App lets Austin restaurants sell excess produce, raw ingredients to recoup costs during pandemic

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Restaurants in Central Texas are facing tough decisions during the new coronavirus outbreak.

Some have had to lay off workers amid a statewide ban on dining in, while others are converting to delivery and take-out options to weather the outbreak. Still others, like Dream Bakery, are turning to selling raw ingredients and excess food to recoup some of the cost they incurred buying it in the first place.

The bakery’s main source of revenue is making wedding and birthday cakes. When the outbreak hit, “all of our cake orders started cancelling,” owner Karen Fry said, “so our revenue dropped overnight almost 80%.”

Her solution was to start selling or giving away all the raw ingredients she had left. Then, when she ran out, she re-ordered crates of supplies, converting her bakery for the time being into a curbside grocery store. It wasn’t her initial intention, she explained, but demand was so high, she wanted to keep providing customers with supplies they couldn’t find elsewhere.

Fry received delivery of a pallet of flour and yeast on Thursday, March 26, that she will sell in individual portions to shoppers who can’t find it elsewhere. (Photo Courtesy: Karen Fry)

“It started with the eggs, because [people] couldn’t find those,” Fry said. “This week it’s been flour because that’s been sold out. They want to do all their baking. Yeast, butter, sugar, just really kind of those staples.”

Fry is getting so many call-in orders, she had to buy temporary cell phones just to make outgoing calls. Thursday, Fry’s suppliers brought her 450 dozen eggs, 40 gallons of milk, a literal ton of flour and cases of yeast. She’ll need to reorder next week.

‘There’s a demand’

Sam Lillie saw the precarious financial situation many restaurants found themselves in and decided to do something about it.

“Really what we saw was this was just an emergency, and there was a way that we were able to help out,” Lillie told KXAN via video chat Thursday.

He launched his app Vinder last summer as a sort of digital farmers market, connecting local producers with local buyers. “Initially I started this on my bicycle,” he said, “and just did all the deliveries on my bicycle.”

vinder app
The app Vinder was created as a digital farmers market, but is expanding to include local restaurants selling excess food during the COVID-19 pandemic. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

This week, he started allowing restaurants to register as sellers. His team is currently working to recruit more local owners to join the platform. Vinder is also now offering a no-contact delivery option for $1 in the midst of the pandemic, and Lillie is working with Austin biotech firm EQO to provide sanitizing equipment to add an extra layer of protection to fight the spread of COVID-19.

He believes his app is a win-win: Customers don’t have to wait in grocery store lines just to find empty shelves, and restaurant owners, many of whom stocked up ahead of South by Southwest before it was cancelled, can recoup some of their food costs.

“There’s a demand, there’s a need for this,” Lillie said. “This is a way for [restaurants] to bring in a little cash flow while creating value direct for the public.”

‘Keep on keeping on’

Lillie’s efforts come as Gov. Greg Abbott works to provide relief for hurting restaurants, too. This week, his office issued a directive allowing owners to resell produce, meat and other raw ingredients to the public as long as the items are in their “original condition, packaging, or presented as received by the restaurant.”

“This guidance gives Texans another easily accessible option to buy the food they need to support their families,” Abbott said in announcing the directive.

It’s an option Fry will continue to rely on in the coming days and weeks.

“If you can find somebody else who needs it and recoup some of your cost, that’s great,” she said. Dream Bakery doesn’t use the Vinder app — they’re relying on social media to move supplies — but Fry thinks it’s a good idea.

Her new business model has allowed her to keep paying her staff while they wait for the pandemic to wind down and for restaurants to open back up to the public.

“We’re hoping that we can just kind of keep on keeping on until we get through to other side of this,” she said.

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