From restaurant to grocer – how this eatery adapted in crisis
How the Voodoo Lily restaurant was transformed into a grocery store when Gourmet Grocer opened its doors just before Mother’s Day last year.
Nothing quite like the smell of freshly backed bread at Gourmet Grocer. Picture: Hein Kaiser
Eighties star Billy Ocean sang that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. Restaurateur Larry Hodes is that guy.
At the end of March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic ripped the rug from under his feet as lockdown decimated his family’s livelihood almost immediately.
His restaurant, Voodoo Lily, in Birdhaven was transformed into a grocery store just two months into the nationwide shutdown. Sometimes the best ideas manifest in times of absolute disaster and Gourmet Grocer opened its doors just before Mother’s Day last year.
Most of the Gourmet Grocer’s stock is sourced from local businesses. “When we decided to transform the business, I reached out to small local suppliers on WhatsApp and social media to see if there was any interest,” says Hodes.
The response was remarkable, he remembers.
“Many were severely impacted by the lockdown as suddenly, too, their income dried up. Restaurants closed and closed down, markets were shut and small businesses, just like us, did not have an outlet to make any kind of income.”
Within 24 hours of his first message, they had enough supply commitments to open Gourmet Grocer.
When you meet Larry, it is easy to see why the transformation from restaurant to community grocer was so swift and successful. He knows many customers by name, is a go-getter and passionate about what he does, who he does it with and how he does it.
Almost a year later 90% of Gourmet Grocer’s stock is still sourced from the community.
Browse through the aisles with Larry and he shares the stories of hardship, innovation and success of his suppliers, pointing out their fare as he goes along. His energy and commitment to this new normal is infectious.
Next to the tables outside, where Voodoo Lily continues to serve patrons idling in and out all day, stands a rail where second-hand clothes can be brought in and hung up for collection by charity. This is the kind of man Larry Hodes is.
Gourmet Grocer now bakes its own bread, the sourdough particularly incredible, added a roastery to its ensemble along with a French rotisserie. The Coffefe Coffee roastery inside the store, named after former US President Donald Trump’s legendary Twitter faux pas, offers various in-house blends while the rotisserie prepares chipotle-butter-basted free-range chickens.
When communities stand together in a time of crisis, it is incredible what can be achieved.
“We are all small businesses and the store is the result of a collaborative effort. It is an evolving business model and supporting enterprise. Working together towards a common goal will remain absolutely key.”
Given that there was no real plan apart from survival, its stockholding continues to change, develop and grow based on gauging demand.
“It’s a place of theatre, really,” says Hodes and adds that it is the path forward for Gourmet Grocer, a hybrid recipe with restaurant Voodoo Lily. The dining menu is tempting, the coffee delicious and dogs are welcome, even with their own section “Doggos” on the menu.
At weekends he makes fresh ice cream in front of customers. A small but carefully curated wine, beer, gin and whiskey selection is also available.
“In times of crisis, the worst thing you can do is nothing. Even if you’re not sure what success you will have, it’s worth going for it – with a positive mindset – no matter how tough it is to keep going. Things will get better. We were not sure about joining the retailing sector, but we have done it and we’re overwhelmed at the success of it.”