Romeo’s Ristorante Italiano & Pizzeria in Plainsboro celebrated its 32nd anniversary of business this past March and has remained open, with some adjustments, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Takeout and delivery have always been part of Romeo’s business model. It has even utilized curbside pickup in the past during bad weather. All its years of experience have helped it transition into the current working scenario.
But lately Romeo’s has offered something it never has before: groceries.
When owners Victor Carnicelli and Massimo “Max” Capuano realized they were having trouble finding products for their personal family use at grocery stores, they figured others were experiencing the same frustration. And they aren’t alone.
To fill the need, local businesses across the region have taken on the task of providing products from their pantries and warehouses to residents. Offering a secondary source for groceries such as meats, eggs, milk, bread and even toilet paper, their change in operation has kept their doors open, their staffs working, and customers’ shopping lists checked off.
Restaurants, like Romeo’s, and wholesale providers such as North East Restaurant Direct have tweaked their business models and found new ways to cater to demand by offering consumers raw food items directly.
North East Restaurant Direct, located in Trenton, has been in business for seven years and provides produce, dairy and proteins to restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Owners and brothers Scott and John Huff are residents of Hamilton and Pennington, respectively, and saw their regular customer numbers tumble as many restaurants were forced to close their doors or significantly lessen their orders.
In an effort to keep their workers employed, they decided to take on the new venture of grocery no-contact home delivery.
“We didn’t know the viability,” Scott Huff said. “We knew there was enough people, friends, family, neighbors, that were always asking us for stuff…and obviously we would do our best to help out anybody we could. We kind of took that helping our neighbor philosophy and put it out there to some neighbors that we don’t know on a first name basis but we’re getting there.”
Due to incredible demand, North East’s delivery area has been limited to mainly Mercer County. At its current capacity, the business is able to process about 500 orders a day. The Huffs run their online store similar to a normal store in that when they are sold out of product for the day they “close their doors” and reopen the following morning.
Deliveries are made Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with transactions taking about four days from the time the order is placed to when it is delivered at the customer’s home.
North East’s no-contact delivery service and business operations follow strict safety protocols laid out by the FDA, USDA and the New Jersey Department of Health to ensure the health of both staff and customers, Scott Huff said.
Aside from contactless delivery to homes in Mercer County, North East Restaurant Direct temperature tests employees before shifts, requires glove use in their facilities and by delivery drivers, has all trucks and equipment sanitized before, during and after shifts, and keeps to essential personnel in their building. All grocery products offered are available for ordering on the North East Restaurant Direct website. Updates are shared on the website for customers interested in what products are available and where deliveries are made.
Even with the addition of its new operations, North East Restaurant Direct has also kept its commitment to its wholesale restaurant customers.
“The local restaurants are just as important in this conversation for everybody,” Scott Huff said. “There’s a lot of people that rely on restaurants…for their income. Waitresses and cooks and servers and busboys and all the way down the line. So we definitely have kept our commitment to our wholesale customers, and we’ve also shifted to help out our local community members at the same time.”
The Trenton business isn’t the only one that has taken wholesale to the general public during this turbulent time.
Membership-based, wholesale provider Restaurant Depot has warehouses scattered across the United States. At this time, company executives have decided to temporarily open their warehouses to the public to help the community. One location in Pennsylvania is right in Mercer County’s backyard, located at 1661 Lincoln Highway, Langhorne.
Around the second week of March, social distancing and quarantine began to take hold of the population, and Restaurant Depot was stuck with the decision of what to do to stay open and its customers’ needs met.
It had been approached by many community leaders and elected officials, who inquired about Restaurant Depot opening up to the public as food shortage fears grew, executive chairman of Jetro and Restaurant Depot Stanley Fleishman said.
It decided opening to the public was the right thing to do, he said.
The company has solely worked with food service customers on a wholesale scale until now. They decided to open their warehouses to the public, by designating 40 shopping cards, so the public may gain access to their buildings in safe, controlled numbers.
“Everybody’s doing the American thing, the entrepreneurial thing, ‘How do we stay in business?’” Fleishman said. “Because this will end, and we’ll be OK. But we’ve got to get through it.”
Although the decision to open to the public is not intended to be a long-term solution, Restaurant Depot’s business timeline is still uncertain as the country continues to work through the crisis.
Restaurant Depot remains loyal to their food service members by allowing them continued priority access to products in their warehouses and by starting an online Click and Collect Service for members only.
These wholesale providers are just as vital to keeping restaurants running as they are to their new customers.
Many pantries and kitchens in local restaurants also have been opened to the public’s need for grocery deliveries and pickups.
Romeo’s in Plainsboro only got added groceries a couple weeks ago, and have been flooded with orders.
By ordering online on Romeo’s website or over the phone, customers can get anything from the menu and grocery items including eggs, chicken breasts, garlic, dry pasta, pizza dough, cooking oil and dessert.
Owners Carnicelli and Capuano have been overseeing safety precautions. From delivery to unpackaging to distribution, employees are sanitizing equipment and shipping materials, wearing gloves and masks, and following strict social distancing guidelines.
Their delivery operations have expanded geographically to help out as many as they can who call in for orders and/or groceries.
“Doing it this way, we got a very good response from people,” Carnicelli said. “We’ve got a lot of shares on our social media pages…and also there’s a lot of word of mouth as well. First day we had eight people call for this and that was before we even put it on social media. We just told one person about it…she told her friends and that’s how we really took off.”
Meanwhile, Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette in Hopewell Borough has initiated curbside pickup, delivery, grocery sales and even a free food pantry since the onset of COVID-19.
Aunt Chubby’s decided to add in groceries for those who aren’t able to make it to a supermarket.
Aunt Chubby’s grocery list provides everything from butter, eggs, flour and salt to even toilet paper, when they have it. The list is posted on Chubby’s website, where customers can send in their orders online or through email.
Its donated meal plan uses donations from customers to help deliver food to the elderly in the area. In addition, about a week ago, it built an outdoor free pantry where people can drop off items for those that can’t afford shelf-safe products.
“We’re trying to help the community, stay together and stay safe…because there’s a lot of people in our community who can’t necessarily go out and go to the grocery store themselves…so we’re trying to help them out so they don’t have to do that to help reduce the spread,” Chubby’s employee and Hopewell resident Hannah Harris said.
Aunt Chubby’s Luncheonette: For curbside pickup or delivery, go to chubbysluncheonette.com.
North East Restaurant Direct: To order delivery, go to nerestaurantdirect.com.
Restaurant Depot: To order pickup, go to restaurantdepot.com.
Romeo’s Ristorante: To order grocery pickup, call 609-799-4554.