Earlier last week, I stopped by Olsson’s Fine Foods for the first time since arriving on campus. The day was painfully overcast, as Princeton’s weather tends to be in the spring, and Palmer Square was quiet, save for the occasional car and a muted chatter. Peculiarly, then, Olsson’s had a sizable crowd: as I waited for my grilled cheese, and as I was enjoying it at a nearby picnic bench, customers came and went, and it seemed there was not an idle moment for the modest storefront.
Olsson’s certainly isn’t the same store at present that it was prior to last March. The store’s interior is closed to customers, meaning that I placed my order and then waited for it under the awning, eyeing the careful and meticulous assortment of charcuterie, cheeses, and cheese accessories stacked to the storefront window’s brim. Transactions happened over a small, door-sized table, and it certainly wasn’t the pastoral experience of wandering from cheese to peculiar cheese that one might come to expect under normal circumstances.
However, according to owner Rudie Smit and general manager Michele Adams, Olsson’s has never been better.
In its present form, Olsson’s has existed for just over 10 years; before moving to its present location in Palmer Square, Olsson’s was a farmer’s market stand in high demand by University students. That pivot was not as jarring as one would expect: “A lot of the customers that we had in the farmer’s market,” Smit said, “were based in Princeton,” and being closer to its target audience “helped tremendously.”
Even for a business used to fundamental change, the initial shocks of the pandemic hit hard. There was an “obvious downturn that we experienced in March, April, and May,” said Smit, owing in large part to the departure of students from Princeton’s campus and reduced foot traffic from the surrounding areas. Nevertheless, Olsson’s took that time to innovate in a number of ways. Smit credits the change to being “nimble” on Olsson’s part, and that notion certainly holds up: since last March, Olsson’s has fleshed out a robust online presence, including virtual classes and a redesigned website.
Most impressive, however, might be Olsson’s commitment to expanding their passion for cheeses on a national scale. “We’re at 38 states now,” Adams informed me, a certainly non-negligible feat — and even more so when one considers that, for a food as fickle as cheese, different regions require different approaches.
“We made mistakes in the beginning,” Smit said. “No amount of ice will prevent [triple creme brie] from becoming a cheese soup.”
Despite its perishability, cheese as a concept might be more “pandemic-proof” than it initially seems.
“I think we managed to have, under the circumstances, quite a successful 2020,” Smit said, and there’s certainly something to how Olsson’s products have impressed themselves on the student body in a distinctive and timeless way.
“The general ambience ... was as good as it could have been,” Emma Patterson ’24 said, while Jackie Lydon ’24 said that “[Olsson’s] has mastered the art of grilled cheeses.”
Lydon is a Features Staff Writer for The Daily Princetonian.
As Princeton begins to slowly worm its way out of the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic, Olsson’s is expecting big changes. Smit said, “I’m looking forward ... to inviting people back into the store to do in-person [cheese] classes, because it does bring something extra if you do it that way.” While my own experience with Olsson’s is limited for the time being to my brief rainy-day sojourn, that alone was an exceptional experience: for me, the grilled cheeses, perfectly browned and yet tinged with a certain, complex sweetness, were indication enough that what Olsson’s has is something quite special.
“Cheese is a comfort food,” Adams said, “and it’s what people need right now.”