When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and prompted many to begin dining exclusively at home, Chef Tom Gray’s restaurants – Prati Italia and Town Hall – quickly shifted gears to putting together prepared, cook-at-home dishes for his routine customers to pick up – and Gray and his staff were doing their best to figure out how to still connect with their guests during the pandemic.
So when Aaron Gottlieb, a long-time friend of Gray’s and owner of Native Sun Kitchen + Market in Jacksonville Beach, reached out to Gray to collaborate a few months ago, it presented him with the perfect opportunity to branch out into a new foray: culinary products crafted for sale in a retail environment.
Gray had always known there may be a market for his products in grocery stores.
“Over the years, we have had guests ask us to sell them different items from the menu that they loved and wanted to take home, and we would pack them up a container of say, our Pimento Cheese or Sweet Pea Hummus, etc.,” explains Gray. “It was a rare occurrence, but it let us know there was an interest out there.”
Gray and his team set out on the mission of readying their creations for grocery shelves – a process that included revised kitchen and accounting procedures, in-house branding and packaging design, developing new quality control routines, and more, all with a reduced staff that still had two restaurants to run.
They created a line of over a dozen grocery products inspired by his restaurants’ menus, including pantry items like pimento cheese, ricotta, and pasta sauces, as well as fresh pasta and pizza-making kits. The items are available at Native Sun, which re-opened its Jax Beach location late last year after briefly going out of business; select items are also available at Grassroots Market in Five Points as well as through Front Porch Pickings.
Gray hopes that his new line of products will ease the challenges of nightly cooking created by the pandemic.
“I don’t know too many people making pizzas from scratch on a Wednesday night, or pasta and sauces from scratch on any given Friday after a full day of work and school,” explains Gray, “but with the products we have created, and the retailers helping to make it available, it is all now possible!”
A full breakdown of Gray’s line of products is available on his company’s website, which also offers several recipes to help customers utilize the products.
“One of the neatest things about this new venture is that it continues to strengthen our community bonds and relationships with other business owners and guests alike,” says Gray. “It also allows us to expand our reach to other parts of town. For example, there is a good chance that a lot of people who live at the beach, where Native Sun is located, would not have dined with us at Prati Italia at the Town Center because it is not convenient to them or they didn’t realize we were locally-owned. And maybe through that, they learn we also have Town Hall, our beautiful restaurant in San Marco.”
“Now,” he adds, “we can bring the flavors of our restaurants to guests more easily across all parts of Jacksonville!”
To learn more about Chef Tom and his restaurants, check out his company website.