A Vegan Cheesemonger Moves OnlineCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | With virtually no foot traffic, Manhattan’s Riverdel Cheese pivots to delivery.Published: December 15, 2020
Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!
I hope you’re staying safe and well. This weekend, instead of throwing my annual Christmas tree decorating party (for obvious reasons), I made Grossy Pelosi’s vodka “sawce” with rigatoni. All I want for Christmas is widespread access to a vaccine.
Today’s #SmallBizSpotlight features Riverdel Cheese, a vegan cheesemonger that’s currently based in Lower Manhattan’s Essex Market. I started shopping at Riverdel last year, back when it occupied a tiny storefront just north of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And thanks to owner Michaela Grob, a New York transplant originally from Austria, I was turned onto a vegan butter that’s superior to dairy butter, IMHO. After her Brooklyn lease ran up in January, Grob planned to find a new, bigger location (in addition to the Essex Market stall), but then, of course, the pandemic happened. While a second location is on hold for now, Grob is pouring her efforts into adapting her once brick-and-mortar business for e-commerce. Keep reading for her biggest challenge in pivoting online, some rare (at least for this column!) commendation of the government, and the vegan cheese you should order for the holidays.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A selection of Riverdel cheeses / Photography by Paul Ninson
What was your founding inspiration for Riverdel?
I’ve been vegan for about 10 years, and I've always loved cheese, so that was my motivation. Being vegan for ethical reasons doesn't mean you have to live off broccoli and tofu. There are some great vegan cheese products out there, and I used to look all over the country for them. When I started looking for vegan cheeses, I also started making some myself. Then I thought, "It would be great to have one place where you can go and get a really great vegan cheese selection, [like] a vegan cheesemonger." That's where the idea came from.
Who’s on your team?
I have one full-time employee and two part-time employees in the store. Otherwise, it's me, myself, and I.
You closed your Brooklyn location in January; what prompted that?
The lease was coming to an end, and the space needed a lot of work, and I just didn't have the funds to redo that whole space. The idea was to find another space to still have a Brooklyn location, but that’s on hold now because of the pandemic. So we’re focusing on Essex Market.
What were the first effects of the pandemic on your business?
All our business came from foot traffic, which came to a halt. We were a traditional brick-and-mortar store; it was never the intent for Riverdel to be an online business.
How did you pivot?
We started delivery and shipping. We had a website, but there was no e-commerce section, so [building] that was totally new. It was more or less easy to convert our inventory online and add an e-commerce section; it's not perfect, but it works. Storage is the biggest issue. We just don’t have the space to store enough shipping containers, product, and ice packs to take advantage of [economies of scale]. Since there still isn’t much foot traffic at the market, we spill out onto the hallway when we [process] our shipping [orders]. Packaging material is expensive, and if you can order by the pallet, it gets a little cheaper, but we can't do that. I have to order packaging material basically every week so that we're able to fulfill our shipping orders. That's costly. Some customers think that it’s too costly.
How is foot traffic right now?
It's definitely getting better. It's still not where it used to be. On average, we’re seeing a 30 percent year-over-year decrease, but it's picking up.
I read about your online cooking classes on Instagram — were those prompted by the pandemic?
That's not a new thing. Well, online classes are. We have a show kitchen at Essex Market, so we used to have classes there, which we’ve turned into online classes. It’s to keep connected with our customers who can't visit us or who know of us but don't live in New York. They're really hands-on classes. The first time we did it, we taught how to make cheese from oat milk, and we had 75 people sign up. Half the proceeds always go to a sanctuary; they're in tighter spots now than they were before the pandemic.
How are you doing from a financial perspective?
It's definitely tight. Trying to make up the losses since March will take a while. November looked good; I don't know what December's going to look like. If we have another shutdown, then it's certainly not going to be good. Shipping adds a little bit [of sales], but it's very costly for us to ship, and customers also pay high costs to ship. It's not like we have 200 orders a week, which we would need at least to make up for what we don't see in foot traffic. Deliveries help, but it's still not [amounting to] where we were last year.
Has Essex Market provided any support or fiscal relief to you and the other vendors?
Essex Market is operated by the city, so they have been really great. They have been very helpful and are really trying to make it work for the vendors. All the vendors here are in the same boat. We're all small businesses. We’re all immigrant businesses as well.
What has that help looked like?
When we needed extra space for a pop-up, [Essex Market provided] an empty stall without [us] having to pay. They're really ramping up their marketing and PR to get more foot traffic and get the word out, so that has helped significantly. They're always on top of any financial incentives that are available through the city or the state government, and make sure that the vendors know that they're there and how to apply.
Did you get any rent relief?
No. I think there was supposed to be an increase [in rent], but they didn't do that.
Which government aid have you taken advantage of?
The PPP loan, the small business loans, the EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loan]. It's pretty much all that I was able to qualify for.
How do you feel about the government's response to this crisis in terms of supporting small businesses?
I think they've helped a lot of businesses get through the worst of it. I just got another email about a new 0 percent down interest loan that's becoming available for small businesses from the city. If I think back on the last financial crisis, during which I wasn't a business owner yet, I don't recall that there was the same kind of support out there for small businesses. The public's also more aware that small businesses make up the biggest part of the economy in the US.
That’s great to hear. I’ve spoken to over 30 small business owners at this point, and many of them are disappointed by the government’s response.
It's heartening to hear that you’ve had a better experience.
I think it's great that the government helps you with loans. The 0 percent interest loan [that recently became available] or the one from the Small Business Association that’s 2 or 3 percent and you don't pay back for another year, I mean, those are great terms. Does it make up for the loss of foot traffic and business? Not really. It's just going to help you get through. One hopes that [business] is going to pick up when you have to start paying it back. I might be in a little bit of a bubble because the market is run by the city.
And you didn't get shut down like music venues, bars, restaurants…
Yeah, absolutely. I never had to shut down. And I operate a niche business [vegan cheese] within an already niche business [vegan food]. I always have to scrape for every dollar because it only attracts a certain percentage of the demographic. It's not for 100 percent of New Yorkers.
So you're used to catering to a subset of the community, and that hasn’t changed.
Yeah, I'm used to struggling in a way. I wish I wasn’t, but it's always been a little tight.
What are you envisioning for the future of Riverdel?
We'll continue with shipping and delivery; I don't think we can get away from that. I'm also looking to expand our in-house cheese production and target restaurants to use our cheese for their dishes. I'll need a production space to do that, and I’ll also use that space for shipping orders and extra storage so we can bring shipping costs down. That's the idea, but I'm not going to make that move until we have an idea when the pandemic's going to come to an end or when business is going to become a little more normal.
My last question is totally unrelated to running a small business in the pandemic: what cheese do you recommend for the holidays?
Our house-made cashew cheese [the “Billy” line]. It’s chèvre-style, mild, and semi-firm, and we're making one for the holiday that has cranberries soaked in red wine and pecans. That one's been very popular, and it's a nice entry cheese because it's not too strong, not too pungent. It's got a pleasing texture and a pleasant flavor, and it's very holiday-ish with the cranberries and the pecans.
How to help:
- Order online, buy a gift card, or visit the shop at Essex Market
- Sign up for a cooking class
- Follow on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter
Until next time,