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How Anthony Strong Turned His Restaurant Into A Pandemic Grocery Store

Anthony Strong is chef/owner of Prairie in San Francisco. Previously, he was executive chef and creative director for the Delfina Restaurant Group, opening the first Pizzeria Delfina location in San Francisco’s Mission District, later leading and managing its three other Bay Area outposts. In 2012, Strong opened Locanda, a Roman restaurant, also in the Mission.

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From the start, I didn’t want to do things the normal way. I called my restaurant Prairie partially as a nod to my high school punk rock band, but also because I finally got a space that was just mine, and it could be a wide open space. That was the real motivation for the name. I wanted to open a place with a “no-concept” concept, wide open space, do our thing and learn as we go.

We were approaching a year in business, and I missed doing our pop-ups. I wanted to be able to host parties. We got a lot of requests for large parties, and my favorite thing is just to do our thing on the grill, tell a couple good stories, and let people have fun. We wanted to set up the perfect environment for all of that.

So, we built the Campfire Room. We closed down for four days right after Valentine’s Day, put up a wall to subdivide the dining room space, completely opened up the kitchen, and had a giant redwood table made to seat up to 20 people. I spent about four months planning for it, everything from the design, which I did myself, to hashing through the steps of service and the look and feel of the menu with the team. My dad worked in construction, so I pulled him out of retirement in Florida and flew him out to help build it. It was absolutely awesome.

There’s nothing very fancy about the restaurant at all, and the Campfire Room was an opportunity for us to get our hands on whatever we wanted, talk about it, and get it in front of people. The traditional a la carte setting kind of limits you as a chef. It limits you on pricing and portioning, and it’s hard to get the message across of what you’re trying to do. This was an opportunity to have people dine on our terms.

Even the desserts. This was the perfect opportunity for us to have a couple of beautiful pies sitting out when people show up. After dinner, you cut into it and nothing else goes on the plate. It’s simple straightforward cooking.

I’ve known our pastry chef, Alison Sullivan, for 12 years, from our time at Delfina. She’s also our full-time everything else, she’s in the kitchen working on savory stuff, she’s our business manager, she’s running payroll right now. She was able to just make two pies a night, without having to decorate the plate and get cute with it and put sauces on there and turn it into a “dessert.” Stylistically I loved—for a very brief couple of weeks—being able to tell people to eat with their hands and share with their neighbors.

It was during one of the first dinners (that went so well!) that I thought, “I bet the first thing to go if coronavirus hits the United States will be family-style dining with strangers.” It was a har-har but oh-shit moment, because it got me thinking ahead of things a little bit. I’m not a paranoid person, but I decided I needed to put a contingency plan together. One Friday night after service, a couple of the employees were like, “What are you up to, chef?” Honestly? I was sitting at the redwood table, researching canned tomato sauces that I could sell to customers.

Then we got the order that restaurants had to close. If we had more money in the bank, I might have considered a more popular course of action—close the doors, board everything up, lay off our entire staff, and hopefully wait things out. I didn’t have that luxury, because I had saved every bit of cash flow that we had had during our first year to be able to do the renovation.

I figured most places would pivot to takeout and delivery, which would further saturate the market. After doing Young Fava, one of the country’s first ghost kitchens, a couple years ago, I knew I didn’t want any part of that. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to support the business, and I knew all the labor and moving parts that go into bringing in a very small sale.

I had heard that grocery store shelves were empty, and I knew people were going to need groceries. I started to think more about what products we might be able to get in and how people’s needs might be changing. The hardest thing was figuring out how to get our hands on retail-sized things, or figure out what we can get in bulk and repurpose for retail. We don’t have access to many retail products at all. Thankfully, we’re able to get a bunch of retail-sized packaging—like, Kewpie mayonnaise only comes in one bottle size. Or, we can buy bulk 50 pound bags of flour and break them down into smaller bags of five pounds each.

The cool part about that is that we’ve been able to pass those savings on to our customers. The extra cool part is that we’re able to get people things they’d never be able to find in a grocery store. Like, you can get a side of hamachi for $72. You have to buy the whole side, but we’ll break it down and cut it into portions for you. That thing would make like 100 pieces of nigiri—imagine what that would cost in a sushi restaurant. I found all these really cool preserved vegetables from Italy that we started carrying, like grilled radicchio and turnip tops and porcini mushrooms. We get giant cans of escargot, 72 escargot in a can, for a really good price. The interesting thing is that I’ve never used like 90 percent of the products we have in our store here. But people are really geeking out on this stuff. I’m geeking out on this stuff!

In a weird way, this has been super satisfying, too. Not only are we keeping our lights on and I’m keeping over 50 percent of our original staff employed, but it’s been amazing to be able to provide for the community at a time when they’re at their most fragile. Oftentimes coming to pick stuff up here is the one time people go out during the day. Our customers are really talkative. They’re like, “What’s up! We’re here! Interacting!” That’s a real thing, and I love being able to provide that. Of course, it’s like hell trying to navigate an entirely new business model and turn the restaurant around overnight into an online grocer.

In the short term as we open with limited operations, we’ll probably maintain some level of grocery service as well, and up our grocery delivery game and then slowly and carefully start filling our dining room. We’re planning on opening up the Campfire Room just for parties to begin with, when we can. Getting people cool stuff in a different way actually makes me think about some kind of grocery component moving forward. If there’s a leg of the business that can operate outside of dinnertime hours, I think it would be a meaningful thing to pursue.

I think that we have a pretty creative industry, and I think oftentimes our creativity is directed towards pretty frivolous things and we ignore the really big issues. I’ve heard a few people say what we’re doing at Prairie shows them a glimmer of hope. That’s thrilling to hear. As a chef used to being in the weeds, it’s just another thing to figure out. I’m not one to let a crisis go to waste.

Photo: Courtesy Anthony Strong.