PORTLAND, Maine — On the 37th day after the city issued a stay-at-home order, the owner of one of the Old Port’s most popular watering holes is behind the bar. Instead of pouring drinks, he’s selling rolls of toilet paper and weighing flour.
On top of the largest selection of beer in the state, patrons of Novare Res Bier Cafe can now buy common kitchen goods like flour and yeast, novelties like local ice cream and fancy versions of Slim Jims, plus personal protective equipment like sterile gloves, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.
“If someone wants to come here,” said owner Shahin Khojastehzad, then it can be “kind of a one-stop shop so they don’t have to be stressed out going to the supermarket.”
Novare Res is one of a growing set of Portland-area bars and restaurants to adapt to-go offerings to the pandemic era. While people are only supposed to leave home for bare necessities, some in the industry have realized that making bare necessities more widely available could help them stay afloat.
Some bars and restaurants are taking on the role of boutique grocery stores, rolling out new provisional, short-supply menus that meet customers’ need for essentials while offering a glimmer of the curated experience they could have had in person.
Portland ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants as part of an emergency citywide stay-at-home order on March 16. Many have remained open for contact-free delivery and takeout service — though most staff have been let go — and are permitted to sell take-home beer and wine in sealed, original containers.
The provisional menus also help restaurants to liquidate stock they otherwise couldn’t during the shutdown. Khojastehzad said he sold 50 pounds of cheese at cost since the shutdown.
Po’ Boys & Pickles began offering a short list of items from its own stock, like eggs, flour, frozen gumbo and hot sauce, along with to-go orders for its sandwiches and salads. The move has allowed the shop to move inventory it would otherwise be sitting on.
“People are still coming in to pick up takeout, so they’re waiting here anyway,” said Christopher Bettera, who owns the Cajun-inspired sandwich shop on Forest Avenue. “It made sense to add a few items available at cost so it wasn’t punitive for the customer to get them.”
Some eateries are offering supplies with grocery items in larger packages, a model adopted from farm shares and CSAs. Market Street Eats on Middle Street offers a “basic box” of eggs, vegetables, chicken and toilet paper and more for rates of $60 to $100. The Garrison in Yarmouth now offers pasta, butter, toilet paper and other items as add-ons to a bulk take-out menu of whole roast chickens and short rib chili by the quart.
Khojastehzad said he got the idea to sell toilet paper at the bar last month after a convenience store on Exchange Street began selling toilet paper for $10 a roll, which was among a number of price-gouging reports to the Maine attorney general’s office before Gov. Janet Mills issued an anti-gouging order last month.
The bar owner contacted his restaurant supply vendors and grabbed a few dozen rolls of his own bath tissue, offering them at $1 a roll. Days later, he added boxes of nitrile gloves to the selection after his vendor assured him that all hospital orders were duly fulfilled.
Portland’s food and drink scene tends to be mutually supportive, and collaborations between chefs, brewers, and other local proprietors are not rare. As the trend evolves, eateries could make small menus available as menu pairings, allowing for a curated experience for Portlanders in quarantine.
Khojastehzad said some customers thought it was “hilarious to be able to get lambic, toilet paper and ice cream delivered to their house from the local bar.”
Frozen meals from popular restaurants could soon join the offerings. Khojastehzad said that he was working with Liquid Riot to get pre-packaged sandwiches and other dishes onto his curbside menu. As the food industry attempts to weather the crisis, bath tissue may be part of the solution, though the Novare Res owner said he is not profiting.
“We don’t really need to make money on toilet paper. That’s not our business,” he said. “If you want beer, that is my business.”