She Bought A Village Staple, Then The Pandemic Changed The Entire Business - 27 East

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She Bought A Village Staple, Then The Pandemic Changed The Entire Business

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Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman.  DANA SHAW

Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman. DANA SHAW

Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman.  DANA SHAW

Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman. DANA SHAW

Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman.  DANA SHAW

Cheese Shop owner Nikki Cascone-Grossman. DANA SHAW

Alec Giufurta on Aug 2, 2021

In March 2019, Nikki Cascone-Grossman took the reins at the Cheese Shoppe in Southampton — today, she’s changed the business almost entirely, due to the pandemic and her own personal “shock” over summertime visitors’ brazen rudeness.

The Cheese Shoppe, an institution for foodies, sells far more than cheese — salads, sandwiches, coffees and pastries are all summertime favorites from the Main Street eatery.

But in March 2020, one year into running her business, Cascone-Grossman made the decision to close the Cheese Shoppe, reopening that May for a summer like no other. She restructured the store’s interior to protect her workers — keeping customers outside, and eventually, restricted to the immediate entrance area of the store — and infrastructure to accommodate orders, reopening in May 2020 with an entirely new business model.

“I immediately started building the online [ordering],” Cascone-Grossman said. “How can I reopen safely, and restructure the store?”

Now, Cascone-Grossman has made the decision to keep many of those pandemic-induced changes in place. She doesn’t anticipate ever reopening the entire interior of her store to customers, and relies primarily on an online ordering system — she estimated that 75 percent of her business is online.

“COVID completely changed our business model, and for the better,” she said. “The way that the business functions is 1,000 times better.”

Inside the store, she used the added space from what once were customer waiting areas to add prep stations: Double the space for salad-making, sandwich wrapping and panini pressing.

Online, she appreciates that the interface is forward about the wait-time for orders, mitigating some of customers’ potential tension with her staff. She stressed that every sandwich is made to order.

“The shocking thing was to me is like people would come in and think you order an egg sandwich and you get it in five minutes. Like it’s just, that’s not the way it happens … there’s also 50 tickets we’re trying to do at once,” she explained. “[The system] does tell you upfront, it’s 45 minutes.”

Combined, the changes have allowed the Cheese Shoppe to do more volume than ever before: Compared to last year, her sales are up 15 to 25 percent daily.

“We are in our stride now,” she said. “We [can] do more volume, and yes, you still have to wait, but the waits are not as exorbitant unless it’s a crazy off-day where it’s just so much.”

Cascone-Grossman has a resume of experience that would seem to position her as a more than qualified operator of a village storefront: She’s competed on Bravo’s “Top Chef,” opened two Jean Georges restaurants in New York City, and was food and beverage director at Yankee Stadium, where she managed over 260 employees.

And although she believes she’s in her stride operating the Southampton staple, achieving success was by no means easy; Now in her third summer, the experiences of her past and present aren’t comparable, and for the wrong reasons.

Aside from the kinks of operating through her first summer in 2019, challenges of the 2020 pandemic summer season and 2021 labor shortages, Cascone-Grossman said she experienced a particular summertime phenomenon from the get-go: disparaging harassment from customers.

“There’s a sense of entitlement — that’s our word for the season,” she said. “My first summer I was in shock.”

Yet, the attitudes of customers today are unlike anything she has ever dealt with in the past.

Cascone-Grossman described some of the insults she has hurled at her on a typical summer day: aggressive, nasty and other gendered slurs.

“You deal with an insane amount of abuse,” she said.

And her staff and family working at the Cheese Shoppe seldom escape similar heralds.

“I have one cashier who’s been here for the whole time I’ve been open — every single name in the book she has been called,” Cascone-Grossman said, adding that she remains in the back to avoid abuse from customers. “My brother the other day was told to go f--- himself.”

She even faced blowback this spring, as she elected to keep her mask requirement in place for customers after Governor Andrew Cuomo adopted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that vaccinated individuals end masks indoors on May 19.

“I have a lot of young staff and they were not vaccinated at the time, including my girls up front,” she explained. “A lot of us have young children at home.”

Yet in that summer of 2020, a reprieve: Cascone-Grossman noted how the discourse of, and public attitudes toward, “essential workers” delivered kinder, more appreciative customers.

“During the pandemic, it was such a community ... you even saw it in the tips, the staff tips,” she said.

But with the pandemic at bay for now, the abuse from customers is back. Her message to customers frustrated with wait times this summer: “Be kind.”

As for wait times, Cascone-Grossman insisted they haven’t increased from the summers of the old owners, even while the volume of customers has spiked. She explained that customers even order salads and sandwiches the night before in anticipation of the wait.

“I just don’t know what else to do to make it faster,” she explained. “I’ve had people say, ‘Well just service less people.’ But what can you do? Say no?”

She added that she may push back her pay counters a few feet this summer to make room for a small indoor seating area, but had no firm plans. The Delta variant of COVID-19, which can be spread easily by vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike who contract the virus, has thrown yet another curveball — she noted she may adopt CDC guidance and resurrect a mask requirement as soon as this week.

“I’m certain we will get yelled at by many people,” she said. “But it’s my decision to keep my staff and all of our families safe as well as the safety of our community.”

The Cheese Shoppe is at 11 Main Street, Southampton. For more information visit of call 631-283-6949.

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