The week of the shutdown last March, Jessica Affatato, owner of Northport-based Harbor Cheese and Provisions, saw $15,000 worth of business disappear.
Her firm, which sells artisanal cheeses and offers tastings and classes, had booked two months of in-person cheese-making classes that suddenly had to be canceled. And she wasn’t sure if her other revenue stream, farmers markets, would open.
"I was grieving because I really thought my business was dead," says Affatato, 37, noting she had $2,000 worth of cheese inventory she'd have to use or give away.
She took a few weeks to settle into the new normal and soon saw people’s interests shifting to virtual activities. She figured she’d give it a go.
"I did a beta class May 23 with friends to see if I could actually do this," she said, noting she had to figure out logistics like cheese delivery — something she’d never done before. Affatato ships or delivers the various cheeses and accompaniments to participants before each class.
Her first two public tasting classes, in late May, sold out, and that trend continued. Last fall she even managed to snag her first corporate client.
Thanks to her nimble response, she ended 2020 with revenues up 35% from pre-pandemic 2019.
Newsday spoke to Affatato about her changing business. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Why do you think demand for virtual tastings was high?
I think the dollars people would have been spending on entertainment they weren’t spending. But they still wanted to have something special.
How did you get the word out initially?
I have an email list of 1,000 people I reached out to. Also friends and family helped, and social media. [In addition, she was able to sell at the Northport Farmers Market, where she posted notices of upcoming classes.]
How did classes change when you went virtual?
Before COVID, I held about 12 to 15 classes monthly, mainly on mozzarella and burrata cheese making. In-person tastings never sold. It was like pulling teeth. Now it’s completely flipped — 90% of classes are tastings.
What do you supply to participants?
I do themed tasting classes (i.e., cheeses of France; artisan vs. supermarket cheese), and I supply the cheese and, for certain classes, select sides. I do publicly ticketed classes of up to 15 households, private classes for a minimum of six to eight households and corporate classes of up to 100 participants. There’s a personalized web page for each class that includes a tasting sheet, beverage recommendations and informational links.
What are the costs?
Costs range from $65 to $100 per household depending upon the class. Corporate can go up to $225 per household.
How did corporate events come about?
It was a surprise. I don’t know how they heard about me, but a tech company in Texas reached out in October. It was to do a charcuterie board class. We probably do about five to six corporate clients a month now.
What’s behind corporate demand?
[Pre-COVID] they might have done a conference for a weekend or gone out for a corporate dinner, and they’re not doing that. I’m like the entertainment of sorts.
Where do you get your cheeses?
I work with small cheese makers upstate and in Connecticut and small importers.
How’s demand now?
Demand’s still high for classes, and I have a monthly cheese subscription that’s growing.
Will you ever go live again?
I think things will be different in the fall. We could do a combination, possibly, of virtual and live. I’m currently looking for a 500- to 1,000-square-foot storefront in Suffolk.