As social distancing continues, many traditional grocery delivery services have become overwhelmed with orders. Shoppers report being unable to find open delivery slots on services like Instacart, FreshDirect, or Peapod, or having their orders canceled at the last minute.
One alternative could be to buy some of your groceries from wholesale food distributors. Wholesalers usually sell exclusively to restaurants, cafes, or grocery stores. But because the coronavirus outbreak has decreased or altogether eliminated the orders they are getting from restaurants, many have pivoted to sell produce, meats, and pantry items directly to consumers.
Groceries can be more affordable when bought this way, says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch: "Considering the cost per unit is much less, this is really a smart move right now to save money and stretch your budget."
Before you load up your cart with items from a wholesale food distributor, though, here are five questions to ask.
Most wholesalers sell food regionally, not nationally, Kristin McGrath, shopping expert at Offers.com, recently told Grow. So "you'll need to do research into what's available in your area."
If you live in Austin, Texas, for example, you can order preselected boxes of meats and produce from wholesaler Farm to Table. If you live near Philadelphia, you can order meats from butcher Ashley Foods. And if you're in Los Angeles, Nature's Produce is filling customized orders for pickup.
"Check butchers that usually sell directly to restaurants and stores, as well as wholesale bakeries," McGrath says.
Keep in mind that you might not be able to get everything on your shopping list with one wholesaler.
For example, at Farm to Table, you can only pick from two baskets of foods, one which contains meat, diary, and produce and one that is only dairy and produce. Each is $100. You can add additional items to the basket. At Rocker Bros., a Los Angeles-based butcher, you can add different cuts of meat to your cart online and purchases as much as you want. However, they don't sell vegetables.
Many wholesalers have created online portals where you can pick items and put them in a virtual basket, as you would with an online order from a grocery store.
If your wholesaler doesn't have an online form, the best way to get your order filled is to email, not call, says Sam Lash, Farm to Table's director of operations. When Farm to Table started taking orders from consumers directly, before they had preselected food packages, it was "chaotic," he says. There were a lot of phone calls and "back and forth" about orders.
"It's understandable for home consumers to not have the same kind of emailing etiquette that chefs who have been ordering from wholesale companies for the last 20 years do," he says.
It's important to be specific in your email. Many customers would send Lash shopping lists with no quantities or give directions like "'Send me enough for a family four,'" he says. "At that point, you're just guessing."
You can save money on certain groceries if you get them from a wholesaler rather than a traditional store, says Woroch.
For example, at Whole Foods broccoli florets are $1.99 per pound, but at Hardie's Fresh Foods, a Texas-based wholesaler, broccoli florets are $1.69 per pound. At Walmart, a cilantro bunch is 48 cents, but at Nature's Produce, you can get 3 for $1.10, or 36 cents each.
There are some exceptions, though. Because many butchers sell to more upscale restaurants, their cuts of meat are nicer, but also pricier, than the typical steak available at a grocery store.
Not necessarily. Many wholesalers are allowing consumers to buy smaller amounts of food.
For its business clients, Nature's Produce usually sells items in 25-pound quantities or higher. Now the company is selling some produce to consumers by the pound, says Ryan Polisky, vice president of Nature's Produce.
"We are trying to do whatever it takes to help the community get the right amount of product that they can use without spending too much on something they are eventually going to throw away," Polisky says.
Even if your desired quantity is "one," it helps to ask questions. Before Farm to Table's menu of offerings mentioned specific cuts, Lash says, customers would order a rib-eye steak. "One rib-eye to us that means an entire rib-eye loin, which is 14 pounds," he says. "Usually that's not what [customers] wanted."
So double check with your butcher before ordering that the meat will come precut and ready for home, rather than for restaurant use. Many butchers are adapting to their new clientele.
Rocker Bros., for example, used to sell 10 steaks per case, but the butcher has since adjusted, says Sheldon Rocker, president of Rocker Bros. "Now all our boxes are two pieces [of meat] per box," he says.
Many do. Farm to Table delivers within a 15 mile radius of its warehouse, and Nature's Produce has also started delivering in the Los Angeles area.
Others are filling retail orders with curbside pickup. This means that you might have to wait to receive your order. "We had over an hour wait because there was a line wrapped around the block," Polisky says.
Because many wholesalers are reworking their operations to cater to consumers rather than businesses, they hope consumers can be patient with any hiccups in service.
"Exercise patience in this time," Lash says. "All of us companies are having to shift overnight and it's been extremely difficult. We're learning as we go and trying to understand consumers wants and needs."
If you end up liking your wholesaler more than your grocery store, there's a good chance you'll be able to patronize them well after social distancing ends. Many wholesalers, including all of those Grow interviewed, say they plan to keep their direct-to-consumer service, or a version of it, operating even after the pandemic is over.
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