Comedian turns over a new lathe

Co-founder of temporarily closed improv theater launches handmade cheese spreader business.
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The cheese spreaders are made from different types of hardwoods, such as maple, cherry, walnut, ebony and purpleheart. Courtesy Amy Gascon, Home Grove Studio

The pandemic shutdown has comedian Amy Gascon spreading a different kind of cheese these days.

Gascon — founding director of The Comedy Project, an improv training and performance theater at 540 Leonard St. NW in Grand Rapids that the Business Journal previously featured — last month launched Home Grove Studio, a woodworking shop that primarily makes and sells wood-turned cheese spreaders.

All joking aside, Gascon said this summer, she became increasingly interested in starting a business that doesn’t require in-person contact as the pandemic drags on, keeping her comedy theater shut down.

Inspiration came from her day job at the Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Grand Valley State University, where she has been coordinating the program LendGR that was launched to help small businesses survive and pivot during COVID-19 with technical assistance from GVSU students.

“It’s been getting me thinking: ‘What’s something I could do? I’m seeing all these businesses pilot; what could I do that does not rely on a group of people being together?’” Gascon said.

After wracking her brain to pinpoint an actionable passion project, Gascon decided she would love to tap into her dad’s lifelong woodworking hobby and her own personal love of entertaining.

“I love charcuterie, and I love cheese boards, but just looking through Etsy and all of those pages, cheese boards are a pretty saturated market. So, I thought, ‘Well, what’s a product that could go along with it? Oh, cheese spreaders!’ I started looking at those, and there’s not as many, especially not as many wood-turned ones.”

Settling on cheese spreaders as a starting point, Gascon said she shared her idea with her parents, who live on the state’s east side in her hometown of Sanford.

“I don’t know if you heard on the news, but the dams broke in our town, and so it was not a good time for Sanford,” Gascon said. “My parents’ house was fine, but they had to evacuate. It got me thinking, I need to spend more time with them, and there aren’t a lot of people I can spend time with right now because everything’s shut down and I’m trying to be safe. And so, it worked out where I’m getting to see them more … (and) working in the shop on the business.”

Her parents are safe and back in Sanford now. Weekend trips home since mid-July allowed Gascon and her dad to create enough inventory to launch an Etsy shop, Home Grove Studio, which has several handcrafted cheese spreaders available from $22-$28, depending on the model. Discounts are available for multi-packs, as well.

The cheese spreaders come “nicely presented” in a gift box and are marketed as the perfect housewarming, hostess, thank-you or employee gifts. Gascon’s Etsy page suggests pairing them with local jams, honey, wine or cheese to complete the gift.

“You know when you don’t know somebody very well and you don’t know what to give them, and so you usually give them a candle? That’s what I wanted to do with these spreaders, is just make something that’s small enough to give or to pair with something else … and then it just makes a really nice, givable gift for (an acquaintance),” Gascon said.

After testing the waters on Etsy for a while longer, Gascon said she eventually wants to tap into business-to-business sales to corporations or even real estate agents, who could give the cheese spreaders to homebuyers as congratulatory gifts.

Gascon said she is having fun learning woodworking from her “really, really talented” father, who can do much more complicated projects but is enjoying working with her on this creative outlet.

The cheese spreaders are made from different types of hardwoods, such as maple, cherry, walnut, ebony and purpleheart.

“Sometimes, we laminate them and so you’re getting multiple types of wood in one handle. Sometimes, it’s just the one type of wood,” Gascon said.

After preparing the wood blanks — i.e., the blocks from which the pieces are made — Gascon and her dad put them on the lathe and turn them to create the handles, then they sand down and spray the handles, then drill holes in the middle and fill them with epoxy and insert the cheese spreader blades. At this point, Home Grove Studio does not make its own blades, but Gascon isn’t ruling that out in the future.

“We’re not a total one-stop shop, but we’re getting there,” she said.

Gascon said sales have started out strong, with the highest-priced, multi-wood items selling the best.

She hopes to continue Home Grove Studio, branching out into even more wood products, even after she is allowed to reopen The Comedy Project.

“I am so enamored by this. Right now, my dream is to be featured in some big, fancy magazine on a ‘top 10 gifts’ list or something. Now, every time I see a charcuterie board on TV, I’m like, ‘Oh, it would really complete this look!’ I’m pretty passionate about it right now, and I want to keep it going,” Gascon said.

“We are working on a couple of other products currently, with the plan to release them later in the fall, but I really wanted to get established with cheese spreaders. I think by having a really niche product, it will help us gain more traction, more so than trying to do a full shop of wooden goods. I liked the name ‘Home Grove Studio’ because it was simple, easy to remember and shared a little bit about the kind of work we do.”

Gascon said one of the most striking things about her new endeavor is that she is practicing what she preaches in improv, letting herself try new skills — “just throw things out there; there are no mistakes, only opportunities” — and she is learning how to embrace perceived failures and turn them into art.

“My dad is teaching me how to do all of this. I’m not good at it yet, but I will be soon. That’s what I teach in improv, as well. You have your ensemble, and if you mess up, you have to rely on the people around you to make it look better — to figure it out together.”

And it’s not just her dad in her corner.

“There is so much to learn about ecommerce and selling online in general — there are so many ideas out there and so many different strategies — and I’ve been talking with a lot of people and I’ve been consuming a lot of information, but until you’re actually doing it, trying it and just putting yourself out there, you just don’t know. And so that’s been a big learning curve. I’m learning so much in such a short amount of time, and that’s really exciting to me, because I haven’t gone through a period of such highly intense learning in a while.”

Gascon hopes to launch her own website after testing her concept on Etsy. For now, her shop can be found at etsy.com/shop/homegrovestudio.

For those who are curious, the story behind Gascon’s comedy theater and training programs can be found at thecomedyproject.com/about-us and grbj.com/news/improv-pro-starts-funny-business.

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