AUSTIN (KXAN) — Throughout the month of September, the owners of Austin’s Antonelli’s Cheese Shop were saddened to see stories of West Coast cheesemakers hit hard by recent wildfires. Co-founder and owner Kendall Antonelli said her cheese social media groups were all sharing images that yanked on her heartstrings — goats tightly packed into a Subaru to evacuate or dairy cows resting as fires plume in the distant background.
So Wednesday night, Antonelli’s will host one of its virtual cheese tastings that the business has come to rely on during the pandemic. But, this time, all the proceeds will go to cheesemakers whose work and lives have been altered by these fires.
Like so many other industries, the specialty cheese industry has already been suffering significant losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of 1,000 members published May 21 by the American Cheese Society reported a 58% decrease in overall sales; 71% of respondents said they applied for financial assistance or debt relief to stay afloat; and 30% of respondents said they had either laid off of furloughed employees. The survey noted that distribution channels these cheese businesses used to rely on “have been decimated by closures related to the virus.”
Things have not been easy for Antonelli’s, either, who barely had time to squeeze in an interview between 15 to 20 virtual tastings it’s needing to do each week just to keep business afloat.
Tuesday, Antonelli’s saw its lowest number of daily orders yet: four. After a call-out on social media, orders were back up today with 50 placed.
The Antonelli’s say they want to show that same type of community support to businesses they work with in Oregon, Washington and California, which is why they’ve kicked off this West Coast cheesemaker fundraiser. Ninety-eight people have registered to attend the tasting. Registrations have already closed but anyone can watch along live on Antonelli’s Facebook page.
On the menu will be an assortment of cheese and artisanal bites from western states. Owners John and Kendall Antonelli will walk participants (who each get a plate of these items) through where each product came from and what goes well together.
Proceeds will go to a handful of places including the Western States Dairy Goat Breeders Wildlife Relief Fund and Rogue Creamery.
Impact of the wildfires
Rogue is located in southern Oregon near Medford and last year its Rogue River Blue Cheese was named World’s Best Cheese at World Cheese Awards in Italy.
Back on September 9, Rogue posted to social media, sharing that several of its team members had lost their homes during the Alameda Drive Fire. That fire has since displaced several thousand people. Rogue said its employees worked long hours to safely move all the dairy cows onto the company president’s property.
Just days ago, the company posted that it had opted to delay shipping orders for that week because delays at UPS and FedEx due to the wildfires risked their cheese going bad in the mail.
Marguerite Merritt with Rogue Creamery told KXAN that four of the Rogue team members lost their homes in the fire. She said that in the already tight housing market in their area, finding homes for those displaced “will be a massive undertaking.” All four of those employees have temporary housing in the short term (including one staying at a cottage owned by the creamery) as they look for longer-term housing solutions.
“Rogue Creamery was fortunate: none of our facilities were damaged and our cows are safe,” Merritt said. “But as Southern Oregon begins the long and complicated process of rebuilding, our hearts are heavy for those who have lost everything.”
“We are very grateful for any and all support that Antonelli’s Cheese and their customers are prepared to offer!” Merritt said.
Goldin Artisan Goat Cheese posted a photo on Sept. 11 of goats packed into a Subaru driving off into a smoke-filled horizon as they evacuated from their farm in Molalla, Oregon, which is in the northwestern part of the state. They later posted to share that all 85 of their goats had been safely evacuated and that they are temporarily being lodged at another creamery.
“Hearing about the West Coast dairy producers, we were just really down about it, and what do we do?” Kendall Antonelli recalled.
“Then we thought, ‘wait a minute, we do what we always do: we get their cheese into people’s hands and mouths. We tell the story of their labor and love and we tell how they’re affected by what’s going on.'”
A hard-hit industry
Earlier on in the pandemic, Antonelli’s had already been hearing from cheesemakers that they work with that they were losing lots of product and businesses as grocery stores opted to stock up on main essentials rather than artisan cheese.
“Our makers were really hurting, they were dumping milk across the United States,” Antonelli remembered.
So the Austin cheese shop began highlighting the cheesemakers who were suffering through the new virtual tastings they had been doing.
“We like to say — my husband and I — as survivors of depression, we wish from the beginning it had been labeled physical distancing instead of social distancing because it’s now more important than ever to come together and support each other and not feel so alone and isolated,” Antonelli said.
“And our virtual tastings have been a way to do that.”