Raising the Bar

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Raising the Bar

By Anna Wolfe - 06/01/2012
The cheese case at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C., is stocked with 250 cheeses, including local favorites from Chapel Hill Creamery and Goat Lady Dairy.

*National Association of the Specialty Food Trade's State of the Food Industry 2011

The store's cheese buyer Alexander Kast encourages his clientele to cook more with cheese.

As any specialty food retailer can attest, the cheese case can be intimidating for many consumers.
Helping customers feel comfortable is part of the mission of many retailers including San Diego-based Venissimo Cheese. "Our goal is to make sure everyone feels welcome," says Gina Freize, who co-founded the cheese and specialty foods retailer with her husband Roger.

Their hospitality includes offering cheeses in all price ranges. In each of the four locations, three of which are 500 square feet, there are about 125 cheeses, everything from mass-produced cheeses to hard-to-find artisan cheeses. "We want to have a mix of price ranges, including some that are not expensive," Frieze explains.

Venissimo, which opened its first store in 2004, also let shoppers sample any cheese before they buy.

"Sampling is not passive," says Freize. "We're aggressive samplers. With a $50 per pound cheese, it is really about tasting how good it is. That's what we're about."

Venissimo Cheese, which has four cheese shops, will begin offering classes at second location.

Setting the Standard
Active sampling is also par for the course at Standard Market, a chef-driven gourmet market that opened last November in Westmont, Ill. About 10 percent of the 33,000-square-foot store is the wine and cheese bar and cheese cave.

"Cheese doesn't sell itself," says fromagier David Rogers. "Having passionate cheesemongers behind the case is one of the most important things to make it work."

At Standard Market, customers and cheesemongers can sample any of the "best-of-class" international and domestic 150-200 cheeses.

"Sure, you can take 40 to 50 pounds of cheese and put it in a bucket. We prefer to drive the experience of our customers out of the cheese case," says Rogers. "It is much more effective."

Like other specialty retail stores, the Standard Market cheese case is dominated by local and regional favorites and is driven by the seasonality of many of the cheeses. During the winter months when many of the American artisan cheeses are not available, "we ramp up on European cheeses, then in the summer we expand that American artisan selection," explains Rogers, who previously worked for Whole Foods Market, working his way up from a team member to a regional buyer.

An Education
"There is a lot of education to be done," says Rogers. "A lot of people are new to specialty cheese. It gives us the opportunity to introduce people to new cheeses," says Rogers, adding he and his team are focused on "expanding on what they know."

Among the store's suburban Chicago clientele, "there's a great willingness to experiment and try new cheeses. There is a surprise in there, a desire to find and try new stuff in the case," says Rogers. "It has really opened up to what we can buy and can sell. They are done with having the goudas of the world and are ready to move on to more exciting cheeses. And every category has some exciting stuff."

The store offers a guided pairing class once a month, and does free wine and cheese pairings where customers can sit down and sample two or three wines and cheese and learn about how they're paired and why.

For specialty retailers, education — by knowledgeable staff or through classes, is a central part of their mission.

Into the Kitchen
At A Southern Season in Chapel Hill, N.C., there's both. Inside the 60,000-square-foot gourmet market, there's a state-of-the-art cooking school called CLASS that attracts cookbook authors and notable chefs. Every month there's a cheese-oriented class at the 60,000-square-foot gourmet market. During an April class, a wine importer from the Loire Valley demonstrated the classic pairing of goat's milk cheeses and white wines.

Every Friday, A Southern Season's wine department hosts a wine tasting, pairing the wines with some of the store's cheeses. At a recent event, mini cheeseburgers stuffed with blue cheese were sampled.

A Southern Season's cheese buyer Alexander Kast is educating the clientele about cooking with cheese, encouraging them to look beyond the cheese plate and cook more with cheese. Recipes cards using cheese are given out.

"See what you can do with cheese," suggests Kast, who is one of the two official cheesemongers for the upcoming American Cheese Society conference in Raleigh, N.C. "It becomes a different thing (when cooked or used as an ingredient.) Even if you're tasting out a cheese, try lightly melting it over a baguette. You get a really different flavor."

