6 Steps to Building the Perfect Cheese Board–With the UW Grad Who Does It For a Living

By Christina Lorey

February 28, 2023

26-year-old Therese Merkel was ahead of the “Charcuterie Curve” when she launched Tricky Foods in 2020. 

Therese Merkel started her Tricky Foods Instagram page six years ago after finding out she had digestive issues.

“I was eating a lot of food that didn’t have a lot of flavor to it,” Merkel, 26, explained. “So I started styling it pretty, so at least it would look good.”

Even after learning how to make the food she could eat taste good, too, Merkel kept on styling it. Building charcuterie boards quickly became her hobby and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Merkel has nearly 8,000 followers on Instagram, her own business, and dozens of weekly customers. Her cleverly-named boards range in price from the $30 “I Luv U” box and the $60 “Fine, I’ll Share” to the $120 “Party”–a completely customizable 16-inch platter that serves 12.  

But it wasn’t an easy path to get here. Merkel worked an 8-5 job at Epic Systems until April 2020, when the pandemic caused her to re-evaluate her life, quit her job, and follow her dream.

We caught up with the 26-year-old for this Small Business Spotlight.

How do you describe what you do to a stranger? 

I style food and sell appetizer platters for the same reasons people buy flower arrangements—big celebrations, special milestones, and holidays. 

How’d you come up with your name, Tricky Foods? 

In high school, my friend group had random nicknames and “Tricky Tré” was mine. I started an Instagram page named ‘Tricky Foods’ when I was dealing with some digestive and autoimmune issues in college, and when I found something I liked, I posted it! Once I quit my corporate job, I picked the page back up and decided to keep the name “to start” my business. Friends said it sounds like “icky foods,” but I think it shows the quirky and fun side of the biz, and I love the story behind it. 

What exciting business milestones have you hit lately that surprised even you? 

Q4 is always our busiest, and in 2022, we did more sales in one week of December than our entire first year in business. Customer count has never been a milestone I track, but I do keep a close eye on our highest-dollar clients. It’s crazy to see how a dozen clients (or companies) can make up 70% of our revenue! PUMA [the international shoe line] was big time for us in multiple ways: our single largest order, record number of platters made in a day, etc. I try to ball out and treat myself to a fancy new restaurant when we get through something huge.

It seems like charcuterie-focused companies are suddenly, and quickly, becoming more popular and prevalent. What makes yours different from others?

I run Tricky Foods as my main priority, not as a side gig. This business requires early mornings, weekends, and holidays. We work off of demand, which requires a lot of sacrifice. I entered the market about a year before it really blew up.

What’s your favorite product you offer? 

I love our circle platters for larger groups–either the Hangout or the Party. They are my favorite to make and to look at, and I love knowing a larger group will get to enjoy them together. 

6 Tips to Building Your Own Board

When you can’t spring for a special occasion board, Merkel shared her top six tips for building the perfect charcuterie board at home.

Start with a Circle Platter.

It helps make things look less “boxy” and more natural. There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the size, but a good rule of thumb is a 12-inch platter for four to seven people and a 15-inch platter for eight to 15 people.

Build Your Board One Ingredient at a Time.

I always start with the cheese: between two and four cheeses and a mix of soft & hard for variety. Next, I add the cured meat (the actual charcuterie component). Then, crackers. You can stop there, but I like to take my boards one step farther and add little bowls for pickles and olives, a jam or spread, fresh fruit, dried fruit, veggies, chocolate, and nuts. 

MORE: These Are the Best Wisconsin Cheeses for Your Charcuterie Board

Choose Quality Over Quantity.

Sometimes simple is best. If I could pick only one cheese, I’d go for Sartori Merlot, a parm/cheddar mix that’s soaked in wine and made in Wisconsin! For meat, I’d choose Genoa Salami. It takes me back to my childhood, and it’s a safe bet for pretty much everyone. Spruce them up by making salami roses or a salami river. Click here for a quick how-to.

Cater to You & Your Guests.

Selecting the perfect cheese/meat pairing is like ordering a Starbucks drink—it’s overwhelming and rarely “one size fits all.” But these are a few of my favorite crowd-pleasing cheese and cracker combinations: 

  • White Cheddar and Potter’s Caramelized Onion Crackers (another WI brand) 
  • Brie (Baked) and Potter’s Hazelnut Cranberry Crisps with Local Honey 
  • Sartori Merlot and a Pita Cracker Crisp with a Local, Slightly-Spiced Jam (think: strawberry habanero or cherry chipotle)

Remember the Rainbow.

Think of a color wheel when building your board. It’s not just about what tastes good, but what looks good. Every ingredient should have another color that balances it out on the other side of the tray. For example, if you have pickles on one side, put green olives on the other. This is why you’ll usually find only green grapes on professional boards: there aren’t as many purple ingredients to choose from.

Garnishes Are a Game Changer.

Fresh herbs make every board look complete. In the summer, I plant my own herbs, so I can always have them on hand. 

READ MORE: $209 a pound?! The Story Behind the Special Wisconsin Cheese Back on Sale


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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