Katie Wright said her fledgling Anchorage bakery took off during the COVID-19 economic shutdown, after she launched online sales and doorstep deliveries of boxed homemade bread and condiments.
The “no-contact" service at Concoction Breads and Provisions starts with a digital order and ends with a text after each delivery. People staying at home during the pandemic like the convenience, she said.
“The response on the bread boxes was crazy,” she said. “It went really well, and it just kept getting busier and busier.”
Other local establishments also say pickup and delivery has helped grow their business — or at least kept it alive — during the coronavirus closures.
The pickup and delivery trend has helped a number of Anchorage restaurants delay a return to full dine-in service, which was once again allowed by the city and state late last month. Although the rules have relaxed, restaurant operators say many Anchorage customers still aren’t ready to sit down for a meal.
A recent statewide spike in COVID-19 cases adds to the caution.
“We’re taking it slow,” said Tim Gravel, president of Kaladi Brothers Coffee.
The cafe chain halted sit-down service in March. But takeout and a new niche, shipping bags of coffee to out-of state customers, has helped support operations.
Kaladi Brothers may not offer dine-in service for another couple of weeks, Gravel said. The shops are playing it safe for customers and employees.
“With this recent (COVID-19) bump, we decided we’d wait and see what happens,” he said.
Food service and drinking establishments have been among the hardest-hit sectors during the COVID-19 crisis, said Bill Popp, president of Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
The sector represented the largest chunk of Alaskans receiving unemployment checks in April, at 6,408, about one-third of that workforce, according to state figures.
Some of the restaurants that have pulled through are not yet reopening to dine-in, Popp said. They aren’t sure yet how they’ll keep customers and servers safe from the virus, he said.
Snow City Cafe, Spenard Roadhouse, Crush Wine Bistro and South Restaurant and Coffeehouse are allowing dine-in, said Laile Fairbairn, president of Locally Grown Restaurants, which manages those businesses.
But the service comes with abbreviated hours and fewer tables than before the pandemic, to meet the city’s 6-foot social distancing guidelines, she said. And, she said, diners are not coming back at full strength.
But to-go orders remain strong.
“Some people have just completely rewired how they get food these days, and they are comfortable with curbside pickup,” Fairbairn said. “Some are excited to dine inside, but others may not be until there’s a vaccine. Everyone has a different comfort level and we want to be there for them, but it’s a delicate balance.”
Lucky Wishbone co-owner Heidi Heinrich has decided not to reopen for dine-in, in part, because that would slow some of the pickup business that’s paid bills and kept nearly all the employees working.
Another reason she hasn’t reopened to dining is because the restaurant can’t get back to full capacity yet, because of spacing limits. The lobby is just too small to support both pickup customers and diners simultaneously, she said.
Lucky Wishbone will reevaluate the dining option on June 15. It’s trying to balance safety and customers’ differing desires.
“We’re trying to see how we can meet everyone in the middle,” Heinrich said.
Seth Stetson, a former marketing director at Kaladi Brothers, said people concerned about entering busy grocery stores has helped him find a new income source after losing work.
He launched a bulk grocery delivery business in April, deep into the pandemic.
Business is growing steadily, he said.
Anchorage Grocery accepts online orders for produce, seafood and meat, with Alaska-grown options. Stetson, who gets some groceries from restaurant supplier Sysco, delivers to residential customers.
“I call it a direct-to-consumer minimal touch-point solution to getting groceries delivered,” he said.
Helping stoke interest in take-out and delivery is the new “Anchorage To Go” Facebook group.
Holly Lord, an Anchorage resident, created the page in March to connect home-bound Alaskans with struggling restaurants and stores.
“I was trying to help businesses survive," she said. “It broke my heart to think of all those people out of work.”
The page “blew up” in a matter of days, she said. Now, more than 11,000 members swap photos of food and restaurant tips.
She’s seen businesses rapidly evolve to address customer concerns, she said.
“Adapting is how you survive, and some of these businesses have done a pretty good job of adapting,” she said.
The Facebook group helped A Pie Stop stay in business, said Steve Satterlee, manager at the Midtown Anchorage bakery.
In March, the shop closed dine-in service. Sales plunged and the business struggled to pay rent.
But business surged after news of the possible closure spread on the Facebook group. Sales rose almost tenfold, he said.
“I owe everything to the community for showing up,” he said.
Business remains strong, he said.
The bakery makes it owns deliveries. It stopped using Grubhub after the company overcharged the restaurant by “ridiculous” amounts, cutting deeply into profits, Satterlee said. A DoorDash driver was a better deal, but they soon stopped showing up, he said.
Apps like Grubhub or DoorDash have been criticized nationally for charging restaurants high fees.
Fairbairn of Locally Grown Restaurants said Grubhub’s app-related fees are excessive. She prefers for customers to order online through the restaurants directly, not the Grubhub app, she said.
“When you order through our websites, we pay less than half the fees that we would normally pay to Grubhub,” she said.
(Both of the delivery apps said in emailed statements this week they have taken steps to provide financial support to restaurants during the pandemic. “We’re committed to helping restaurants, drivers and diners through this challenging time,” a Grubhub spokesman said in a statement, noting the company has worked to provide financial relief for drivers and restaurants.)
Despite having to work out some kinks with delivery, Satterlee reports that his to-go system is going strong. A steady line of customers is picking up full pies through a drive-thru window, once used mainly for coffees sales, he said.
It’s a more efficient system than serving single slices to seated customers, and is something he plans to promote well into the future, he said.
Sales are strong enough that he’s not planning to return dine-in any time soon, until COVID-19 is no longer a health risk.
“I’m very surprised and grateful by the way this has turned out,” he said.
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