Melissa Shear certainly didn’t make her first cheese and charcuterie board during quarantine. The multifaceted Bethesda mom did, however, start making them for strangers.
As the owner, chief designer and, for now, sole employee of CheezMD, the gourmet grazing board business she officially launched in June, Shear first began to think there could be more to her hobby during a series of socially distant springtime hangs with a few supportive girlfriends.
“We realized we weren’t getting out of COVID anytime soon, so I was coming up with ideas where people could enjoy a night out without having to go anywhere,” Shear says. “My friends encouraged me to post photos on Instagram of [boards] I was making for family and friends. Then it started being friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends.”
At the same time, the desire to shop small and support local businesses was spreading rapidly through the community, especially during the most restrictive months of the shutdown. An early customer posted about Shear’s boards in the nearly 20,000-member strong “Support MoCo Restaurants” Facebook group. “I got a lot of business through that group,” she says. “COVID was encouraging people to spend their money on businesses they wanted to see around in the next year or so.”
And spend you will when it comes to CheezeMD. A casual Sweetgreen order this is not: the grazing boards, which range from $100 for four to six people up to $150 for eight to 12, are best reserved for special occasions. (At $65, the smaller picnic boxes work for date nights and hiking trips.) But for the price, you’ll get one seriously gorgeous way to celebrate. And while it can’t quite make up for a canceled anniversary trip to Tuscany, the photos will likely garner you just as many likes on social media.
Shear’s artfully arranged displays flow organically from one delicious treat to the next. Specific types and brands of goodies vary—“I’m not like Edible Arrangements. No one board is the same as the next,” she quips—but every order contains the same core categories: meat, cheese, crackers; fruit (fresh and dried, but also occasionally vegetables); a jam or honey; nuts or a “crunch” (think: wasabi peas); and, finally, a sweet (jelly beans, chocolate covered pretzels) to top things off.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a full meal, you’d be right. But if you’re also thinking this indulgence is just a leisurely side hustle for Shear, who has been a D.C. prosecutor for over 20 years, think again. The influx of requests was enough to force her out of her home kitchen and into a commercial space in Silver Spring. There, she spends most of her weekends masked up and in gloves, wiping down surfaces in between arranging anywhere from five to 45 orders per day. Though she scaled quickly, she did so without cutting corners.
“The lawyer in me wanted to make sure I was doing everything legitimately,” Shear says. “I got an LLC. I had to get insurance. I had to get a health license, which required taking food service classes and passing a test. I had to make an appointment with an inspector.”
Shear has also pivoted from perusing the aisles of Whole Foods and Balducci’s for ingredients to placing wholesale orders directly with suppliers—including local outfits like Meatcrafters in Hyattsville.
While she can’t foresee ever leaving the law, Shear does have big dreams for CheezMD.
“I’d love to have a storefront where people could order, wait a bit, then take their board to go,” she muses. Until then, fans can place requests for weekend curbside pickup in Bethesda at Cheezmd.com.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October-November 2020 issue of Montgomery Magazine.