Venissimo Cheese's customers are more curious and "are more interested in everything," says Gina Freize, co-owner.

Take for example, the washed-rind cheese Scharfe Maxx. "When you cut into it, it has a very pungent strong aroma," Kast explains. "When it is room temperature or cold, some people are turned off by the big oniony flavors.

"If you melt it, you can show what it becomes. It softens and has less abrasive flavors."

At Venissimo Cheese in San Diego, cheese education, both formal and informal, is part of the stores' regular offerings.

About two years ago, Venissimo started offering classes at its downtown San Diego location. These days, Venissimo's customers are more knowledgeable about cheese, says Freize.

Venissimo's 1,100-square-foot-store in downtown San Diego store is home to the Academy of Cheese — its own AOC, Freize points out — where it offers a variety of cheese pairing classes, such as wine and cheese, whiskey and cheese and beer and cheese. It also offers a Cheese 101 class to help cheese newbies learn about the basics such as milk types, styles and pairing information in a fun and approachable environment.

More than 10,000 people attended the second annual Pastoral Producers Festival in April.

Mozzarella and ricotta cheesemaking classes are the retailer's most popular and are offered regularly, Freize notes.

At press time, Venissimo was in the midst of expanding its Del Mar location so that it too could offer classes and have room to serve light fare such as cheese and meat boards. "We want people to be able to walk in and grab something, Italian-style, and have a little bite," Frieze says.

Like other retailers, Freize has noticed that her clientele is entertaining more at home, and as a result, Venissimo has seen a sales increase among its cheese trays and platters business.

"They want the best they can get with the money they have," Frieze explains. "They're not going out for $100 dinner, but will spend $70 on cheese. The quest for the best has gotten better."

Overall, Venissimo's shoppers are seeking more in-depth knowledge about what they're buying.

"People are more curious. They are more interested in everything — in what they eat and what's in it," explains Freize.

Back to the Roots
Carrie Davenport, general manager at The Rogers Collection, agrees, adding the Portland, Maine-based import company has noticed a shift towards a great appreciation of artisan traditions.

"One of the biggest things is people are trying to get back to the roots," Davenport says. "They want to know where it comes from, how it is traditionally made. It's not just with cheese, but all kinds of products," Davenport says.

Like their European counterparts, domestic cheesemakers are focusing on quality, paying more attention to the nuances of cheesemaking, such as affinage and the quality of ingredients such as brines and rubs, observes Marilyn Wilkinson, director national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB.)

It's a shift from a few years ago. "There for a while it was every month or so someone was introducing a new cheese," says Wilkinson.

Part of that quality-centric, back-to-the-roots movement is fueling the demand and appreciation of raw milk cheeses, Davenport adds.

From Rogers' retail and foodservice customers, Davenport has also seen an increased demand for "more unique producers of protected designation of origin (PDO) cheeses, and she's also fielding an increasing number of requests for certified organic cheeses and cheeses made with vegetable rennet.

In Salt Lake City at Caputo's Market, there are daily conversations about raw milk cheese.

"About once per day, we get a customer who is looking to buy only raw milk cheeses," says Tony Caputo, director of marketing. "They are in luck, because about half of our selection is raw milk, but most people don't care, they just want cheese that tastes good ... Just as often as someone requesting only raw milk, we also get pregnant women or people buying for them that specifically do not want raw milk."

"It's my duty to find those cheeses that are unique," says Sheana Davis, owner of The Epicurean Connection in Sonoma, Calif.

Known for Southern European products, Caputo's Market has about 200 cheeses on most days in its 11,000-square-foot market. "About 100 of our cheeses need to move in the next week or two. That's what we feel is our difference," Caputo says. "We have a vast array of cheeses that are peaking and ephemeral now that are not commonly seen."

Local cheeses such as Beehive Cheese, Snowy Mountain Sheep Creamery and Rockhill Creamery are popular along with Caputo's Cave aged Ossau Iraty that is aged six months in the store's cave. "The Onetik Grand Cru becomes full of crunchy casein protein crystals and the flavors of grass really pop," says Caputo.

