Local Foods — the grocery store along the Elston Industrial Corridor — is, for the first time since late March, welcoming shoppers back inside. The store, which works closely with small farmers and ranchers to give them a venue to sell meats, produce, and other items to city folk, had been relying on online ordering and curbside pickup for the last eight months.
When customers return, they’ll see changes. There’s also a limit of 15 people inside at once. The butcher section has new plexiglass barriers, and while staff will still gladly cut customers a fresh piece of meat, the space is designed for customers to move in and move out. Sausage and products that sold well in recent months online will be readily available and vacuum sealed. The aisles are wider for better social distancing and the back seating area is now set up for staff to manage orders. Indoor dining is closed in Illinois, and Local Foods CEO and co-founder Dave Rand says the store’s cafe, Stock, will stay shuttered. Grab-and-go items will be available instead.
Rand says the state’s order to ban indoor dining influenced the decision to reopen. That reasoning is compounded as winter approaches and farmer’s markets close. Local Foods leadership reopened its doors in hopes of helping vendors, many of whom have struggled during the public health crisis: “People now have fewer options to get great food,” Rand says. “We wanted to be an antidote for that.”
Local Foods opened in 2015, just around the block from the iconic Hideout Inn, the dive bar and performing venue that faces extinction thanks to the proposed Lincoln Yards mega-development. Butcher & Larder, one of the city’s best places for meats, anchors the space which includes a cheesemonger and mini-grocery store. They feature items like beef from La Pryor Farms, and tomatoes from Mighty Vine.
“It’s vital, the work that we’re doing to keep [farmers] selling their food no matter what,” Rand says. “If they go away, we go away.”
Beyond the public-facing retail part of the operation, Local Foods has a wholesale distribution business where it works to supply restaurants, colleges, and other stores with products.
Rand says they’ve worked with Daisies — the Midwestern pasta restaurant in Logan Square — in tracking down items for its Sunday markets. Daisies has converted its backroom, normally reserved for diners, into a space that sells produce from Frillman Farms (Tim Frillman is the brother of Daisies chef and owner Joe Frilllman). Daisies shifted toward retail as lawmakers began restricting restaurants with bans and capacity limits. That strategy has been employed at other restaurants including Pisolino in Avondale.
In a letter to customers, Rand writes of closing the store in March “what was meant to be a temporary fix has ended up lasting eight months.” Local Foods has hired Dr. David Nayak, a consultant who has worked with restaurants like Piece Pizza and Honey Butter Fried Chicken to help create pandemic response plans for safer operations. While online orders through Mercato and curbside ordering will continue, Rand writes they must reopen “to give our farmers and ranchers as many sales opportunities as possible.”
Thanksgiving is a busy time of year for grocery stores. Rand says Local Foods is ready with small turkeys in the 10- to 12-pound range. Social distancing means customers won’t need large portions to celebrate the holiday. But beyond Thanksgiving, Rand says a successful reopening will go a long way toward ensuring vendors are around after the pandemic.
“I think the businesses that don’t treat this as a temporary patch are going to be the ones that succeed,” he says.
Fans can now browse Local Foods for the first time since March as the store reopened Wednesday morning.