Picture it: a sprawling array of various meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and dips meticulously arranged across a large table, surrounded by people picking and choosing from the spread for their snacking pleasure. Does any image scream "pre-COVID relic" louder? Before the pandemic, the charcuterie platter and grazing table trend was at an all-time high, but what happens to a craze that revolves almost entirely around sharing when large gatherings are taboo, and some people are wary of ever mingling again?
"The pandemic changed everything about our business," says Sarah Simms, founding partner of Lady & Larder in L.A. "Within 72 hours of Los Angeles shutting down in March of 2020, we lost all of our weddings and even deposits for that year and the following year. Everyone asked for a refund, understandably. Up until that point, 85% of our sales were catering for large events or weddings." According to Stephanie Blair, founder of Graze Abilene in Abilene, Texas, grazing tables for parties, weddings, and other events made up about 80% of her business, so of course, when COVID hit, her profits took a hit as well.
While elaborate arrangements of meats and cheeses are traditionally enjoyed by groups or even crowds, there are individuals who love charcuterie so much that they would gladly devour a personal board while sitting on their couch with a glass of wine and Netflix buzzing in the background. That was true even before the pandemic forced us to stay home and only associate with smaller pods. Thanks in large part to social media and wildly popular Instagram accounts like @thatcheeseplate, millennials and Gen-Z in particular have taken to consuming cheese plates at home in recent years. Now that there is a lot less partying, charcuterie catering businesses have tapped into that niche, which has grown to include customers of all ages.
Lady & Larder still makes boards, but now those boards are mostly small. They offer a "date-night" size, which serves two people; mini-boxes, which serve one; and cheese-filled gift baskets for local delivery and nationwide shipping. Graze Abilene has also been making individual picnic boxes and date-night boxes. Though these scaled-down spreads were first thought up for wine and cheese nights at home or intimate picnics outside, Blair says that people have been ordering them to be used in ways she'd never even considered. "I had people buying 12 boxes a week and they were just stocking their fridge at home so their kids had something healthy to grab and go," she shares. "It's really been fun to see how people use them. I had a delivery just yesterday from a woman who lives out of town, who said, 'It's my mom's 60th birthday this month and since we can't come to visit, we are sending her something really unique once a week to remind her how much we love her' so we delivered that one as a birthday gift yesterday."
While these boxes certainly fill a need and even serve some creative functions, they don't exactly live up to one of the most adored aspects of charcuterie boards: impressive aesthetics. "The picnic boxes are a little more difficult to make look super presentable because it's a sealed, clear plastic container. It's colorful, but it doesn't really give that same effect that an elegant platter does," Blair admits. It's not just Instagrammers who care about the look of charcuterie boards, the Graze Abilene owner says that their beauty was one of the main reasons she started her business. "It's an art form and a creative release for me," she explains. "So in the beginning, when we were doing all these individual servings in these little closed paper boxes, it really took all of that away and it kind of took the joy out of it for me too. It may have filled a need, but I knew that it could be so much more." Since the start of this pivot to personal boxes, Blair and her team have worked to find the right packaging, arrangements, and garnishes to provide that wow factor that she and others look for in a cheese plate. "We all know that we eat with our eyes first, and I wanted to try and honor that as best I could while still being safe."
One especially creative innovation that has come out of Graze Abilene is what's been dubbed the "charcuterie pretzel." The three gaps created by the twisted dough of each 10-inch fresh-baked pretzel get stuffed with meats, cheeses, mustard, and olives. They are then surrounded by fruit, veggies, and additional garnishes. Have you ever heard of anything more heavenly? "That was probably our best seller for a good couple of months, and it really did save my business in those beginning stages of this pivot," Blair says.
It comes as no surprise that brick-and-mortar cheese shops and catering businesses specializing in charcuterie and grazing tables like Graze Abilene and Lady & Larder had to switch up their offerings in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. What might be more unexpected is that the cheeseboard influencer landscape online has also shifted. In May of 2020, Marissa Mullen, the creative mind behind @thatcheeseplate, released her first book, That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life. She had been planning a 16-city book tour, with in-person workshops and parties, and of course, the pandemic put a stop to that. Initially, Mullen had seen the book and the book tour as a way to connect with her followers on a more personal level. Instead of scrapping that when the tour got canceled, she took the opportunity to show more of herself on her social platforms.
Before the book and COVID, it had mostly been photos of her cheese plates posted on Instagram for @thatcheeseplate's 300,000 followers. In April, though, Mullen started hosting virtual happy hours and Instagram Live cheese-plating workshops. She even collaborated with some well-established personalities like her friends Tyler Cameron from The Bachelor and musician Andrew McMahon, and taught them how to put together cheese plates via live stream. "By utilizing their platforms on Instagram Live, it reached this whole broader audience that I didn't really expect I could reach, and that's something that I wouldn't have done without COVID," Mullen shares.
After a few months of hosting workshops on social media, she came up with the idea to start what she, of course, named That Cheese Class on Zoom in August. "I just realized I needed a way to pivot my business. So many people were tuning into these live Instagrams, and I had done so many for free, but maybe now I could charge a little bit of a fee for a ticket and make some profit off of that." Since then, Mullen has taken those classes to a Patreon-like platform called Pillar, and in these once-a-month classes, she teaches people how to build the plate and photograph it. The participants learn about pairings and show their plates to the class as well. On Pillar, she's also been able to sell merch and share behind-the-scenes content. Plus, there's a community tab where people post photos of their own creations. "I transformed this Instagram Live community into my own off-Instagram subscription-based model, which was a really good pivot for me," she says.
