A distillery makes hand sanitizer, a restaurant sells toilet paper: How food businesses are doing COVID-19 pivots

Three East Bay food and drink businesses have switched up their business models to keep going in the shelter-in-place era.

Falcon Spirits Distillery in Richmond.
Falcon Spirits Distillery in Richmond has put spirits on the back burner to prioritize making hand sanitizer for first responders and local organizations in need. Photo: Falcon Spirits Distillery

With the Bay Area shelter-in-place order (and now, California’s stay-at-home order) put in place for the foreseeable future, some local food and drink businesses have had to do a major pivot to stay open. Here’s a look at three East Bay businesses that have changed their business models to keep going and keep serving their communities, too.

Falcon Spirits Distillery: Hand sanitizer for people like first responders

One could say that Farid Dormishian of Falcon Spirits Distillery is turning lemons into lemonade. The Richmond-based distiller is known for his award-winning bottles of gin and Amaro. But soon he may become better known for providing local first responders with a product that isn’t usually locally and artisanally made: hand sanitizer.

“Last week we decided we’re not going to ship any more orders out,” Dormishian said, “this was more important. We retooled and we’re now trying to get through the red tape, as we want to be sure everything is being done legally and safely.”

As a distiller of spirits, Dormishian regularly deals with three agencies: the Food and Drug Administration, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. For this project, he has been in touch with all three. When dealing with a product with alcohol in it, there’s a lot of red tape, but on Thursday, Dormishian received final approval to make hand sanitizer.

Dormishian noted some other distillers are starting to do the same thing. While the majority are using safe ingredients, he said he was disturbed that a few distillers were using methanol and acetone. 

“People should not be washing their hands with acetone or methanol,” he warned. “It will work, but it is toxic if you use a lot of it at high concentration. It will also damage your skin and make you more vulnerable to the virus.”

When Dormishian spoke to Nosh, he said he was waiting for a shipment of glycerin, which moisturizes the skin. He is using the World Health Organization (WHO) hand sanitizer recipe, which also includes ethanol, hydrogen peroxide and distilled water.

Since founding Falcon in 2011, Dormishian has donated profits to local charities. When the COVID-19 crisis started, Dormishian realized he could make a difference by making the hand sanitizer at cost and giving it to the community; he doesn’t want to profit off the pandemic.

“For us it’s very easy to do. It’s basically a blending process, which is what we do anyway and distillers are well-versed in that,” he said.

Dormishian said since starting the project, he has only been at the distillery and his home to limit the chance of exposure to COVID-19.

So far, the city of Berkeley has ordered 1,000 bottles from Falcon, Dormishian said. While he isn’t supplying his hand sanitizer to individuals, organizations or first responders who need it can call him at (510) 206-0596. He is charging a fee to cover the cost of raw materials only.

Co Nam: Offering groceries as well as food

Co Nam, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland.
Co Nam, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, has expanded its menu to include grocery staples and non-Vietnamese foods. Photo: Co Nam

When Trung Nguyen, co-owner of Co Nam, went to a grocery store recently to stock up on staples for his family, he found empty shelves in the wake of coronavirus-inspired panic buying. It got Nguyen wondering, what if his restaurant began offering staples, too?

Like others in the restaurant industry, when the shelter-in-place order was announced, Nguyen was thinking about how to keep his business open by doing more than just offering take-out and delivery. He runs Co Nam, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Temescal district of Oakland, with his wife Vy Lieou; they also own Xyclo, a Vietnamese eatery on Piedmont Avenue. Along with looking for a way to retain and keep paying their employees, the couple wanted a solution that might also better serve the community during this new reality.

Nguyen realized that he could do both with one plan, by having Co Nam sell groceries and even some household items along with its regular menu.

While supermarket shelves can be empty, restaurant distributors still have plenty and sell it at a cheaper cost to restaurants who buy in high volume. So now, along with vermicelli bowls and pho, Co Nam offers eggs, milk, and yes, even toilet paper.

The restaurant also expanded its menu beyond Vietnamese fare, offering burgers, spaghetti and meatballs, and a children’s menu.

