By now you know the drill: All events are canceled; restaurants are devastated. But the event-staging non-profit Better Block and the restaurant Oddfellows in Bishop Arts have managed to combine forces to figure out a way to confront the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic with an experiment in innovative urbanism.
This coming weekend, Better Block, the tactical urbanism group launched by Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard about a decade ago, was set to have an event in Allen, where they would stage one of their usual street transformations—painting bike lanes, sprucing up storefronts, adding greenery, and generally showing how we can make our streets more humane. That’s canceled, of course. Roberts has instead been more focused on figuring out how to manage his Bishop Arts businesses—including Oddfellows and Revelers Hall—which, like every other restaurant and bar, are really struggling right now.
One way they are coping is by leveraging Better Block’s approach to adaptive urbanism, transforming Oddfellows into the kind of restaurant that makes sense during a pandemic quarantine. The Better Block crew had constructed several wooden market stalls that were going to be used for a pop-up outdoor market in the Allen project. Now, they’ve used them to turn Oddfellows into an actual outdoor market, stocking the shelves with the restaurant’s stock and selling neighbors staples that may be difficult to find at the stores that remain open.
“We were going to take a parking lot and transform it into a main street,” Roberts said. “So, we designed some market furniture. And when that got postponed, [Oddfellows co-owner] Amy [Cowan] and I were talking about what we were doing about all this inventory. Is there anything we can do to keep some people on board?”
Most of the Oddfellows staff was let go over the weekend and were quickly moved onto unemployment. But the restaurant has held onto a small crew to prepare to-go orders and, now, staff the market.
“The grocery stores are running out of things and we have plenty of things, especially the staples,” Roberts says. “We started pulling out everything in the back fridge. It’s been pretty good. We’re not killing it, but there’s been a trickle of folks coming in, buying their oranges. Chef’s in the back. We have sirloin and pork chops. Let’s go ahead and vacuum seal these up.”
Roberts says many of the market customers show up to pick up a to-go order and then grab a few pantry items when they discover the market. It’s a genius move. Oddfellows has improvised a business model around their excess inventory that also fulfills a vital neighborhood need. The markets is outdoor, which means its safer and can easily incorporate social distancing. According to Roberts, they’re currently selling butter, milk, eggs, fruit, veggies, cuts of meat, bottles of wine, and fresh bread. Plus, you can order coffee and food from the restaurant’s windows. Things are still tough, of course, but at least Oddfellows has found an innovative way to adapt to a very difficult situation.
Now Roberts says he’s focused on figuring out how to generate income for the Revelers Hall band. While most of the bar and restaurant staff at his Bishop Arts’ joints have been able to move onto unemployment, the band members are paid as third-party contractors. Roberts says they are now looking into ideas like a drive-in concert or a neighborhood second line as a way to stage public performances at a time when no one is supposed to be in public.