In this weird new world, cheesemongers are among those front-line workers exposing themselves to potential health threats. Cheese is both a comfort food and a specialty item, but many shops with cheese counters are considered essential as a type of grocery store. The necessity of sustenance affords mongers a guaranteed income amid COVID-19-related shutdowns, even if that payoff comes with a price.
Cheese shops across the US have responded with gusto to new challenges posed by the pandemic. Online offerings and sales have increased tremendously. Shops without prior delivery services have gone mobile, and some are broadcasting their pairing tutorials on the interwebs. A few shops are even “catering” cheese parties with social distancing care packages and virtual guided tastings.
In Newburyport, Massachusetts, The Cheese Market at Leary’s Fine Wines & Spirits is no stranger to delivery orders, but traffic has certainly heated up over the past month. “As of today, curbside and delivery orders account for probably 70 percent of our business,” says Meredith Fitzgerald, manager and Certified Cheese Professional at The Cheese Market. Fitzgerald and her team send out emails to their customers describing curated boxes, which can include any combination of cheeses, meats, preserves, and beverages. In addition to specialty items, Fitzgerald says the century-old liquor-and-cheese shop has begun carrying staple groceries like milk, eggs, pasta, and toilet paper. Contact between customers and staff is limited by plexiglass curtains and six-foot buffer zones, but Leary’s wants to be sure the visit is worth customers’ while.
In spite of it all, “I think we feel a little more connected to our customers, and they to us,” says Fitzgerald.
Newburyport is a small city in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts, with a population of just over 18,000. Though there have been several positive cases of COVID-19 reported there, the risk is still fairly low for the city’s food service and retail workers, especially if those businesses follow CDC guidelines for sanitation and social distancing. In larger cities, however, mongers have a different tale to tell.
“I don’t even have time to restock our shelves, and have closed the doors to only take online orders as a result,” says Eris Schack, Director of Operations at Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn, New York. The majority of Bedford’s employees have been laid off or are staying away from work to avoid getting sick or infecting others. New York is currently the epicenter for the US coronavirus outbreak with over 7,000 confirmed cases as of April 14, so any contact with the outside world puts residents at risk.
“I think I’m just starting to get a little sad about it all, and yet still prideful at seeing my own shop change from a fancy cheese shop to an essential service during a time of need,” says Schack, winner of the 2018 Cheesemonger Invitational. “I don’t run a cheese shop anymore, I run a food bank.”
As a rule, cheese shops are some of the cleanest retail businesses around; it’s not unusual to encounter a fully ServSafe-certified staff equipped with bottles of sanitizer under every counter. These days shops are going above and beyond by sanitizing high-touch surfaces and equipment by the hour, limiting the number of customers present at one time, offering gloves and hand sanitizer to customers upon entry, and limiting contact between staff and patrons with plexiglass sheets and floor tape. Cheese sample tastings, which can make or break a purchase, are suspended. As restrictive as these measures might appear, they’re seemingly bringing cheese lovers closer together.
Liz Nerud, Certified Cheese Professional and the cheese manager at Kowalski’s in Woodbury, Minnesota, is energized by the new hurdles faced by cheesemongers in the age of COVID-19. “Super specialty artisan cheeses have become much more of a challenge to sell,” she says, adding that familiar favorites like cheddar and mozzarella are seeing an uptick in sales. “We now rely on conversations with our customers to describe artisan cheeses and move our delicious offerings.” Not one to be stymied by this challenge, Nerud has dotted her cheese case with pictures of artisan cheesemakers, accompanied by directives to buy local and support independent farmers and makers. “We have long recognized that the monger is the Storyteller-in-Chief,” she says. “Now is the time to tell the story more than ever! Our depth of knowledge and ability to share that is paramount.”
Nerud is grateful for the continued connection to customers, even as stress levels are at an all-time high (Minneapolis is experiencing a relatively low COVID-19 caseload, with 45 confirmed as of April 14). “We like to think that we provide more than just a business transaction,” she says. “Our customers are our community. It’s times like these when conversations that start out [with] cheese become check-ins about each other’s well-being.” Despite the fear of exposure, Nerud is proud of the service she provides. “The relationships we have developed over the years are lifelines to comfort and normalcy,” she says. “It’s the intangible part of being an ‘essential worker.’”
For those who can afford to do it, buying artisan cheese can serve as a lifeline to smaller makers. “Consumers need to buy cheese,” says Fitzgerald. “They need to understand how connected we all are through [our] food. Small dairies and cheesemakers are closing because their margins were already so tight before this happened.”
Both Fitzgerald and Nerud cite the importance of keeping in touch with fellow mongers during the pandemic. “Cheese people talk to each other constantly,” says Fitzgerald. “I have participated in several [virtual meetings] with mongers, distributors, and even makers, where we are all trying to figure out next steps.”
Nerud is encouraged by the support she sees in the community on social media. “The cheese industry has always [counted] generosity and friendship as an unspoken code,” she says. “We are a strong, intelligent, and resourceful lot. We are fighting the good fight together.”