All words by Lulu Chang
In the ever-evolving food industry, adaptability has always been one of the key ingredients to a restaurant’s success. Seasonality is part and parcel of most dining establishments’ business plans, and cyclical booms in demand are normal. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, has fundamentally redefined what “normal” means, even in an industry that is accustomed to uncertainty.
Across Washington, D.C., restaurants have looked to new and creative ways to weather the coronavirus storm. In order to stay top of mind (and stay afloat), a growing number of eateries have turned to a marketplace or CSA (community-supported agriculture) model to supplement their existing business. From ritzy establishments like Officina to neighborhood joints like Thamee and Emilie’s, to beer gardens like Dacha, there seems to be a growing recognition that getting creative will be increasingly important to staying relevant in a rapidly changing environment.
For Burmese standout Thamee, turning to CSAs was a financially savvy business decision, but also an opportunity to return to its roots of supporting women, immigrants, and people of color. “We adopted CSAs because we needed revenue and to remain at the top of guests’ minds, to support the local farmers (especially Black and brown farmers who contribute the most to our agricultural systems and yet have historically benefited the least), and to try different offerings to see what might work in a new environment,” Thamee co-owner Simone Jacobson told me. Consequently, Thamee’s offerings in its BIPOC Pantry are stocked with goods produced exclusively by Black and brown business folks.
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Tahmina Ghaffer of Emilie’s, the Asian-inspired Capitol Hill eatery, has a similar story to tell about the restaurant’s market. “The pandemic forced us to source locally and support our locals,” she told me. “Our goal is to make fresh and local produce available to our community in Capitol Hill, bringing produce from CSA farms to the city.”
These marketplace offerings are also introducing diners to new and unexpected ingredients and food producers. “Are folks used to seeing Thai American vintners like Kenny Likitprakong and his father, Somchai, who is of Thai/Chinese descent, creating wines to specifically pair with Southeast Asian food?” Jacobson asked. “What about local Black brewers, Sankofa Beer, Soul Mega, and Union Craft Brewing — are they front and center of guests’ minds when they think about what to drink? We think they should be.”
But it’s not just about surprising diners — these restaurant-driven markets and CSAs can also offer a certain level of curation, guided by the experts behind kitchens that diners across DC have come to know and love. “We don’t run a consistent program every single week because we want to keep things fresh and interesting for customers, and especially our subscribers,” Chef Nicholas Stefanelli of Officina told me. The popular Italian eatery introduced Officina Provisions in March at the outset of the pandemic, and began by offering patrons kitchen staples. Since then, however, the team has begun to refine their Provisions. “We created the program to take the stress out of three or four meals periods for our customers,” Stefanelli said. “We wanted to capture and share the joy of going to a restaurant, but turn it into something that could come straight to your house.”
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Today, Officina Provisions offers not only fresh produce from the same local farms from which the Officina restaurant sources its ingredients, but also meal kits for home cooks to prepare at home, and prepared dinners made by Officina chefs.
And like the Thamee team, Officina is looking to underscore the community aspect of their CSA offerings. “Our customers really know who’s behind the provisions from a local standpoint,” Stefanelli said. “It’s not like Blue Apron where the brand says ‘chef-driven,’ but you don’t know the chef.”
But will the CSA model continue as chefs, owners, and restaurants face the continued uncertainty of 2020 and beyond? For some folks like Dmitri Chekaldin, the owner of Dacha beer garden, the answer is a clear yes. “We’re planning on offering kits for Oktoberfest so that fans can celebrate the festival at home,” Chekaldin said. Dacha’s expansive outdoor space certainly lends itself to plenty of in-person business during warmer summer months, but it’s clear that the team is thinking ahead to the fall and the winter when it comes to sustaining demand. “We’re planning on building out CSA kits in the winter,” Chekaldin revealed, “Currently, we’re in the process of ramping up our delivery program.”
As CSAs and restaurants-as-markets become a more commonplace model, some business folks are hoping that it will increase local representation and diversity in the industry. “Our marketplace has created awareness with our customers of in season produce that come from local farms,” Ghaffer noted. “Restaurants basing their menus on seasonal produce has always been popular, but I hope that now more restaurants will be triggered to do this in solidarity with our local farmers.”
Jacobson, on the other hand, calls Thamee’s new offerings “an invitation to the party.”
“Once CSA subscribers started coming to pick up a weekly Black Farm Bag, they also became interested in Burmese cuisine and culture, our BIPOC pantry, and other related offerings,” Jacobson said. “These types of connections are the ones we loved to facilitate most before the government shutdown due to COVID-19. So in a small way, we’re trying to maintain our greatest strength–connecting people who share similar values to delicious meals and inventive beverages.”
With colder months and more uncertainty ahead (and bleak estimates that 60 percent or more of restaurants are expected to close permanently as a result of the pandemic), CSAs and other creative restaurant offerings may become a lifeline. Jacobson hopes to see “more consolidation, collaboration, and focus on community and purpose-driven work,” in the aftermath of the pandemic. “As people will venture out less often, they’ll want to make each trip away from home worthwhile,” Jacobson says.
Featured image via Officina