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 Jersey and Pennsylvania have been coping with the pandemic and using their innate persistence to bounce back.
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Almost every aspect of Caputo Brothers Creamery’s business operations has changed since the pandemic. They went from selling 90 percent wholesale, with additional revenue from their restaurant, retail shop, and Italian culinary tours; to selling 90 percent to consumers, with their restaurant, shop, and tours shut down. “I’m not sure if the wholesale market will ever really come back the way it was before,” co-owner Rynn Caputo says. “But if we want to ‘weather the storm’, our only option is direct-to-consumer.”
The Spring Grove, Pennsylvania shop has pivoted by hosting virtual tastings and cheesemaking classes, and shipping cheese to thousands of consumers every week. And it’s been a hit. “Word has spread to where we’re having corporations contact us to do [classes] as a staff activity, and families have scheduled zoom parties with each other across different states,” Rynn says. Although the Caputo Brothers staff has been working extra hard to keep sales going, Rynn says morale has remained high, and there haven’t been layoffs—only hiring and promotions.
“We have thrived, not just survived,” Rynn says. “We’ve come together as a team and been very innovative during a time where we could have just closed up shop and said this is too hard.”
Pittsburgh-based Chantal’s Cheese Shop had to make fast and drastic changes to their business in March, and they’re still dealing with the repercussions. “Overnight, we switched to pickup and delivery only … for more than two months, that was the only way we were doing business,” explain husband-and-wife owners Chris and Anaïs Loughran. “The impact has been enormous and unpredictable, placing ourselves and our staff under unprecedented amounts of stress.”
Together with these major changes, Chantal’s has also had to face the cancellation of in-store classes and events and dealing with the subsequent revenue loss. “We had to lean on our DIY marketing skills,” say the Loughrans. The couple worked together to restructure their website and amplify their social media presence, but their lack of an online shop and adequate phone service has made these hurdles all the more difficult.
Still, the Chantal’s team has been able to find silver linings amidst the chaos. They’ve implemented small, specialty cheese plates (perfect for social distancing!) that customers love. “It’s been a big hit for people celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons, and such during quarantine,” the couple says. Their new curbside pickup and delivery offerings have also become increasingly popular, allowing them to reach more customers than ever before—plus the wiggle room to raise $1,000 for 412 Food Rescue through delivery fees.
For the Loughrans, one of the most inspiring parts of this difficult time has been their loyal customer base. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but the response has been overwhelming,” they say. “It seems we are gaining more loyal customers, both in new customers who’ve found out about us during this crisis, and in customers—who were already fans—now shopping more frequently.”
And that positive support and feeling of community is what keeps them determined and optimistic. “Whatever happens in the future, that will stick in the back of our minds, that some people cared—about us, about cheese, about small business, about our community.”
When the staff at this small dairy farm and creamery in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, had to switch gears from wholesale to retail in a matter of weeks, it wasn’t smooth sailing at first. “It did put a small strain on us labor-wise,” says Joselyn Preston, head of sales at Cherry Grove Farm. “Being a small working farm, we only have so much staff.”
But that didn’t discourage them from pushing forward and making it work. The Cherry Grove team readjusted their day-to-day roles to develop a delivery system for local consumers and a pre-ordering method for farmers markets. “We were able to share the load and ultimately push on, in spite of the extra time involved.”
Now, as restaurants open back up and we all transition to this “new normal,” Cherry Grove is coming up with new ways to stay safe and keep their business strong—and that all starts with their staff. Their busy summer months have called for an influx of part-timers, which lead to the idea of socially distant cheese training sessions. “Cheese training helps our staff get to know our farm, our message, and our cheeses in order to better help customers at markets and in the store,” says Preston. “Throughout this entire ordeal, we have really seen a sense of community come back to our area,” Preston says. “The pandemic has made people stop and look at what was around them in their own area, as opposed to their usual shopping spots.”
Maintaining the special bond between mongers and consumers has been paramount for the staff at Olsson’s Fine Foods in Princeton, New Jersey. “The most difficult part was [trying] to keep the personal connection with our community,” says owner Rudie Smit. “We needed to translate this experience onto the internet.”
Since March, the staff has been finding creative ways to maintain that connection while still staying safe. They’ve launched virtual classes, including mozzarella making, pairing sessions, and “Curd Nurds” information sessions—all bringing folks together to learn and savor from home. Now that things are starting to open up, Olsson’s also plans to launch small in-store personal shopping events, where families can sign up for 30-minute time slots to taste cheeses like the good ol’ days.
Smit says one of their most popular successes since the pandemic began has been their Happy Hour Boxes. “We were looking for something that would be both catchy and fitting to get our cheeses out there,” Smit says. “The idea really caught on and we now have quite a few customers who have a Thursday or Friday ‘happy hour’ set up with friends and enjoy our cheeses.”
Although there have been significant hurdles for the business and its staff, Smit says the pandemic has allowed them to get out of their comfort zone and explore new opportunities. “We have definitely become much more internet-oriented and increased sales through the channel by at least 300 percent.” But at the end of the day, no amount of business growth can replace the special face-to-face contact over a cheese case—a tradition that will eventually return—which Smit says “is what every cheesemonger lives for.”