Lady & Larder has also tapped its online community during COVID times. "We have begun offering virtual workshops and weekly cheese chats on IG Live so that we can connect with cheesemakers and our customers," says Simms. "I think there is still a lot of excitement about cheese boards. If anything, the pandemic has made everything feel more precious and special. We celebrate all of the incredible makers that we work with daily at the shop and continue to look for ways to support them."
The more personal interactions that come from virtual workshops aren't the only things that have changed for the online cheeseboard community since COVID. Mullen has noticed a shift in the type of cheese plate photos and Reels followers interact with most on Instagram. In July of last year, she was named Food52's resident "cheese plater" — yes, that is her actual title and it's totally okay to be jealous. Now, she makes three recipe Reels that are shared on that account each month. "I've been posting a lot of cheese-related recipes that you can use to elevate a cheese plate. So for example, last week, I did a whipped ricotta with pea and walnut pesto and I've done a baked gruyere dip,” she says. “Those Reels have been engaged with a lot more than I expected, which is awesome.” Mullen chocks the reception of these posts up to the fact that people are stuck at home with more time on their hands. Though putting together an impressive cheese plate does take care and attention, adding another element that requires some cooking or even just mixing ingredients together makes it into more of a project.
As for the posts on her own accounts, the personal-sized cheese plates that serve one to four people have become even more popular, which makes perfect sense. Still, love for bigger plates hasn't disappeared, but the motivation behind the attention they draw has changed. "When I do post the big elaborate plates from maybe two years ago, those still get a lot of likes because I think people still, in the back of their minds, want to have that party and want to have that gathering. It's almost a form of escapism in a way to be like, wow, that grazing board looks amazing," Mullen says. "This time two years ago, the engagement with those posts would be more like, Okay, I'm going to actually do this versus I'm going to save this to a Pinterest board for a year from now."
But even a year from now, will we actually want to pick meat and cheese off uncovered grazing tables among strangers? Like everything, it all depends on the people and the place. Blair has already gone back to creating spreads for events in Abilene, but the approach for each is a bit different. As people got more comfortable with gatherings, she made picnic boxes for individual guests at outdoor weddings over the summer and throughout the fall. "We had a couple of hybrid weddings where the client requested a small grazing table because they still wanted the wow factor that those give but also individual grazing boxes on the end so people could pick whatever suited their comfort level," she explains. "We had a couple of weddings just do cheese boards as centerpieces, and they felt like that was a good in-between option." The key at those events was to make sure every place setting had its own set of tongs. Lady & Larder has also been creating custom picnic boxes for COVID-safe small gatherings and small weddings.
According to Blair, the increased variety in board size and how they're shared is here to stay, just like a lot of changes brought about by the pandemic. "It's just changed the general mindset," she says. "We've talked about this in my family more than once. I don't know that we'll ever not wear masks on airplanes again. There are some carryover things that are just never going to go away. I do think that this industry will see some of that, and I think it's for the better really because it broadens our market having these individual servings"
Simms also anticipates that thinking small — in more ways than one — will continue post-pandemic, and she’s excited about that. "Cheeseboards aren't going anywhere," she says. "I think people, if anything, will hopefully go in the direction of quality over quantity when it comes to making their boards and displays. It's so important to support your local farmers and small makers and producers."
Mullen thinks there will be some lasting changes for those making their own cheese plates, as well. "I'm working on a second book right now and I want to definitely do a whole section of personalized cheese plates," she says. "I don't think masks are going to go away right away, there's still going to be some sort of social distancing, so in terms of the content that I post, I still want to keep it diversified in the sense of different sizes and different types of plates." And, even when we one day get back to in-person charcuterie classes, they will likely look different too. "It definitely can't be how it used to be," she says. "In my old classes, there would be a giant table with all the supplies, and everyone would put on gloves, pick up whatever, and put it on their plates. Everyone built their plates with their hands. I think now people are probably going to be a little bit more hesitant about touching things and being close to others. So that's something that I'm going to have to adjust when I start doing in-person classes again."
Sharing a charcuterie board and scavenging off a grazing table may be quintessential examples of pre-COVID practices, but that just makes the fact that so many in this industry have found creative ways to pivot their businesses all the more impressive. "It's been such a scary and uncertain year and the fact that we are still standing reminds us of what we are capable of," says Simms. But, she insists that it isn’t just the Lady & Larder team that’s responsible for the business surviving and even thriving during the pandemic. "We know we wouldn't be here without all of the people who contribute to making our business a success — all of our incredible vendors, our farmers, all of the essential city workers (our trash guys!), and all of the customers who believe in us and have continued to show up week after week. There aren't even words to express our gratitude." Blair is also grateful that customers didn’t write off her business during this time. "We hear this all the time, but continue supporting local businesses, and just because you've got someone that you think what they do isn't COVID-safe, give them the opportunity to pivot or make it so," she says. "We want to keep doing what we do, and we're willing to make it happen no matter what."