Just call Ali Eck the chairwoman of the board.
When this Florida Gulf Coast University grad saw artfully arranged cheese and charcuterie boards becoming an Instagram trend a couple years ago, she was already ahead of the culinary curve. She grew up grazing on such spreads. It’s part of her European heritage, a tradition of light evening meals centered on nibbling a variety of premade foods — as opposed to tucking into a heavier dinner of entrée and sides.
This enterprising Eagle saw the social media sensation as a business opportunity and launched her own platter-producing company in 2019 in Cape Coral. Grazing Haus — German for, well, “grazing house” — is based on what her Austrian ancestors call “jousen” (YOW-zen), roughly translated to light eating of cold cuts, cheese and bread, usually with a bottle of wine.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” says Eck, who graduated with a marketing degree in 2015. “When I was getting together with friends, I was always the designated cheese-platter girl. People would say, ‘I wish I could buy these.’”
And now they can. What started as a side hustle out of the home she shares with husband and 2015 FGCU grad Jeremy Eck has grown into a storefront with delivery service and three more employees. In addition to beautifully curated baskets and boards, Eck has expanded to entire table displays of artsy eats for special events. And people are eating it up. Grazing Haus matched its 2021 annual sales In the first quarter of this year.
Going solo turned out to be a recipe for success after several years of corporate jobs. The marketing savvy Eck acquired over the years and at FGCU certainly helped. Along with mentoring from FGCU’s Small Business Development Center and connections fostered through the Alumni Association, she credited an faculty mentor.
“Dr. (Khaled) Aboulnasr was really inspiring to me,” Eck says. “I tried to take every class he offered. And the SBDC really helped with figuring out licensing and other legal aspects of starting a business.”
Aboulnasr, an associate professor and chairman of Lutgert College of Business’s marketing department, recalls Eck as an insightful and creative standout student.
“Ali showed early signs of professional maturity and was always ambitious, self-motivated and very well organized,” he says. “I am not surprised at all that she has now become a successful entrepreneur. I am very proud of her achievements.”
And she’s just getting started. Eck’s Cape Coral location is the appetizer for what she hopes will become a regional buffet of Grazing Häuser, to use the German plural. Social media promotion and word of mouth are sparking hunger not just for her picture-perfect platters but for her DIY demonstrations and tastings (see video below). At these private bookings, Eck enjoys sharing her Austrian heritage along with knowledge that eases the intimidation of staring at a blank board and trying to pair foods with a variety of tastes and textures, colors and aromas. Guests gain enough salami savvy to distinguish a soppressata from a Genoa from a Calabrese.
Eck learned it all beside her Opa and Oma, her grandpa and grandma. They have crafted, cured and dried meats and sausages from their own livestock for their butcher shop in Austria for over 60 years. During extended stays with them, she helped work the deli section.
Pairing cheeses, meats, fruit, nuts and other typical ingredients of a well-made and well-laid platter is more than playing with your food. Eck calls it painting with food.
“It can be simple as long as you buy good-quality ingredients,” she says. “At least three cheeses, some crackers, a good bit of charcuterie and some type of accoutrement like a honey or jam or mustard. By the way, the word charcuterie literally refers to just the meats. As the butcher’s granddaughter, I’d like that known.”
Aside from the definition, many Americans still struggle to pronounce the word charcuterie. In hipster foodie circles, it’s even been shortened to “charcoot.” Whatever you call it, its moment in the social media sun likely started around 2015-16 in Australia, Eck says. That’s where another viral victual originated: avocado toast.
“Social media is a huge influence on everything now in the food world,” she says.
Now that Grazing Haus is established, and with over 8,000 Instagram followers drooling over its posts, Eck is leveraging that influence to share the social spotlight with local purveyors whose food she favors, including artisanal jams from Naples Canning Co.’s jam and, yes, canine confections from The Wiggle Bar in Fort Myers.
Because our furry friends deserve their “barkuterie,” too.