While the country finds itself in an era where toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are in short supply as COVID-19 continues to ransack the U.S. economy, a couple of local small business have shown there is a surplus of hope and business savvy, especially when it comes to accommodating the changes in the way the community buys food.
The outbreak has led local restaurants to shutter their dining rooms temporarily, with some transitioning to takeout or delivery. For Squeeze-In Restaurant owner Shawn Duncan, neither would work for her business and clientele.
Instead, on the advice of her sales representative from her restaurant supply company, she has been selling hard-to-find food service items wholesale — from flour and yeast to toilet paper and paper towels — to people in the community.
Duncan said, at first, she was not sold on the idea of selling food and restaurant supply items out of the Squeeze-In.
“At first, I said no, I’m a restaurant, not a grocery store, so then he said think about it for a few days,” Duncan said. “Then I thought about it, and I said, what the heck, I’m not doing anything anyway, and then it just blew up.”
Duncan said the revenue stream has allowed her to keep up on operating costs and essentials without depleting what she has in savings or requiring her to take out additional loans. As it was, she said she had applied for the Small Business Administration’s Payroll Protection Program loan, but never heard back.
Selling groceries is helping Duncan’s restaurant supplier, Sysco, the nation’s largest food service distributor. The company said it cut more than a third of its employees in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Houston-based company, in addition to supplying restaurants, took a huge blow, losing revenue streams as institutional cafeterias, schools and large events shuttered in March.
Duncan takes orders through Facebook, by phone and text message and has an order form on Google Docs. She said orders need to be placed by noon Sundays and Wednesdays for Monday and Thursday pickups from noon to 5 p.m. at the restaurant.
She said roughly 50 people from around the county have been ordering from her each week.
Duncan said people have been most grateful for items like flour and yeast.
“They have more time to prepare their own food with the stay-at-home and social distancing orders,” Duncan said.
Having the option to get the products locally not only keeps revenue in the county, but also lessens the amount of trips outside of the area.
Longtime Squeeze-In customer Howard Geiger, who traveled from the end of Pine Creek Road to pick up his groceries, said the transformation to a store has allowed him to avoid trips to big box retailers in Bend or Ontario, thus eliminating the risk of contracting the virus.
The unlikely win-win partnership between a small business like the Squeeze-In and a multinational corporation like Sysco is part of a growing trend of restaurants, both big and small across the country, that are not going down without a fight as the hospitality industry struggles to survive the worst of the economic fallout of the pandemic.
Grocery sales are part of a fast-growing offensive to save the industry as analysts and operators have been quoting an estimate that 75% of the independent restaurants that have been closed to protect Americans from the coronavirus won’t make it.