “contact-free” service in which the customers place orders by phone or online and the goods are delivered straight to the trunk or back seat of the car. Gulliford said the elderly, who are at a higher risk of serious illness or death from the coronavirus, are especially appreciative of being able to avoid going into stores.

Monica Mileur packs grocery items into a box at Union Loafers restaurant Friday, April 10, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Monica Mileur packs grocery items into a box at Union Loafers restaurant Friday, April 10, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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Gulliford said the future is especially difficult to predict during this unprecedented time.

“It just really depends on what the new normal is,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.