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Eggs, milk, truffle butter? Miami restaurants sell groceries amid coronavirus crisis

Alexandra Rivadeneira has a new role at the restaurant where she feels lucky to still have a job: bagging groceries.

On Wednesday morning, she was bouncing between the kitchen at Threefold Cafe in Brickell where she was cooking a family-style stew, to rows of tables that had been pushed together inside the shuttered restaurant to create an assembly line for groceries.

She and her fellow workers packed fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and bread, and wrapped portions of meat into paper grocery bags that would be delivered to customers the next day.

Unlike many restaurants, which are trying to stay afloat delivering and offering take out after governments ordered dining rooms closed to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Threefold Cafe is busier than ever.

The restaurant has shifted into the grocery business — and it may soon be happening at more of South Florida’s favorite restaurants.

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“You’re not a restaurant anymore. You’re providing food,” said Nick Sharp, co-owner at Threefold with his wife, Teresa. “People don’t want $15 avocado toast anymore. They need food that’s affordable.”

He’s not alone.

All Day restaurant, café and coffee bar in downtown, similarly has turned to selling many of the high-quality ingredients they use in their dishes online — and they have been able to keep their 20 employees.

Chug’s diner in Coconut Grove hired back two employees to run a bodega with fresh produce from The Redland and Homestead, as did neighboring Lokal. Even the high-end Alter, by James Beard finalist Brad Kilgore, is selling everything from latex gloves and trash bags to truffle butter.

“I knew we would have to get creative,” All Day co-owner Camila Ramos said.

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Packaging groceries, selling online

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Sharp, 37, instantly recognized a problem that went beyond his seven businesses when restaurants were ordered shut last week and a majority of South Florida’s estimated 275,000 food service industry workers were laid off en masse.

The purveyors providing restaurants with food, from small local farmers, dairies and ranches, to food giant Sysco, suddenly were stuck with mountains of inventory.

Sharp, who had worked for a company that bought and sold food in bulk before opening Three Fold in 2014, decided he would try to keep most of his 47 employees by selling that food to the public, on their website.

Instead of cooking, washing dishes and waiting tables, the staff at Threefold is busy breaking down food sold in massive quantities, which major companies or grocery stores package under private labels, so it can instead be sold to diners — now shoppers.

It’s no small task. In eggs alone, Three Fold bought 120 cases from its usual provider, Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee, Fla. — which amounts to more than 21,600 eggs his staff must repackage.

But that mammoth amount of work means his staff, like Rivadeneira, remains employed.

“That’s the point of all this,” Sharp said.

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Rivadeneira and her 13-year-old daughter are alone in Miami from Ecuador, and she is the sole provider. Her daughter worries about her mother catching the coronavirus. Rivadeneira worries about making ends meet.

“She says I can’t get sick because we only have each other,” Rivadeneira said. “But I have to work to cover the bills.”

Sharp’s team cooks breakfast daily for each other and they are splitting Three Fold’s profits equally among the staff. They are also packing meals for the staff that does not feel safe working or is among the at-risk for developing COVID-19 during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Everyone is making some money and that matters,” Rivadeneira said.

Groceries ordered online by 2 p.m. can be delivered next day or are available for pickup at a central location. Hundreds of products are available, as are pre-bagged selections of produce, meats, even juices. A “survival grocery basket” — a pound of butter, two dozen Florida eggs, a gallon of milk, one loaf of Zak the Baker bread and six brioche rolls — costs $40. A form is available for those who want to order individual products not listed.

As grocery stores started running out things like fresh milk, eggs and meats, All Day’s owner Ramos thought, “We have that!”

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She contacted her providers, reworked her website, and has been selling the groceries online so no money — or virus — changes hands. Her staff delivers the bagged groceries themselves rather than pay for third-party delivery apps, which can charge as much as 30 percent on each order.

All Day has been able to keep its entire staff, though most are only working about 80 percent of their previous hours, she said.

Grocery sales made up 27.5 percent of All Day’s business in the last week, said Ramos, 31, a native of Cuba who was raised in South Florida and attended the University of Florida before working at Panther Coffee roasters.

“We’ve seen an increase in sales every day and we’re grateful for that,” she said.

Ramos has turned those profits into helping others in the industry who are struggling.

She started a grocery fund on her website, giving away a week’s worth of groceries to individuals and families left without a job. She raised more than $2,000 in less than 24 hours and is set to deliver more than 60 free bags to 130 applicants. People can apply for the groceries on her site.

“I’d feel morally weird profiting right now when the rest of the industry is tanking,” she said.

Farmers, ranchers are hurting, too

The restaurant-turned-grocery stores are having an affect up the food chain.

Jan Costa’s Florida Fresh Meat Company in Ocala, which supplies All Day, had seen a 40 percent decline in business when all restaurant sales of his organically raised, hormone-free meat dried up overnight. He has shifted to selling directly to the public at his website (at a discount for seniors and others in the hospitality industry). He is encouraging other restaurants to follow All Day’s and Threefold’s model.

“People like Camila are prized to us because they understand what we’re doing… We got hit hard. Most people are not doing what she’s doing,” Costa said by phone. “They were smart. They were able to say, ‘What do we need to do to keep moving?’”

Costa started portioning his meat — which he raises, butchers, packages and ships with a consortium of other local farmers within 75 miles of him — for individual resale.

“We’re doing whatever we have to do to get people the food they want,” Costa said.

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Farmers are feeling the pivot, too. Florida farmers are just starting to harvest their last crops — which would otherwise die on the vine without sources to buy it.

Debra Iglesias’ The Garden Network brings produce raised on farms from Homestead to Boynton Beach to South Florida restaurants.

Threefold is selling the produce on consignment

“They’re sitting on a year’s worth of hard work so they’re looking for a creative way to sell their produce,” Iglesias said. “There’s food out there that’s going to perish and there’s people who need the food. And we’re all trying to work together to get it to them.”

Sharp drew up his business model and shared it with food giant Sysco and several other major food purveyors like Cheney Brothers. He hopes other Miami restaurants copy his idea.

“He’s definitely found a niche way to support his employees,” Iglesias said. “He’s making an opportunity for a lot of us.”

For those counting on the jobs, like Rivadeneira, it’s their only hope.

“I’m the head of my household,” she said, “and I have to work.”

This story was originally published March 25, 2020 5:37 PM.

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