Ben Hall

Ben Hall sits in his empty dining room at Hall’s Gas House in Fort Wayne.

While Ben Hall sits on the dining room stairs of his nearly deserted downtown Fort Wayne restaurant — the normal crowds of hungry customers robbed by the COVID-19 shutdown — he sees a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

The general manager of Hall’s Gas House restaurant, located at 305 E. Superior St., has opened his doors — and excess inventory — to those who might not be able to get what they need at regular stores during these trying times of restaurant shutdowns and grocery hoarding.

Begun with just a simple social media post, Hall is calling his makeshift grocery, The Water Street Mercantile, after the historic name for Superior Street.

“It just kind of took off overnight,” Hall said, “and it’s been pretty active already.”

Posted on Facebook and other social media sites, a post read: “My place of employment is adding a market to help get through the hard times. I ask if you can, support it for some basic shopping needs. They have their place but big box stores won’t feed the hit nearly as hard! There has been talks of expanding the items if it catches traction. Please share! Love y’all!”

Hall said about 10 people already were waiting to shop at the “store” when he opened his doors at 11 a.m. March 18, the first day. He estimated he probably sold about $400 worth of food to the shoppers.

He noted that that was probably more than his business would make through carry-out orders, which is all he’s allowed to conduct after Indiana Gov. Eric Holmcomb shuttered restaurant dining rooms March 16. “We did more business in the first half of today than we would have done all day from carry-out,” he said.

From his restaurant’s stockpiles, Hall was offering a mix of items, from eggs ($2 a dozen), to steaks, chicken, and fish (salmon and tuna), and various produce (tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, onions, mushrooms, pineapples, limes, oranges and lemons, among others), to salad dressings, cheese, beer, and wines.

“Shoppers” were given an inventory card — crafted by Hall himself — with a laundry list of food that the eatery had on hand, and circled what they wanted to buy.

Restaurant workers — Hall guessed about five of his staff were helping — would gather the items on the shoppers’ lists, and even carry them out to their car, if they wanted.

Hall said deciding to sell off the food was an easy choice. “We just have all this inventory for the restaurant that up until two days ago, we were using for our diners,” Hall said. “We’re just sitting on a bunch of food, mostly produce.

“If it doesn’t go like this, it’s got to go some way.”

The Mercantile’s selection card even offered shoppers the option to request items not on the card. “Anything else you might need … toilet paper, maybe … let us know and our expert staff will take a look in our not-so-vast warehouse of goods.”

Hall said creating the “store” was not just good because it gave his staff — left inactive because of the restaurant shutdown — something productive to do, but because it helps the community at large.

“If you’re just needing a couple of things to throw in the fridge,” Hall said, “we got that.

“It ain’t Trader Joe’s,” Hall joked, “but it’s here.”

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