When Karem Rodriguez lived in Puerto Rico, she frequented a specialty food shop for occasions such as celebrating birthday parties or a weekend with friends.
“We’d go and grab dips and things for gatherings or just for treating ourselves,” she said. “We moved to Texas, and we had nothing like that around. We moved to Florida, and there was nothing around. We said, ‘This is something that we’d like to do.’”
Her passion for entertaining and creating cheeseboards and appetizer platters turned into a business for Rodriguez, a former labor and employment attorney who opened The Modern Host Life in Winter Garden earlier this year.
On her business website, Rodriguez discusses her love of spending time with friends and family.
“Gatherings are my thing,” she wrote. “I’m an entertainer, a social connector and immensely enjoy spending time with those I love over food, drinks and lively conversations.”
Her home is always open, she said, and she keeps food staples and party supplies on hand for when visitors come for impromptu get-togethers.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, all but the essential stores closed.
“I had way too much time on my hands, and I started a blog,” she said. “I did cheese and turkey charcuterie boards. … I started posting online, because what do you do during the pandemic but eat, cook? So I started posting everything we’d cook and all the boards. We did cocktail challenges with our friends. We’d go in a parking lot and exchange our cocktails. People started following me on social media, and they started asking me about my cheese boards.”
Folks were getting bored in their homes and started ordering Rodriguez’s boards to break up the monotony of staying indoors.
When Rodriguez and her husband, J.P. Navarro, started looking for a commercial kitchen, they found the perfect location in the West Orange Shopping Center on Dillard Street. Navarro, also an attorney and an accountant, handles the business finances.
“We’re in this together,” she said.
Rodriguez wanted to offer premade charcuterie and cheese boards, but she also knew there are people who like to make their own, so she expanded her inventory to include pastas and pestos from Italy and Greece, chocolates from the United Kingdom and other smaller-batch artisan-made foods such as Brazilian honeys, jams, salsas, praline sauce and walnut toppings.
For wine enthusiasts, bottles are available from Italy, France, South Africa, a few from Spain, from Portugal, Germany and Chile.
“Every week we’re getting more and more wines,” Rodriguez said. “They’re all boutique wines so you won’t find (them) in your typical supermarket.”
Dips are another specialty, she said. She and her employees make a variety of flavors — including chicken and spicy crab salad, shrimp ceviche, honey guava dip, and beer and bacon dip.
“Today, we’re working on a white bean dip and some cheese balls with some orange zest and cranberries and pecans,” Rodriguez said. “Every week we try to invent something. We sometimes make marinated meats with our own in-house marinates. We have a house marinate and chimichurri and Mediterranean marinade. We alternate among the three.”
Lobster tails, cultured butter, truffle products and scratch-made dips also are staples in the shop.
The customer base is expanding, and Rodriguez wants to see old and new faces in her shop, so she is working on offering formal and educational wine tastings, as well as workshops on making cheese boards — and which wines go well with certain cheeses.
She has seen an increase in company-to-company business, and that has been an exciting aspect of Modern Host Life. Recently, an open house was held at four homes for Realtors, and Rodriguez was tasked with creating four different themed platters.
She also is making charcuterie boxes for an exhibition taking place at The Villages. And she said several Airbnb owners have her create two-person charcuterie boards for guests checking in.
“We know our products, and can talk to customers about our products,” Rodriguez said. “Customer service is important to us.”