Now that vaccination rates are climbing and indoor dining is open across the city, many restaurants are returning to what they’ve done best: preparing and serving meals.
But others, like Ascari Entoeca and Peter Pan, are finding that – just as with corporate offices – the future of their businesses is hybrid. Both restaurants set up specialized grocery and bottle shops during the pandemic that turned out so well each are making their retail spaces permanent. They’re betting that, even after everything goes “back to normal,” customers will keep coming back for these new services.
The new normal for many grocery and wine consumers is more choice.
“Consumers will buy food that they want wherever they can get it, at the price that they want, when they want it,” explains Vince Sgabellone a foodservice industry analyst for market research firm the NPD Group. “And that’s what these bottle shops and these restaurant-grocery stores are enabling.”
And while packed patios are a common sight in Toronto, nearly 27 per cent of adults aged 18 and up are planning to wait at least six months before returning to indoor dining – after all restrictions are lifted, according to a recent NPD consumer sentiment study.
Those people, Sgabellone says, are good potential customers for these new businesses.
On top of that, NPD found North American home appliance sales grew 30 per cent last year and are expected to rise another 15 per cent this year compared with 2019.
Even if restaurants are open, many people are clearly planning to cook more at home.
“People still want that restaurant-quality meal so maybe they need that special sauce from their favourite restaurant, that special spice blend or they need wine with dinner,” says Sgabellone.
Luckily, there are a few new businesses in town to help with that.
Ascari Enoteca on Queen East, like most restaurants in the city, had to pivot umpteen times during Ontario’s various lockdowns. What really stuck was its pantry items and bottle shop. The restaurant started selling fresh pasta, sauces, prepared foods and wines that are not available at the LCBO. When patios reopened, the sales momentum didn’t slow.
“Not only were we getting traction during the day, but we were getting a ton of traction from our guests who were dining,” says Erik Joyal, the owner of Ascari Hospitality Group. “They’d have a bottle of wine with dinner and then go and buy three bottles of it to take home.”
Ascari Enoteca only has 38 seats inside and Joyal wants to go back to indoor dining with full capacity at some point, meaning there won’t be room for a retail operation forever. So when a space came up for lease on the same block, he snapped it up and opened Mercatino E Vini in early June.
The shop carries everything Ascari Enoteca did, as well as special signature items from the restaurant like a carbonara meal kit and Amaro bottled cocktails. The space is also a café during the day and a wine bar in the evening.
Mercatino E Vini has already outsold Ascari Enoteca’s pantry and bottle shop at any point in the pandemic, Joyal adds.
“Whether we’re at full capacity or the pandemic goes away tomorrow, the Mercatino idea of a retail experience is here to stay,” he says.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing though. Joyal tried to open a similar bottle shop inside of Ascari’s King West location and it never gained traction.
Not far away, long-running Queen West bistro Peter Pan found success with a pantry and bottle shop called Peter Pantry – but it took a while.
“It took us a year of constantly selling wine to hit milestones that I think places at Dundas and Ossington were hitting three months in,” says Nick Oliveiro, Peter Pantry’s general manager. “You’ve just got to keep persevering. People want that experience – they just never thought to look in their own backyard.”
Eventually enough people ended up coming to Peter Pantry that the space next door (which the restaurant was already leasing for various pop-ups pre-pandemic) will soon reopen as a dedicated bottle shop, wine tasting room and retail space.
Launching in September, the shop will stock various sauces and preserves, books, glassware and, of course, lots and lots of wine.
To add to the experience, Oliveiro, who is Peter Pan’s sommelier, will host impromptu and casual wine tastings. He organized several virtual tastings throughout past lockdowns. But once restrictions eased this summer, attendance waned. Enough people were interested in the concept that he wants to bring the experience to life offline at Peter Pantry.
“There’s a lot of desire to know more about wine, to feel comfortable, to understand what you’re drinking and expand your horizons,” say Oliveiro. “The LCBO doesn’t really touch on this.”
However, both businesses haven’t moved away from digital retail and have websites for online ordering at the ready – just in case.