Like so many businesses, Olsson’s Fine Foods in Palmer Square has long relied on Princeton’s number-one employer and economic engine — Princeton University — to keep the cash registers ringing.
Olsson’s artisanal cheeses, gourmet party platters and specialty foods have a devoted following among the local community, there is no doubt. And their one-of-a-kind menu of grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese plates and house-made soups is a favorite of residents, students and faculty members alike.
The university closed its campus in March, early in the Covid-19 pandemic. No one knew for sure at the time that Princeton would remain closed for the rest of the semester, leaving local businesses to adapt to life without their main economic driver.
As a food purveyor, Olsson’s Fine Foods — owned and operated by Rudie and Jennifer Smit — has been open for the duration of the pandemic. Rudie Smit is blunt about how Covid-19 has affected the prepared foods segment of his business: “Basically, the bottom fell out of that,” he says. “We do still have our grilled cheese sandwiches and soups, but that side of the business has gone down considerably.”
Olsson’s has also done a great deal of catering for Princeton University events over the years. That revenue stream has dried up as well. But Smit says he has a good feeling about the future.
“Our sales are way down, but it could have been much worse,” he says. “We’re looking to the future with optimism, and moreso because the university is coming back, and the university is a big customer for us.”
The shop has been able to remain open thanks to its devoted, gourmet cheese-loving residential customers, as well as some quick thinking and internet tinkering that has allowed Olsson’s to reach a wider audience online.
Even before the pandemic, Olsson’s customers could use the store’s website to browse cheese varieties by milk type, texture and place of origin. But inventory would sometimes change before the site could be updated, meaning web customers might zero in on a particular product only to find out that it was out of stock when they went to make an order.
Smit says he and his staff have diligently kept the site up to date in recent months, to make online shopping a better experience for people who aren’t able to visit in person.
“We have a very loyal customer base,” Smit says. “People that haven’t been able to physically come into town to come into the store, taste and select cheese, have been able to place orders online. They’ve been able to get their favorite cheeses nevertheless.”
As has been the case for so many businesses, online sales have helped keep the lights on.
“Our internet sales went up very quickly (at the outset of the pandemic), so we were very happy with that,” Smit says. “The funny thing is, not only do local people buy from us on the internet, but we (also) have customers from as far away as California ordering from us now.”
The reason for that may be related to the decision to actively maintain the shop’s inventory in the online store. “It may be now that when people look for a specific cheese we pop up (in their search),” he says. “It’s been good.”
For the first few weeks of the pandemic, Smit ran the store on his own. He never laid anyone off, he says, but he didn’t feel like he could ask his staff to work in the shop until he could guarantee that they could work safely.
“It’s one thing to do something yourself, but you can’t expect your staff to work under conditions are not safe,” he says. “That was obviously challenging, but not as challenging as for some other companies, because we’re in the food business so it’s all about cleanliness.”
The Olsson’s shop is too small to allow customers to safely shop during the pandemic. But staff are available to talk cheese by phone, and many shoppers take advantage of their curbside pickup service.
Olsson’s is also offering free delivery to the Princeton and Hopewell area. And while the sandwich business may not be as brisk as it normally is, customers can still get their favorite grilled cheese or tomato soup by delivery or to go.
The pandemic has affected Olsson’s in other ways. Many of their cheeses and specialty foods originate in Europe, and particularly when the coronavirus was ravaging Spain and Italy, those products were difficult to come by.
“Overall, we managed to keep a good inventory and find good alternatives if we couldn’t get a product we were looking for,” Smit says.
Another area of Olsson’s business that has been affected by the pandemic is their cheesemaking and cheese tasting classes. However, Smit is happy to reveal that cheese tasting classes will soon be revived as Zoom classes. Participants can go online to order tasting boards, including cheese and accompaniments, replete with instructions on how to lay the boards out.
In a similar vein, Olsson’s has introduced “Happy Hour boxes” for people who have been having virtual cocktail parties online with friends.
“Nothing’s better than a Zoom cocktail party with a Happy Hour Box,” Smit says. “They make it so it’s possible to be physically distant but socially close. That’s what we’re trying to achieve with these things.”
Olsson’s Fine Foods, 53 Palmer Square W., Princeton NJ 08542. Phone: (609) 924-2210.