Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications

Subscribe Now

‘Cheese’ the Day

Passion for Provolone, Parmesan Drives Alum to Pivot From Overseas Development to Opening Tasting Bar

By Karen Shih ’09

collage of cheese board, Aaron Fagan '13 and Kara McGrath '13, and a cheese wedding cake

From delicious cheese boards to elaborate wedding "cakes," Kara McGrath '13 creates all types of savory delights at Paste and Rind, the cheese and wine bar she and husband Aaron Fagan '13 opened earlier this year on Washington, D.C.'s H Street.

Photos courtesy of Kara McGrath

As a kid, Kara McGrath ’13 had to have her “pocket cheese”—string cheese she shoved, at her mother’s dismay, into every jacket and pant so she could have it on the go. In college, she blew her budget on fancy fromage during grocery runs with roommates. And when she got married in 2018, she served her guests a flowery, four-tiered cake made not from red velvet or buttercream, but wheels of Manchego, blue cheese and Harbison.

So it was a surprise to exactly one person—herself—when she finally quit a stable job in international development four years ago to pursue a career as a cheesemonger (think merchant of mascarpone, not maker of mozzarella).

Today, she’s the owner of Paste and Rind, a cheese and wine bar on H Street in Washington, D.C., which she runs with her husband, Aaron Fagan ’13. It opened in February after she emptied her 401K to fund the renovation of the space.

four wines and cheeses lined up at bar

To build up buzz, she’s created half-hour mystery tastings of limited-release cheeses (pictured at right), which sold out in August and will be offered monthly starting in October. And she doesn’t depend solely on walk-in customers: Paste and Rind regularly appears at local farmers markets, offers custom platters for events and curates a subscription box.

That’s how it all started for McGrath, who joined a cheese catering business in 2019, feeling burned out by lack of funding for women’s economic empowerment and gender and diversity programs under the Trump administration. There, she gained experience making elaborate boards and leading tasting sessions. But when the pandemic hit, she and her business partner decided to close their storefront and part ways, leaving McGrath unsure of her next steps.

“There’s not a ton of cheese options in D.C.,” she said. “My whole thing was, if I can’t find a place to work, I’m going to build it.”

She created a COVID-friendly cheese of the month club, featuring contactless pickup and virtual guided tastings, working first out of her home, then in a rented shared kitchen space. As her following grew, she expanded with pop-ups at breweries and holiday markets, and when she saw that a former wine bar she frequented on H Street had closed and was up for lease, she seized the opportunity.

“It was serendipity,” said McGrath, who’s lived in the neighborhood for the past five years. The existing liquor license made the business more viable, because alcohol margins are higher. Plus, to better showcase local and other domestic cheddars and chevres, offering tasting plates rather than trying to sell half-pound blocks seemed more accessible.

[Party Queen, Behind the Scenes]

As a self-taught entrepreneur, McGrath follows cheese experts on Instagram, connects with peers at the Cheesemonger Invitational in New York and listens to restaurant strategy podcasts. But there still have been challenges she couldn’t foresee, such as when she found herself stranded with a refrigerator delivered to the sidewalk in front the bar. Not knowing the crew wouldn’t bring it in inside, she had to scramble to borrow a dolly from one of her fellow H Street business owners—a supportive bunch that has an active WhatsApp chat—and conscript her husband to remove the front door to make it fit through the entryway.

Since then, Fagan has become more than a handy husband. He quit his job in the tech industry to join her at Paste and Rind, putting his data analytics experience to work as the head of business operations.

The proud Terps often work closely with UMD, creating pairings for Alumni Association and Startup UMD events, as well as gift boxes for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, where McGrath earned her government and politics degree.

They’re excited to expand their business further, such as hiring full-time staff to increase the wine bar’s hours and taking on bigger catering gigs and weddings, where she might find herself with another full-circle cheese wheel moment.

This summer, as she met with a bride, the client pulled up an inspiration photo.

McGrath could only laugh when she saw the “cake.” “It was mine that she saw on Pinterest!”



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.