Kat Magsaysay, of Cruelty-Free Charcuterie, didn’t get a single order for her popular vegan charcuterie boards in February and March of this year. “I was surprised,” she says. “What was going on? Who knew if it would keep going?”
By the summer, she was receiving an endless stream of messages and DMs requesting smaller cheese plates and DIY experiences. She decided to listen to her clients and shift her business based on their requests. “Pivot is the word I would use to describe 2020 for the business,” she said. She chalked up the need for small, composed boards as a comforting return to a childhood treat. “We grew up in the Lunchable age,” she said. “This is a bougier version of Lunchables.”
Charcuterie board business owners like Magsaysay have survived the pandemic by paying attention to customers’ requests while re-discovering and sharing their love for creating boards. In a year of constant pivots, cheesemongers and charcuterie shops started to reimagine and rediscover what charcuterie can be, beyond the party staple or wine bar accoutrement. Some have even found a new, permanent business plan along the way.
Charcuterie and cheese are two foundational elements of dining in the Pacific Northwest. Places like Olympia Provisions and Higgins have developed their brand through their house charcuterie, while most bars, breweries, and wineries across the region have some high-end version to serve with flights or tasting pours. Even the area’s vegans have created their own versions, from Cruelty-Free Charcuterie to Portland’s Vtopia.
But with bar dining rooms shuttered and parties off the table, one of the local food and beverage industry’s mainstays had an identity crisis: How could the places known for lavish platters of meat and cheese appeal to those stuck at home? It turns out, the options were more varied than anyone had expected — and people were looking for something easy, fun, and simple to eat at home.
Keri Buhman, of C’est La Vie, like Magsaysay, saw the large charcuterie boards that she normally composed for catering jobs disappear in February and March. “I was scared and saddened,” she said. “The cheese plates bring in income, but they are also my favorite creative outlet. It’s one of the most satisfying aspects of the business for me.”
When her space in Hazel Dell, Washington re-opened in March, she shifted her business from a large cafe and small market to a large market and small cafe, selling date night cheese boards for two and charcuterie cones for individual consumption. At her new, larger market, she couldn’t keep the pared-down version of her cheese boards on the shelves. “The boards drive my business,” she said. “When I post photos of them, people come into the store. They sell so quickly that they don’t even make it into the case.”
As spring arrived with longer sun-filled days, restaurants and food carts across the Pacific Northwest saw a mild boost in business, thanks to customers wanting to gather outside for socially distanced hangouts. This increased interest in picnics ended up helping other shops trying to sell charcuterie and cheese, as well. Providore Fine Foods, Cheese & Crack Snack Shop, Niche Wine Bar, and C’est La Vie placed their cheese wedges and twisted meats into cardboard boxes so that customers could bring them outdoors and nosh with the sun warming their skin.
”Our boards are being tucked into boxes for easy portability to the park or patio,” Providore owner Kai Wellman said. “The boards are perfectly proportioned to feed two, so if you’re taking your own snack or light dinner to a small get together, this is the perfect solution. Add wine, some sliced baguette and you’re taken care of.”
For Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, business owners shifted again to smaller but swanky boards to celebrate socially distanced festivities. Buhman received requests for boards for four people and some slightly bigger boards. Mallory Pilcher, director of marketing at Olympia Provisions, believes people want something special to celebrate the holidays after months of living the same day over and over again. For New Year’s Eve, Olympia Provisions is selling an opulent New Year’s Eve kit with rich, meaty treats like cotechino, saucisson d’Arles, and pork pistachio pate, as well as a full caviar spread with blinis, Cowgirl Creamery creme fraiche, and a mother of pearl caviar spoon.
DIY-ing huge elaborate boards at home may be the next stop in the charcuterie’s COVID-19 journey, according to Pilcher. “I’m definitely addicted to TikTok. It’s crazy how much people are obsessed with these huge charcuterie boards,” she said, referring to the viral phenomenon of home cooks carefully assembling charcuterie boards at home.
Pilcher isn’t alone in that forecast: Magsaysay, inspired by her DMs and customer requests, decided to start hosting virtual classes on board-making, and attracted customers everywhere from the Philippines to India. She remembered when she started making boards at home as art therapy several years ago, needing a distraction from her marketing job and wanting time away from screens. She realized that other people needed a creative outlet. She re-imagined her business as a way to provide an experience to her customers who were seeking what originally drew her to composing boards — an artistic escape. “My whole business is now about experiences,” she said, “There’s enough people making boards. I want to give them an experience.” She plans to launch a YouTube channel or TikTok in the future, a way to access more people and give them an experience, as well.
Placing thin slices of salami next to triangles of gooey brie and swirls of rosy prosciutto on an enormous rustic wood board may be a type of cured meat therapy we need to get through the winter. A group of roommates might spend a winter night carefully twirling ham into delicate flowers or a cooped up family could raid their fridge and pantry and compose the contents as if they were pieces of a 1000-piece Ravensburger puzzle. “It feels good to make something beautiful and orderly during a time that’s chaotic,” Pilcher said.