As restaurants shutter, R.I. wholesalers target consumers

Updated at 12:27 p.m. on March 31, 2020.

FARM FRESH RHODE ISLAND recently opened its Market Mobile home delivery program to consumers. / COURTESY FARM FRESH RHODE ISLAND

PROVIDENCE – For Russell DePetrillo, each restaurant closing its doors meant one fewer buyer for his wholesale meat and seafood shop, Metro Lobster & Seafood.

DePetrillo estimated at least 65% of his Warwick business customers were restaurants,  the rest a mix of nursing homes, schools and independent markets and a handful of direct consumers sprinkled in. The loss of business from these key buyers in recent weeks has devastated his business, cutting revenue sharply and forcing him to lay off one of nine employees as of Thursday.

But in the residents prowling barren grocery stores in the hopes of growing their stockpile of supplies, DePetrillo saw another potential buyer. He doesn’t have toilet paper, but has begun marketing his fresh meat, fish and dairy products directly to consumers.

Since placing an ad in the newspaper, he’s seen a slight increase in sales to consumers – not overwhelming, but “better than zero,” he said.

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Debbie Hopkins, co-owner of Hopkins Southdowns Farm in North Scituate, has taken a similar tack, transitioning from mostly wholesale lamb cuts to restaurants to those for local residents.

Hopkins estimated the farm had added 30 to 40 new customers since partnering with online home delivery services through Farm Fresh Rhode Island and WhatsGood. Most consumers opted to buy smaller quantities – think a pound of ground lamb or a few chops, rather than the industrial-sized lamb chops and shoulders preferred by restaurants.

Hopkins was fairly confident the farm would survive the coronavirus crisis – they cryofreeze the lamb which ensures a 6-to-8-month shelf life, so it’s not like a decrease in demand means wasted product. She worried about Easter, however, typically the farm’s biggest sales event. With restaurants shuttered and large family gatherings banned, it’s unlikely to yield the demand for lamb of previous years.

Other farms that partner with Farm Fresh Rhode Island through its Market Mobile program have seen a bump in sales since the nonprofit opened up its farm and foodmaker delivery service to consumers in certain areas of the state a few weeks ago. Rebecca Seggel, Farm Fresh RI’s communications director, said the program has gone from about 300 wholesale accounts – mostly restaurants and colleges – to “thousands” of residential home deliveries, though the total quantity and dollar value of deliveries has decreased. The nonprofit also offers curbside pickup from its Pawtucket packing house.

While there have been some growing pains associated with transitioning from a wholesale model to one for consumers – educating people about how ordering windows work and rewriting the language of the online platform from measurements like “bushels” to something more consumer-friendly – Seggel said the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” for consumers and the local farms and foodmakers that benefit.

Asked if Farm Fresh plans to continue offering consumer delivery when its wholesale buyers return to business, Seggel was unsure. But Hopkins hoped the new consumers her farm gained in this time would stay on even when life returned to normal.

DePetrillo also was taking it day-by-day, with his focus on keeping his 16-year-old business afloat through a dry spell of unknown severity and duration.

“We’re hanging in there, but we’re not going to be able to much longer if things don’t change,” he said.

Restaurant Depot LLC, a wholesale food and equipment company with a location in Cranston, announced on Tuesday it was opening its doors to consumers while continuing to serve restaurants and businesses. The company will hand out day passes to consumers to shop its cash-and-carry stock of food and paper goods, the release stated.

Details including limits to how many customers can shop at a time and how long the new policy will last were not immediately available.

To place a pick-up order through Metro Lobster & Seafood, call (401) 737-5250.

To place a pick-up order through Hopkins Southdowns Farm, call (401) 647-7281.

To place an online order for home delivery through Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile, visit https://www.farmfreshri.org/homedelivery/.

Nancy Lavin is a PBN staff writer. You may reach her at Lavin@PBN.com.

If you’ve had to shift some or all of your products from wholesale to retail sales due to business disruptions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact Nancy Lavin or PBN editor Mike Mello at editor@PBN.com.

This story has been updated to include news of Restaurant Depot opening its doors to consumers.

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