Catering to consumers’ new dining needs and preferences, Grace Bodega makes a permanent statement
Photo: Angie Murphy of Grace Restaurant and Grace Bodega
IN THE EARLY days of the pandemic, it was knives down at the upscale dinner spot Grace. Even among the bruised restaurant industry, fine dining found itself facing a particularly steep cliff — yes, we were all ordering takeout, but not the kind of crafted small-plate fare Grace trades in. The low-volume, high-cost business model had vanished for the time being, finding itself wrenched out of step with the cultural moment.
The response of the fine-dining community was to make a blue-collar pivot, and many restaurants began slinging the people’s food — burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and the kind of things many of us gravitate towards when we think about takeout comfort food.
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For its part, Grace introduced Grace Pantry, selling local produce, meat, organic wines and pantry items, and later launched a takeout operation serving more quotidian items, like sandwiches with a side of potato chips.
Now, a year in, what started as a way “to keep money coming in and to deal with the food in-house” is set to become a full-fledged neighbour, as owner and chef Angie Murphy opens Grace Bodega, a brick-and-mortar version of the pantry and a place to shop for “really nice product, highly curated, delicious local stuff, but in a more casual setting than we have in Grace,” as she describes it.
“In order to rebuild the restaurant, we can’t run this pantry business out of the dining room,” Murphy says. “We needed a space to keep doing what we’ve been doing, be-cause people responded really well.”
The kinds of reinventions that many fine-dining spots made during the pandemic often had the effect of bringing them closer to their communities. And such was the case at Grace.
“We got so much incredible support from our core group of people,” says Murphy. Just as people were eager to eat their prepared meals, they were eager for their ingredients, and for access to the local, farm-to-table food supply that restaurants like Grace were built on.
Located at 211 Dundas Street, right next door to Grace Restaurant, Grace Bodega was partially funded by crowdsourcing — over $25,000 was raised, with each dollar contributed being returned in the form of store credit. The unit will include refrigerated displays for grab-and-go produce, meats and dairy, dry goods, larder, bottle shop, specialty coffee and other select merchandise.
Murphy believes it is the kind of adaptation you can expect to see from other operators, post-pandemic.
“I think restaurants will have to do something else in order to build back,” she says. “We’re just decimated, even with government supports, even with subsidies.”
Plenty of restaurants out there will have government loans that need repaying, she points out. “It’s not great if you can’t come back stronger than you were, and I think the only option is to diversify.”
By the time the dust settles on all this, fine dining will have almost certainly taken a massive hit, in London and right around the globe. There’s almost no escaping it. Those fine-dining establishments that remain will need to innovate to survive and grow back.
And it’s not as simple as expanding hours, Murphy explains. “It’s complicated to be open for lunch,” she says. “In this city it can be difficult to make it worthwhile.”
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Instead, she thinks fine dining’s process of diversifying — some might call it their democratizing — will stick around, and in a lot of bigger cities, restaurant groups will move towards a flagship supported by several smaller, affordable concepts. It’s easy to imagine that, in some ways, their customers will be better for it.
As of press time, Grace Bodega was still playing the waiting game, with lockdown restrictions delaying their opening. Murphy says it’ll be worth the wait.
“We’re going to be ready as soon as the world is ready.” Kieran Delamont