How can a restaurant make ends meet when it’s not allowed to offer dine-in service? Many have resorted to takeout and delivery; others have shuttered, banking on relief from the government to muddle through until it’s safe for diners to come back. And some have begun to sell groceries. Some of those restaurants aren’t selling groceries just to help make ends meet — they’re doing so as a public service.
Audubon Circle-adjacent Chinese-American restaurant Mei Mei is one Boston restaurant that attempted to sell groceries. For Irene Li, who owns Mei Mei, selling groceries was less about making ends meet than it was about providing people with an alternative to shopping at crowded grocery stores.
“For me, selling groceries is more about relieving the pressure on grocery stores — and people who have to go to grocery stores — than the revenue,” Li told Eater. “Every day on my way to Mei Mei I drive by Trader Joes and see 20-plus people in line. Folks who have bought groceries have said it’s a relief to come to Mei Mei and come in to contact with one to three people, as opposed to going to the store and seeing dozens.”
But Li was recently asked by a city inspector to stop selling groceries because her restaurant wasn’t permitted to do so. According to Lisa Timberlake, who is a spokesperson for Boston Inspectional Services, restaurants can’t legally sell groceries without first obtaining the proper permits.
“Food services and food retail are two different licenses that we issue,” said Timberlake to libertarian magazine Reason. ”Restaurants have food service licenses, which require submission of new plans and procedures if the business is going to deviate from the original plans. It’s not as simple as lifting the zoning restrictions on takeout that we’ve done. It’s more complicated than that.”
Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA) president and CEO Bob Luz rebuked the city’s position, telling Eater that a restaurant’s common victualler license should permit them to sell groceries directly to the public.
“In addition to prepared meals, such sales can include meat, fruit, vegetables, and cheese purchased by a restaurant from a supplier in their original packaging for preparation and consumption at home,” said Luz. “Other sales may include household items such as toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and frozen and canned food products.
“This practice allows restaurants, who were the first industry effectively shuttered due to this pandemic, to try to survive. In addition, it provides another neighborhood option for certain restaurant-quality proteins, produce, and other staples that can be accomplished in a touchless contact environment to most effectively practice social distancing.”
Some bars and restaurants nearby in Cambridge and Somerville have also begun to sell groceries, however none were willing to go on record for this story. To this point, there are no reports of bars or restaurants in Cambridge or Somerville running afoul of their respective inspectional services departments. Eater reached out to each city’s department for comment, but neither replied before publication.
It’s unclear at the moment whether restaurants should continue to sell groceries or should discontinue doing so. Luz says the MRA has reached out to Boston’s department of Inspectional Services for clarification. Eater will update this post as more information becomes available.
Update, 4 p.m.: Somerville is in the process of drafting an order and finalizing safety protocols to allow restaurants to sell groceries as part of their current pickup and delivery services, per a media representative for the city, who included a message from Somerville’s mayor, Joseph Curtatone:
“Good ideas and flexible thinking are going to help us through this crisis, and allowing restaurants to sell groceries is exactly the kind of creative solution communities need. This will increase food access at a price point lower than prepared meals, provide a safer grocery shopping option for our seniors and those with pre-existing conditions, and it offers a needed new revenue stream for our restaurants, which are valiantly staying open amid difficult circumstances to help meet food needs.”
Meanwhile, Arlington is also officially allowing restaurants to sell groceries (approval is required, and approved restaurants will display a special notice.)