Kirsten Moore would have been two weeks into opening her restaurant, Magpie Diner, when the shut-down order came down the pipe. But as luck would have it, the diner doors weren’t ready to be opened and Moore was spared.
“We were lucky that when this hit, we hadn’t just opened our doors,” she said.
From the moment Moore stepped inside the building on the corner of North Liberty and West Gay Street in September 2018, she had a clear vision of what it could become, but it would take months before those ideas could come to fruition.
Between planning, navigating through red tape and handling historic tax credits, construction for the diner didn’t begin until the following year, which put Moore on a timeline that passed through the early phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But other restaurant and producers owners weren’t as lucky.
“When COVID-19 hit, I knew it would impact this industry in a really big way,” Moore said. “I recognized that not only were the business and their employees going to suffer, but all the pieces of our food system that would be affected.”
Moore said farmers had already planned, planted and raised animals to supply restaurants when, all of a sudden, the market was no longer there.
“Within a week of our first conversation about how we could help create an outlet for those products, help restaurant owner friends who were paralyzed, as well as help the public get safe access to local food, we had the Magpie & Friends Market up and running,” she said.
By the first week in April, Moore had opened up her own market that offered prepared foods and products from more than 20 vendors, including Clementine, Food.Bar.Food, Boboko, North Mountain Produce and Fawn Crossing Farms.
The first market had 35 orders, but Moore said she usually has close to 100 orders at each pick up, which is twice a week.
For the month of April, Moore said they did roughly $30,000 in sales.
“We really started this just to help others have another avenue to sell their food and I know it’s helped many of them get through this, both emotionally and financially,” she said. “I think because we did it early on — within a week of restaurants being shut down to diners — it was a good way to take action while some of them worked to figure out their own path forward.”
Moore said by opening the market, serving as the admin and managing the website and sales tax, it took the pressure off the producers when figuring out how to get products to the market to be sold.
Vendors can bring their products to a drop off location near Clementine and Jimmy Madison’s and Moore will pay them on the spot. Orders online close two days before pick up to allow farmers to have time to harvest and wash their products and for chefs to prepare food.
“As soon as the ordering period closes, we send pre-order lists to our vendors,” she said. “On market day, we print the customer orders and prep the bags, write checks for our vendors and set up on the patio at Clementine. We set up a little market and then take one bag at a time and shop for the items the customer ordered, and then sort them by order number.”
When customers are ready to pick up their items, they can swing through the parking lot, pop open their trunk and have their order placed in their vehicle with no contact.
“It took us a few pickups to perfect our system, but now it feels pretty streamlined and easy,” Moore said. “There is a lot on the back end that happens to make it go smoothly.”
Moore also said she has been trying to pay close attention to what people need in order to stay out of big grocery stores and stay safe. In addition to fresh produce, she added eggs, milk, fresh bread, butter, cheese, coffee and local meat.
She also started offering non-food related items, such as fabric face masks made by Kathryn Richards, and freshly-baked dog biscuit boxes from Blue Ridge Dog to cater to the four-legged customers.
More recently, Moore was able to get strawberries from the southern end of the Valley and sold 175 quarts this week.
“We did this to help others, but it has also helped us build up our brand,” she said. “It’s given us a chance to work with a lot of producers we will use in the restaurant, create a following for some of our own activities including our breads, provide awesome customer service and observe how consumers are behaving and what they’re eating.”
Moore said when she opens Magpie Diner in roughly four weeks, she will likely keep some aspects of the market in addition to having their own restaurant food and experience.
“As Magpie, the restaurant, we know that gathering around food is one of the most basic and necessary points of human connection. As Magpie & Friends Market, I think we’re still embodying that idea in a really meaningful way,” she said. “It’s really about nourishing our community in whatever way we can.”