In general, customers are "much more knowledgeable" about cheese than they were five years ago, retailers interviewed by TGR agree. Like other retailers interviewed, Caputo's is offering cheese classes. "Caputo's has been a major force for education," says Caputo, who was awarded Best Food and Wine Educator in the state by Salt Lake Magazine. "We used to have to really push to get even a small amount of our stinky cheeses to sell, but now people are buying them without being sold. As our affinage program and educations program has progressed, our customers have become more comfortable that we will not sell a cheese past its prime and this comfort factor makes them much more adventurous and willing to at least taste everything."

An Appetite for More
"People are hungry for knowledge," says Caputo. "Our highly educational — and opinionated — cheese classes are filling to capacity (50 people) and beyond, even though we are doing them more and more often." The classes attract chefs, food writers and the cheese novice.

At The Epicurean Connection, a specialty food store with a cheese, beer and wine bar in Sonoma, Calif., shoppers want to know the details. "At the consumer end, people want to know who is making their product," says Sheana Davis, owner. "I don't get asked as much if it is from Sonoma," she says, referring to the buy local trend. "I get asked, ‘Who is the producer?'"

Davis' cheese case features about 60 American artisan cheeses, with about 80 percent of the case split between California and Wisconsin. She rounds out her selection with cheeses from Washington, plus Kenny's Farmhouse brie from Kentucky and Great Hill Blue from Massachusetts.

"It's my duty to find those cheeses that are unique, that are not mass-marketed," says Davis, who also makes the Delice de la Vallée cheese and teaches cheesemaking and pairing classes and other cheese-centric events. "I can't compete on price with what I'm selling."

Unique artisan cheeses are also the centerpiece at Gastronomie 491, a 2,200-square-foot gourmet market that opened its doors March 21 at 83rd and Columbus in Manhattan. Like Caputo's, Gastronomie 491 is located near other retailers that sell hundreds of specialty cheeses. Still, the gourmet market has a niche. Instead of focusing exclusively on American artisans, Gastronomie 491's cheese case focuses on "high-caliber cheeses from small producers from around the world," says Martin Johnson, cheese, charcuterie, beer and wine buyer.

Engaged and Enthused
Johnson, who worked for years at Bedford Cheese in Brooklyn, said most of the Gastronomie 491 staff is relatively new to specialty cheese. Like Standard Market's Rogers, Johnson says an enthusiasm for food and learning are must-have qualities in employees. Johnson and his staff pride themselves on engaging the sophisticated clientele, talking about the milk, geography and aging process that's involved. "You can't do that when you're turning through 1,000 customers a day," Johnson points out.

Sampling too is crucial. One of the favorites is Alpine cheese rinsed in white wine. "It's very rare that anyone buys that cheese without tasting it," says Johnson, who also teaches cheese and beverage classes at the 92nd Street YMCA. L'Amuse, an aged gouda from Holland, an Italian goat's milk cheese with black truffles and Rolf Beeler's Gruyere were also popular at press time.

Cheese shops dedicated to cheese "are very involved in the community," observes WMMB Wilkinson. "They are giving more classes and doing more cheese education."

For example, Marion Street Cheese Market in Oak Park, Ill., and Pastoral Artisan Cheese Bread and Wine, which has three stores in Chicago, are a couple of the retailers that are "continually promoting and staying visible," observes Wilkinson. Eric Larsen, owner of Marion Street Cheese Market, "does a ton of classes," and he's also organized special dinners with cheesemakers in the store's restaurant. Larsen works with restaurants in Chicago that cross-promote with him, Wilkinson says, adding both Marion Street and Pastoral have developed small distribution businesses to restaurants.

On April 28, Pastoral hosted its second annual Pastoral's Artisan Producer Festival, a free event to meet 70 artisan producers from throughout the United States and around the globe, sample their small batch food, beer and wine. Twenty of the vendors at the Chicago French Market, where the event was located, also participated.

This year's festival was a huge success, attracting more than 10,000 attendees – double the number of 2011 – notes Cristi Menard, senior manager of procurement for Pastoral. "Our idea is for customers to meet the producers of the products we love and encourage them to engage in a meaningful way," Menard says, adding "I think we succeeded."

Overall, retailers agreed it is an exciting time to be in the cheese industry.