“We love Asian food but sometimes my daughter wants French fries or mac and cheese,” Ngyuen said.

Co Nam is also offering a weekly meal subscription of its Vietnamese dishes, priced at a 15%-20% discount in comparison to its a la cart menu. A week’s worth of dinners is $96 and a week’s worth of lunches and dinners is $158.

“We can offer a 20% discount since we can plan ahead and make things in bulk,” Nguyen explained.

Diners can pick up meals, or have them delivered by the restaurant. The Co Nam owners have chosen not to use a third-party delivery service in order to give work to the staff who, given the closure of dine-in services, no longer have regular duties.

“We’re converting servers and bartenders into couriers and delivery people,” he said. “We can at least give them minimum wages and customers will hopefully give them tips, and then, we hopefully can employ them in a way that can cover their expenses,” said Nguyen.

Since Co Nam has a restaurant in San Francisco as well, Trung said between the three places, that’s up that’s 50 families he’s responsible for.

“I need to keep my family as well as my employees going. I’m not sure how to keep them on the payroll so I’m trying something different,” he said. “The money isn’t coming in like before, but the bills are still coming.”

Co Nam’s new menus are online. Order for delivery or pick-up at 3936 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.

Anaviv Catering & Events: Serving drive-through pizza

Anaviv Catering & Events owner Arnon Oren (middle) and staff are now making wood-fired pizzas available for purchase from a drive-through station set up in their parking lot in Richmond.
Anaviv Catering & Events owner Arnon Oren (middle) and staff make wood-fired pizzas at a drive-through station set up in their parking lot in Richmond. Photo: Anaviv Catering & Events

This weekend in the East Bay, a man will celebrate his 60th birthday with his partner, along with seven other couples. All the guests will enjoy hors d’oeuvres before tucking in to a five-course meal. Given the times, though, the couples will have to heat the celebratory food themselves in their own kitchens. And they will eat at their own dining room tables in their own homes, and will converse with the other revelers virtually. The food, though, will be delivered to them that day by Anaviv Catering & Events.

In normal times, Anaviv’s owner Arnon Oren estimates that his Richmond-based catering company feeds around 700 people a day through its corporate lunches (that division is called Oren’s Kitchen) and that in an average month, it caters around 10 events. This is all on top of operating Anaviv’s Table, the small, coursed menu farm-to-table restaurant Oren opened over a year ago.

When concerns of COVID-19 caused the cancellation of large events, Oren pivoted by offering his catering staff as personal chefs to cook intimate dinners in people’s homes. But with the shelter-in-place in effect, that’s been halted.

With months worth of catering gigs now canceled and dine-in services halted, Oren had to think of new ways to keep his staff of 25 employed.

Cars filled with hungry diners line up to get pizza at Anaviv's drive-through set up.
Cars filled with hungry diners line up for at Anaviv’s first pizza event, now a regular offering. Photo: Anaviv Catering & Events

Last weekend, Anaviv’s staff made pizzas in a wood-fired oven that could be picked up outside at a drive-through station set up in the company’s parking lot. The pizza was so successful that they’re now being offered regularly, from noon-6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. And on Friday through Sundays, Anaviv will add barbecue tri-tip, chicken and sides.

In addition, Anaviv now also offers meals for parties of two. The menu changes each week, with a choice of five entrees. This week, portions for two of prime rib, for example, costs $32, and turmeric-marinated organic chicken with bergamot, lemon and sumac yogurt sauce is $22 for a two-person serving. The entrees can be ordered for pick-up or delivery.

Everyone who works for Oren is now taking on different duties. Together as a staff, they have discussed how cuts could be made to keep things going for as long as possible.

Like others interviewed, Oren said he had no idea life would change so drastically so quickly.

“The idea is just to have enough work for me to pay my employees, that’s my goal at this moment,” he said.

Anaviv’s Table’s to-go menu is offered for delivery or pick-up at 600 Hoffman Blvd., Richmond. There is a $50 minimum for delivery.