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Cheesemongering in the Time of COVID: New England Shops


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 New England 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!)


Curds & Co.

This Brookline, Massachusetts shop was accustomed to being busy before COVID. But nothing prepared them for the rush that came with the pandemic lockdown. “It honestly was like the holidays, except every day. We were exhausted,” says store manager Gillian Dana. “The biggest shift for us was not having that customer interaction, and just seeing names on tickets that would be flying in all day.” Dana knew the staff would have to come up with a way to pivot their business model in order to maintain their special connection with customers. 

“I was sitting at my desk brainstorming: ‘People can’t come in the store, so how do I still make mongering happen? How do we still carry out our mission of cheese education for customers?’ And thus, tele-mongering was born,” she says. The service allows customers to call in for a free one-on-one shopping experience with Dana without having to step foot in the store. “At the beginning, we had a phone line for people to call at-will. It got so popular that we had to start making appointments.” 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Soon, Dana became known as “the cheese therapist,” providing cheese recommendations and pairing insight for cheese lovers over the phone—something she had been missing since lockdown started. “It was really fun for me because I got a lot of human connection through this,” she says. “It was like I had this group of friends I’ve never technically met, and we all could bond over life’s greatest gifts—wine and cheese.” Even today, as their store has re-opened for in-person shopping, Dana says she still gets plenty of tele-mongering calls—an initiative she now refers to as “her favorite project of the century.” 

 

The Cheese Iron

Putting the health of their staff and loved ones first, co-owners Jill Dutton and Vince Maniaci decided to shut down their Scarborough, Maine shop to visitors and resort to curbside-only in mid-March. And although that meant fewer hours of work, they felt as busy as ever. “We were personal shopping, running it through the register, and bringing it out to our customers. It was hard and time-consuming work,” they say. “We thought maybe this would last a few months—tops.”

Seven months later, they’re still offering curbside service three days a week—with the option of walk-in “Market Days” on Wednesdays and Fridays. “We’re appealing to those who want to maintain distance, but also those who need their visual The Cheese Iron fix,” they say. “It’s been working well for us.” 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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In addition to keeping their own shop afloat, the couple has also been doing what they can to assist local cheesemakers during this time. “We tried to keep cheeses in quick rotation, so we could continue to order from the small cheesemakers that were seeing a virtual standstill,” they explain. “We did this by creating mini cheese boxes with local cheeses. They were and still are a big success.” These mini boxes (perfect for socially distant gatherings) along with their to-go prepared comfort foods (think: coq au vin and sausage baked ziti) have kept their cheese-craving customers coming back for more. “It’s rough out there, and our customers want the comfort of their favorite cheeses and treats,” they say. “We couldn’t have done this without our loyal base constantly shopping with us.”

 

Formaggio Kitchen

When lockdown began, this Cambridge, Massachusetts shop—like many others—had to shut down completely, resorting to curbside pick-up and delivery methods only. A few months later, they had to switch things up again to safely reopen. “We are constantly changing our model to better accommodate our customers, improve the shopping experience, and support the staff,” explains monger Julia Hallman. “These changes can be difficult to keep track of, but it feels like everyone understands that we are doing this to inch back towards normalcy.”

Although we haven’t quite returned to the era of “normalcy” we had before the pandemic, the Formaggio Kitchen staff has found ways to keep customers satisfied in the meantime.  They’ve implemented cheese tastings, monger features, picnics, and private events—all virtually—that participants have loved. And with the holiday season coming up, they only see more opportunity for creative connections. “We’re going to start doing a cheese ‘menu’ for folks who are new to cheese, with themes and custom selections from our mongers. We’re also going to do private Zoom monger sessions to assist customers with their holiday selection,” Hallman explains. “Our philosophy is that 2020 has been a crap year for everyone, so we are trying to make the shopping experience as fun and easy as possible—while still being safe.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Hallman says she has her hardworking staff to thank for all their mid-pandemic success. “I couldn’t have done half of the things we have done without their initiative and creativity,” she says. “Everyone on staff has been thoughtful and passionate about creating a great shopping experience for our customers during a hard time, and the customers seem to really feel that.”

 

Dedalus 

For the folks at Dedalus Wine Shop in Burlington, Vermont, one of the first jarring signs of change was halting their in-store samples. “A major challenge became how to sell cheeses to people who couldn’t use all their senses to interact with the product,” explains culture director Ashley Bryant. “We had to get creative and help contextualize our cheeses to guests online and over the phone. Once guests were permitted back in the shop, we focused on storytelling behind the counter.”

Before their doors opened back up, though, the Dedalus staff acted as customers’ personal shoppers in-store, curating wine and cheese sets by hand and preparing them for curbside pickup, delivery, and nationwide shipping. They also implemented virtual cheese and wine tastings as a way to maintain that face-to-face connection with customers. “A silver lining was that we reached more guests at once with these virtual tastings than we typically would for in-person events,” Bryant says. The tastings connected consumers directly to producers, allowing them to ask questions about their favorite products in real time. “It was an amazing opportunity to convey to guests how important these relationships with cheesemakers are, and to take a deep dive into how cheese is made,” Bryant says. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Now that their shop is up and running again—with plenty of safety precautions—Bryant says they’ve learned a lot from their lockdown period that will alter their perspective going forward. “Refocusing our stories on cheesemakers and the importance of small farmers gave us a strong base for the way we want the counter to run 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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