Beach Cafe in Manhattan advertises free toilet paper and gloves with every order.

Melissa Repko | CNBC

Buy a meal, get a free roll of toilet paper. 

Restaurants are turning to bundling in-demand consumer products with food and drinks to reach out to their communities even as the future of their businesses is unclear. 

States have closed dining rooms, forcing eateries to pivot to takeout and delivery. Total restaurant transactions plunged 36% during the week ended March 22 from a year earlier, according to the NPD Group.

Many U.S. consumers are eating only the food in their pantries, refrigerators and freezers after stocking up at the grocery store in preparation for the pandemic. Stockpiling also left some shoppers unable to find goods like toilet paper and cleaning supplies. But restaurants have different supply chains.

“The supply chain on paper goods wasn’t too badly disrupted for restaurants,” said John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs Hospitality Group.

Several weeks ago, Dave Goodside, owner of Beach Cafe on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, asked his paper vendor for 10 cases of toilet paper, or about 800 rolls. The cafe offers one free toilet paper roll and two pairs of polyethylene gloves, typically used for food preparation, with every order. Goodside estimates that Beach Cafe is filling about 20 to 30 orders a night.

“It costs us a little bit of money, but we think it’s a good idea, and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” Goodside said. “I don’t think anyone’s coming here to get food because it’s a free roll of toilet paper, but it’s a pleasant surprise.”

Jenn McCoy, brand expert and vice president of digital marketing agency Blue Fountain Media, said customers will remember these services with a positive light once the outbreak ends. 

Kunkel has temporarily shuttered all his restaurants, except for the Miami Beach location of Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, which is offering takeout and delivery. For $82, customers will receive two dozen pieces of chicken, mac and cheese, biscuits, a bottle of water, a bottle of wine and a roll of toilet paper. The restaurant also has a pricier family meal for $118 that also offers bottled water and toilet paper.

For him, adding toilet paper is one way to make Yardbird’s takeout or delivery experience unique.

“I think all of those fun things, looking for ways to stand out, has always been the name of the game and to provide a really interesting dining experience,” Kunkel said. “So how do you do that with takeout and delivery?”

For more than a week, Denver-based Chocolate Lab has been selling Cottonelle toilet paper for $1.65 per roll. The restaurant and chocolate store has also been trying to obtain hand sanitizer. 

“It was brought in to help get a little more traffic out of our space. The other part is that we don’t want people to go without and not have the basic essentials that they need,” owner Phil Simonson said.

While Chocolate Lab’s restaurant sales have fallen, chocolate sales are keeping the business afloat. Still, he said he has laid off most of his employees and is cutting spending wherever possible.

Not all giveaways will foster goodwill. A Calgary, Alberta, location of Subway sparked backlash after it began a promotion for a free face mask for every purchase of two sandwiches. Face masks are in short supply, leaving front-line workers vulnerable to catching the virus. Subway Canada has since apologized, and the location has pulled the promotion.

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