When California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a March 19 stay-at-home order, acclaimed chef and restaurateur Curtis Stone knew he had to make some quick changes. The directive meant that Stone’s two California restaurants, the Michelin-starred Maude in Beverly Hills and Hollywood’s Gwen, would have to close to dine-in customers. The restaurants’ walk-in refrigerators were filled with food and suddenly there was nothing to do with the highly perishable inventory.
Stone’s solution? He launched the Maude Marketplace and Gwen To Go. In addition to offering the basics, customers can now purchase the kinds of premium, curated provisions that might otherwise be tough to find: European-style butter, Robiola cheese (described on the Gwen grocery list as “soft, slightly funky”), Wagyu flatiron steaks, and loaves of house-baked Stecca bread. Plus, there’s all sorts of produce—items like mixed pints of chili peppers and organic greens.
“The big advantage is freshness,” says Stone. “We’re buying direct from farmers, so these items don’t go through the regular retail chain. We buy things on a Monday and pack them that afternoon. There’s great quality and great variety.”
Looking back on this pivot, Stone simply let his customers lead the way. Gwen has a butcher shop and Stone and his staff noticed that customers were continuing to come in to purchase meats. They also learned that those customers were struggling to buy grocery staples in local markets.
“I just said, ‘Let’s put everything out and let people take it.’ So we started setting up this big farmers' market in the middle of the restaurant. With certain things, people would just go crazy, stocking up on bananas and eggs and milk. That sort of quick thinking turned into, ‘Well, if they want it, let’s keep buying and selling.’”
Stone also surmised that people were looking for comfort foods to enjoy at home, and the restaurants began preparing homey favorites like chicken pot pies, beef stew, and chili. To ease the burden on parents who are home during the day looking after children while busy with their own jobs, Gwen began making “Back to Homeschool Lunches” that included such choices as peanut-butter-and-strawberry-jelly sandwiches, with baby carrots on the side—plus chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
It's definitely a brave new world. But Stone believes that these changes represent a continuation of his restaurants’ existing mission.
“Restaurants are in the business of taking care of communities. That’s what we do,” he says. “Even if it’s only for a few hours at a time, we nurture people and take care of them the best we know how. They need us right now. We quickly started getting all sorts of emails from people telling us things like, ‘I can’t leave the house right now, you guys are lifesavers. The delivery means that I can stay at home.’ We got an incredible outpouring from our local community, just saying thanks. It made us feel like we’re playing a small part in a really crazy time when people do need our help.”
A number of other restaurants around California have also reinvented themselves as marketplaces. Named one of L.A.’s best new restaurants of 2019 by Los Angeles magazine, Yang’s Kitchen in Alhambra is offering such produce as organic Lacinato kale and pantry items, including premium Koshihikari brown rice. Berkeley’s iconic Chez Panisse is now selling high-end pantry items like Bartolini cannellini beans from Italy and packs organic produce boxes from its purveyors Cannard Farms and Knoll Farms. And in San Diego County, La Jolla’s El Pescador Fish Market is selling seafood that’s delivered daily, as well as fresh produce and loaves of breads from local bakeries, including O’Brien’s Boulangerie in Poway.
There’s also a community at the restaurants themselves. Most dining establishments operate on tight margins, and many restaurant workers live from paycheck to paycheck and represent a microcosm of the broader city.
Stone says he employs single parents, immigrants, and workers hired through Chrysalis, a nonprofit organization that helps people transition from poverty to self-sufficiency. While Stone couldn’t keep his full team, the remaining staff has begun to learn new skills. Dishwashers, for instance, are now working as delivery people, and one employee suggested to Stone that the restaurant should make a pozole, which has now become one of the most popular menu items.
This sort of flexible thinking should bolster the restaurant industry’s recovery process—and in fact ties into the state’s reputation for innovation.
“California has always been at the forefront of trendsetting when it comes to restaurants,” Stone notes. “You look at farm-to-table—that was a California initiative that spread throughout the world. When people come to visit California, they think of incredible restaurants and places to eat, from taco trucks to fine dining. These places have a real cultural significance, and there are lots of iconic places that beautifully represent the state. My hope is that we can keep them all going.”