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Personal Touch

Massage therapist. Tattoo artist. Hairdresser. These are a few of the professions that require physical human interaction, if not constant human touch. In recent months, we’ve seen previously contact-centric businesses pivot to meet the needs of their clients without putting themselves and others at risk of infection. In the most unfortunate cases, we’ve seen these kinds of businesses close until further notice. 

Add cheesemonger to the list of professions that rely on IRL encounters. The “try before you buy” dance is a given in pretty much all cut-to-order cheese shops, and sometimes the (free!) samples are the cheese counter’s main draw. Since tasting is out of the question at most shops these days, how can mongers assert their expertise and upsell with confidence?

In true cheese industry fashion, this conundrum was met with creativity: enter Curds & Co. of Massachusetts and Texas-based Antonelli’s Cheese Shop. Intrigued, I took advantage of their new “remote mongering” services to see how—and if—they worked. 

Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Austin, TX

At 5:00 p.m. sharp, retail manager Nicholas Kadrlik’s face suddenly appears on my laptop screen, apparently overjoyed to see me. He greets me with a, “I’m so glad you could join us today!” as I fumble to adjust my volume and tilt my monitor so I don’t look like a startled potato. We’re using the GoToMeeting app, Antonelli’s chosen platform for their new Cheesemonger Live service. Shoppers register for a fifteen-minute appointment on Antonelli’s website, after which they are sent a verification code and several reminders to meet their monger on the nearest available screen when the time comes. Kadrlik uses his smartphone to video chat with me, leaving him free to roam about the shop, which is empty save for several of his fellow (masked) mongers. He’s clearly already a pro at this new medium.

“Aside from a couple tech issues, it’s been pretty smooth,” Kadrlik says of Cheesemonger Live. He tells me customers have adapted quite well to the new shopping format. He estimates that Antonelli’s staff receives an average of five video calls a day, with the majority of orders coming by phone and e-commerce. There is a dedicated “call center” point person for every eight-hour shift, whose sole job it is to field phone orders while staying physically isolated from the rest of the staff. Since Cheesemonger Live requires the monger to be on the shop floor, the staff members take turns answering those calls.  

Eager to see the cheese case, I give Kadrlik a sample shopping scenario: I’m trying to put together a plate with three cheeses for myself and my quarantine buddy. I tell him I like blue, but that my cohort prefers milder, sheepy cheeses. Kadrlik flips his phone camera around and gets eye-level with the case so we can peruse the selection together. Our conversation turns to taste, texture, and pungency, the familiarity of cheese talk putting us both at ease and evaporating any awkwardness of having to sell and shop virtually from over 2,000 miles away. Though Kadrlik expresses some frustration over his inability to taste out his recommendations (“I just want to feed you!”), his verbal descriptions of his favorites are enough to paint a thorough gustatory picture. 

“Retail sales have doubled, even tripled [since the initial shutdown],” he tells me, bringing me over to look at the meat case after we settle on cheeses. “As you can see, our meat selection is…I’ll say, ‘un-full.’ We’re having to re-order product again.” This would be a pretty unglamorous statement if made at any other time, but amid business closures and stay-at-home orders, it’s amazing Antonelli’s is seeing enough business to fill their wholesale order forms. 

In a separate conversation, co-owner John Antonelli tells me that it’ll be interesting to see if customers continue to shop virtually once the country opens back up. “The bright side is that this has forced us to do many things that were on our list for years,” he says. The shop recently launched their first “Cheese 101 in a Box” class, and has been uploading YouTube videos regularly that cover cheese tastings, maker interviews, and pairings. “We never did [this] in the past because we thought it had to be perfect,” Antonelli says. “No time for that now! So we’re focusing on ‘progress, not perfection.’”

The shop fulfills orders through contactless curbside pick-up and nationwide shipping, and provides its staff with fresh produce to limit their exposure to the outside world. There has been a shelter-in-place order in Austin since March 24, and it’s unclear whether the May 8 expiration date will hold. Clearly, the safety of their staff is a top priority, and one that Antonelli’s will not compromise despite the downsides of the restrictions. 

“Ultimately, we miss people,” says Antonelli. “It’s always been about people, and we can’t wait to see their smiling faces and happy dances again. He’s glad for the chance to innovate, continue to create community through cheese, and utilize his staff’s talents in new ways. “That being said,” he adds, “we can’t wait for our whole team to get a good night’s rest and not worry about potential work curveballs the next day!”

Curds & Co., Brookline, MA

This “21st-century cheese shop” has a reputation for its tech savvy. Among their trendy offerings is a monthly subscription service that delivers a themed box of cheese and accompaniments to your door, along with a link to an instructional video and a curated Spotify playlist. Owner Jenn Mason hosts a podcast with artist Julie Fei-Fan Balzer in which they unravel the stories behind their favorite cheeses and pairings. The shop even designed an app that enables users to track and make notes on their favorite (or least favorite) cheeses. To say they’ve got the hang of “digital mongering” is an understatement. 

In light of Massachusetts’ relatively strict COVID-19 response, however, Curd’s & Co. is kickin’ it fairly old school with their new TELE-Monger service. Customers register on the website for a fifteen-minute appointment, and when the time comes they receive a good old-fashioned phone call from the delightful Gillian Dana, assistant retail manager at the shop’s Boston Public Market location. That storefront has temporarily closed, so Dana has relocated to Brookline and spends her days on the phone with customers, assembling orders, processing payments, and getting packages ready for contactless pickup in time for the next phone call. 

“It’s like the day before Thanksgiving, every day,” says Dana. “I’ve never worked harder in my life than I am right now. This is the first time I’ve sat down all day.” (Our call was at 5:40 p.m.) Between the added physical work of heaving 50-pound deliveries of flour and other dry goods around the store, rushing to complete orders, and, in her words, “being the positivity” in each customer service interaction, Dana says she and her fellow mongers are working a lot harder these days. Curds & Co. has instituted a couple of Monger Appreciation Days, during which the store closes so the staff can rest and recuperate amid the ongoing shutdown.

When life as we know it came to a halt in late March, Dana and her coworkers were expecting their hours cut in half, if not suspended altogether. Instead, the staff received hazard raises of $2 an hour, and they remain busy from open to close. (Curds & Co. was the recipient of a Paycheck Protection loan and an Economic Injury Disaster advance in April.) Dana says she receives a lot of orders for birthdays, special occasions, and condolences, all placed by friends and family members who can’t physically be with their loved ones.

Many regular customers of the shop have kept their recurring weekly orders, telling Dana that they’d rather give Curds & Co. the business than a larger store. She’s been getting quite a few calls, however, from first-timers who are stuck at home and finally satisfying their curiosity about the shop. “There’s a lot more of, ‘Surprise me with whatever, I’ve got nothing else to do, and it would be kind of fun to not know what’s going to happen next’—in a good way,” she adds. 

Dana stands in front of the cheese case during these calls, rattling off product descriptions with increasing deftness. “I love words anyways, so it’s been a good test for me to find the best way to describe these things without people being able to taste them in person,” she says. And she’s thankful for the opportunity: her roommate has been out of town, so her main human contact comes in the form of these strangers on the phone. “The fact that I want to talk to them really helps,” she says, laughing. 

When I ask her if she’ll be glad to see the TELE-Monger service end once restrictions are lifted, she has a mixed reaction. “I’ve kind of developed regulars, and I don’t really know what they look like, but we have these really nice relationships,” she says. “I get a little bit of TMI from some people, but it’s kind of fun! I hope we have some kind of version of it, after this ends.” 

Margaret Leahy

Margaret Leahy is a Contributing Editor at culture.

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