CHICAGO — The pandemic-driven decline in dining out has had a silver lining for home cooks: The high-quality produce and meats typically destined for restaurants are increasingly finding their way to people's kitchen tables.
Now one of Chicago's top restaurant produce distributors is using its muscle to deliver fresh foods to consumers' doorsteps, bringing a heavyweight to a growing movement to bypass grocery stores and give shoppers direct access to high-quality farm products.
Fresh Midwest, a company launched by the family that owns Midwest Foods and Edible Cuts, home-delivers fresh meat and produce as well as snacks prepared in-house and meals and meal kits developed in partnership with restaurants.
It serves ZIP codes located between Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, but plans to expand throughout the region, south to Indiana, by the end of March.
Patrick Fitzgerald, who created Fresh Midwest with his twin brother, Mike, had been interested in selling direct to consumers for some time but saw an opening after grocery delivery pioneer Peapod shut down its Midwest operations in February.
The onset of COVID-19 a month later, which caused wholesale orders to drop as restaurant clients saw business wiped out, created a "perfect storm," he said.
Fresh Midwest hired several former Peapod employees to tap their e-commerce and consumer expertise. Tony Stallone, a 20-year veteran of Peapod who ran its fresh merchandising department, initially told Fitzgerald the idea "sounds crazy" because selling produce online is difficult, but upon further reflection he thought it made sense.
"They have all the relationships with all the fresh purveyors, they're cutting out a middleman, but they're leveraging everything else: the trucks, the facility, all the people," said Stallone, now chief merchant at Fresh Midwest.
The pandemic has transformed how people buy food. A surge in online grocery shopping sent grocers scrambling to satisfy customers' expectations of convenience. Whole Foods last week announced free same-day pickup for Prime members and Jewel-Osco recently introduced temperature-controlled pickup lockers at its stores. Some grocers are operating customer-free "dark stores" dedicated to filling online orders.
There are also more ways for shoppers to forgo the grocery store altogether and buy fresh food direct from suppliers, as business disruptions drive farms and restaurants to seek new revenue streams.