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Cheesemongering in the Time of COVID: Wisconsin Small Shop Spotlight


COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, upending life as we know it and impacting each of us in ways we never could’ve predicted. And for small businesses facing economic crises on top of health concerns, this pandemic hits especially hard. But these difficult times have also inspired an era of resilience—small cheese shops across the country have been getting creative, finding ways to thrive during these difficult times and even selflessly giving back to those in need. Check out how these businesses in Wisconsin have been coping with the pandemic and using their innate persistence to bounce back. 

(Know a shop that should be featured in this series? Send us a message!)


Larry’s Market

Back in March, this Milwaukee market felt business as they knew it change in a flash. The corporate catering that they relied on was quickly upended, and they had to lay off over 10 of their staff members. “The biggest challenge was not having much time to plan for how we were going to change our model,” says Sarah Cruz, brand and creative director at Larry’s. “It was all very uncharted.”

But Cruz says this unprecedented shift taught the remaining staff how to work together better than before, and they’ve since started taking advantage of the opportunities. They started selling small, customized cheese plates at a larger scale (hello, social distancing) and providing custom boards for virtual tastings that keep customers coming back for more. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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And it’s not just their tried-and-true customer base that keeps coming back. Cruz has noticed more customers visiting the store now than before the pandemic, and she cites safety as part of the reason. “We’ve attracted many new customers that just feel more comfortable getting food from our market, rather than at a big-box [store], where there are higher concentrations of people in one area,” she says.

And let’s face it, there’s an obvious benefit of shopping small that goes beyond safety protocols and personal space. “I think people generally want to support the small guy,” Cruz says. “Everything here is made fresh in-house, and when comfort food calls, people know to come to Larry’s!”  

 

The Village Cheese Shop

For the folks at this Wauwatosa shop, the chaos of running a small business reached a whole new level at the start of the pandemic—especially when it came to balancing safety and communication. “In the past, I always believed the customer who walked through the door received priority over the one who called on the phone. That’s not the case anymore,” says owner Sabina Magyar. “It’s all important now.”

This “new normal” has left The Village Cheese Shop staff splitting their time with sanitizing the store, keeping up with digital orders, and expanding their online presence. Magyar began recording videos of herself highlighting in-store cheeses and accoutrements to maintain that monger-to-consumer interaction. They’ve also started hosting virtual pairing classes, which allow for much larger crowds than the in-person events they were used to. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Throughout all these changes, Magyar and her staff have cherished the support of their loyal customers above everything else. “They go out of their way to support us, ask us how we’re doing, and tell us that they don’t want us to go away because of all of this,” she says. “There’s a strong emphasis in our community to support local small businesses.”

That’s why Magyar is optimistic about finding a silver lining in the age of COVID. “When I take a minute to breathe and push all the stress aside, I see many!” she says. “My online business and virtual classes are here to stay; I’ve reached more customers. And I’m more thankful for my great staff.” 

 

Landmark Creamery

Once the pandemic hit, these cheesemakers had to pivot from their 80-percent wholesale business model to leaning on their small Paoli storefront to connect directly with consumers.  That shift resulted in plenty of unexpected challenges met by the staff.  “It’s a lot more labor to cut and wrap cuts of cheese for retail than to sell whole wheels, for example,” explains co-owner Anna Thomas Bates. 

But it was a challenge they were prepared to face. As soon as sales took a turn, Landmark started collaborating with local farmers to begin shipping cheeses, groceries, cocktail accessories, and more straight to consumers’ doors. “The deliveries have been a new way to connect with customers,” Bates says. “We enjoy seeing what people order, and we sometimes guess if they’re making themselves a really decadent brunch or a kick-ass cheeseboard.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Although shipping and deliveries have slowed a bit due to the hot weather and opening of in-person markets, Bates is hopeful that things will pick up again once the weather cools down and the holiday season starts. In the meantime, they’ve been making the best of the warm weather by hosting outdoor “pop-ups” in front of their shop, an initiative that Bates says makes everyone feel more comfortable and safe as they shop. 

Whatever is in store for Landmark’s future, Bates and the rest of the staff are confident that they’ll be prepared. “The pandemic has definitely taught some valuable lessons on being flexible, and forced us to exercise some very creative muscles,” Bates says. “I think anyone who survives this intact will come out stronger, a lot more creative, and able to weather even more crises in the future.”

Monica Petrucci

Monica is Culture's Social Media Editor. Coming from a formaggio-obsessed Italian family, she was very excited to combine her passions for cheese and writing at Culture. She loves experimenting in the kitchen and pairing wine and cheese in her spare time.

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