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The first thing to know about Crane River Cheese Club is that it isn’t a club—anyone within the company’s expanding delivery base north and west of Boston can access its farm-direct products. The second thing to know is that it offers far more than cheese—think grass-fed beef, fresh herbs, deli meats, and even exotic items like wild boar.

But the most important thing to know is this collection of comestibles is carefully sourced by chef Brian Poe, whose much-admired Boston restaurants the Tip Tap Room and Parrish Café are shuttered until springtime due to the pandemic. The closings left Poe with some time on his hands, and a strong desire to connect his neighbors, who were having trouble accessing good food, with purveyors who were suddenly without restaurants to sell to.

“It started as just fun, neighbors helping neighbors,” Poe says, noting that his home is one of four all in a row with views of the Crane River in Danvers, where the idea was born. As the families started bemoaning the difficulties of getting fresh food when everything shut down in March, Poe realized that, using the kitchen of his temporarily closed restaurant, he could organize bulk meat orders from producers he had been working with over the course of his career—more than 30 years in some cases—and divide them up for individuals and families. 

Word quickly spread down the street, and then into Marblehead, then Salem, and now across the North Shore, with Poe sourcing cheese, meat, produce, and even some pantry staples for a growing list of customers. “It’s a better way to eat right now, without having to go to the grocery store,” he says. 

Chef Brian Poe and his dog Salty at the farm on the Crane River in Danvers.

The chef quickly ramped up beyond steaks and cheese to include offerings from area farms, which are in need of business as well. “Farmers are taking even bigger hits than the restaurants,” Poe says, noting people have told them business is down by as much as two-thirds. “I’m not saving them, but God, are they saving us.”

Customers start by visiting the Crane River Cheese Club website to place an order. It lists a variety of items, but really that’s the tip of the iceberg, Poe says. “That’s just a snapshot of what we can do,” the chef explains. “Once we establish a relationship, I can get you really anything you want.”

Requests have included everything from ground wild boar to truffles—but the orders are usually less exotic—for example, someone who lives alone and is at high risk. “They may need one cantaloupe, one honeydew, maybe a chicken breast, some bread—you name it. They’ll text me that list and I can source it.”

Then Poe loads it, with other orders, into his four-door Jeep Wrangler, which is now lined with refrigeration units that plug into the car’s battery, to deliver straight to the customer’s door. 

At press time, Poe’s business was still small enough that he handles every delivery himself, and that personal connection with each customer is something Poe treasures. It’s also something he had never experienced—at least not to the same degree—while working the line in his restaurants. “The insight on how people are eating and cooking and coping has been pretty phenomenal,” he says. “It’s a breath of fresh air and good energy at such a tough time. I never would have gotten this insight at a restaurant.”

Few things delight Poe more than when people text him questions about preparations, or pictures of what they have created with his delivery—a husband and wife enjoying a rack of lamb with a glass of wine, then finishing with a cheese plate, a man firing up his barbeque for a weekly feast, or folks getting creative with duck breast.

“For 30 years, I’ve been producing food for hundreds of people a night,” Poe says. “To hear how people are producing just for each other is so sweet. To see past closed doors without actually having to break any of the rules of social distancing—it’s been a beautiful situation for me and for them, to talk food and cooking.” It may even change the way he approaches his restaurants when they reopen. 

“There’s one person I’ve never seen. But I’ve heard them say, ‘Thank you, Brian’ through the window. And it’s the kindest thank you. That kind of thing is just phenomenal.”

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