By Robin Mather
For a while, C.J. Bienert thought that he’d love to run his own cheesemaking company. Then he went on a year-long “cheese sabbatical,” as he calls it, and learned something important about himself.
“Cheesemaking is really about washing a lot of dishes,” he says. “I learned that while working at cheese companies in that year. One day someone asked me what I wanted to do and I was surprised to hear ‘I want to open a cheese shop’ come out of my mouth.”
So, after a year of working “when I could” and interning “sometimes for free” with various cheesemakers around the United States, C.J. returned to Des Moines, Iowa, and opened The Cheese Shop of Des Moines in 2011.
The shop, with storage and production in a 600-square-foot basement and a retail space of about 550 square feet at street level, specializes in artisanal American cheeses and domestic charcuterie, he says. It’s located in a strip mall called The Shops at Roosevelt in the Historic Roosevelt Cultural District. “It looks like a standard strip mall,” Bienert says, “but it’s really food-centric.”
The mall is also home to specialty grocer VomFASS, which sells wine, spirits, specialty oils and gourmet foods; and to La Mie, a long-time Des Moines artisanal bakery and cafe. “Most of our employees live within two to four miles of the shop,” Bienert says, “and many of our customers also live in the neighborhood. Each of us (the other food shops) brings in customers for the others, so it works really well.”
The shop is open Tuesday through Saturday, so Bienert and his six-person staff can enjoy a full two days off each week. “We’re a family business,” he says. “I believe we all need time off to reenergize.”
That’s particularly important for Bienert, who with his wife, Kari, has two children: 2-1/2-year-old son Solomon and infant daughter Coral, who was born in early June — the same week that the Bienerts opened Cheese Bar DSM, a 3,000-square-foot 70-seat cafe that offers more seating for customers than the original Cheese Shop can provide.
C.J. met Kari when he was selling cheese in a gourmet shop and she was working in the store’s wine department. “She’d been in organic farming,” C.J. says, “and she’s definitely a foodie, so we had a lot in common.” Today, Kari juggles the company’s bookkeeping and payroll duties while staying at home with the kids. “I don’t think she’d like to hear me refer to her as a ‘stay-at-home mom,’ “ Bienert quips. “She’s probably feeding the kids while she does payroll right now.” Bienert credits ZingTrain, the business development company in the Zingerman’s family of businesses, with much of his success, he says. “We wouldn’t be here, probably, if it weren’t for ZingTrain.” He calls himself a “servant-leader,” and encourages his staff to develop their potential.
“Like I did on my cheese sabbatical, I encourage my employees to take the time to find out what they really want to do,” he says. “I say, ‘If you want to take the summer off to go intern at a cheese plant, you can do that.’ I keep a current list of cheesemakers seeking interns available at all times.”
Bienert qualified for the American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professional accreditation a couple of years ago, he says, and he’s encouraging his staff to pursue that, too, if they’re interested. “I have some staff people who’ve been with me for five years, and some of them came to me with no cheese experience, but now they’ve fallen in love with cheese. I’ve been in the business for 16 years, but I like to be a good ‘servant-leader’ and lead by example. The accreditation has definitely opened some doors for me.”
Bienert got his start when he was just 19, working for Barbara Horn at her Des Moines shop, Wine Experience, which closed in 2006. “The shop was ahead of the curve and it had a great cheese counter, but in those days, there wasn’t a plethora of web sites or cheese information out there like there is today,” Bienert, now 34, says. “Barbara said then, ‘This is a growing industry.’ And today I tell my employees the same thing — cheese is a growing industry.”
Bienert enthusiastically works to help Des Moines help the cheese industry grow. Classes and samplings at Cheese Shop aid in the growth. “We do classes at the cheese shop once a week, on Mondays,” he says. “They’re themed — things like wine and cheese pairing, cheese 101, cheese 2.0, comparing wine vs. beer for pairings, things like that.” Somewhat to his surprise, the classes have become much more than he expected. “When we first started six years ago, we thought the classes would be just marketing, but they also promote revenue. We seat 25 people, oftentimes sell out and sometimes have people standing for the whole class. We make money on our classes.”
His customers have been appreciative, he says, and that keeps his own enthusiasm revved up. “It excites me that people are that interested in good cheese,” he says.
He recognizes that his store occupies a very special niche, but that’s part of its strength.
“I used Europe as our model and travel to Europe annually. We visit cheese shops and independent retailers, and they have a niche that larger stores can’t provide,” Bienert says.
As examples, he says, “Our main competitor would be grocery stores, but they don’t have our relationship with producers. We’ll drive nine hours to pick up a cheese from the producer on our day off, turn around and drive nine hours home again, just so that cheese will be in perfect condition when we get it to the shop.
“We also do products from La Quercia,” Bienert says of the Iowa company that produces prize-winning domestic prosciuttos and other salumi. “Large stores have a hard time doing things like the hand-carving of a full prosciutto with the hoof still attached, and then giving it proper care. But again, that’s something we can do. It’s not only theatrical and looks cool, it’s also tasty.” There’s no other shop in Des Moines like his, Bienert says, “but I feel there will be more, and I encourage the competition. Again, we’ll rely on our connection with our producers.”
By Lorrie Baumann
A few cheesemakers who brought their wares to the Summer Fancy Food Show this year are offering new mixed-milk cheeses that they hope will be a gateway for inexperienced consumers into artisanal cheeses from the milk of animals other than cows. These cheeses blend flavors from the milk of goats and/or sheep to result in cheeses that have flavor notes that might be unfamiliar and interesting to neophyte cheese-lovers, but they’re combined with the reassuring familiarity of tastes of cow milk.
One of these is Landmark Creamery’s new Switchgrass, a mixed cow and sheep milk cheese for which the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research collaborated on the recipe. The cheese has sweet, nutty characteristics like a sheep milk cheese, but because the cheese is made from cow milk as well, it can be offered at a retail price point in the lower $20s range rather than the price point dictated purely by the cost of sheep milk.
Landmark is a small Wisconsin creamery, just four years old, owned by Anna Thomas Bates and Anna Landmark, who make and age their cheeses in space belonging to other cheesemakers. The company has just launched a new Kickstarter campaign that the two Annas hope will produce the financing for new aging equipment and get them into their own aging space, Bates said.
LaClare Farms Cheesemaker Katie Fuhrmann is pursuing a similar idea with her GoCo, a fun cheddar cheese made with cow curds melded with goat milk curds. She’s also offering Blueberry Merlot Chandoka, a holiday spread made from her Chandoka, which tied for a second place in the Brest of Show category at the 2015 American Cheese Society Competition & Judging. That version of Chandoka was aged by Standard Market, but LaClare Farms, owned by Fuhrmann’s parents, Larry and Clare Hedrich, now has enough aging space to allow Chandoka to stay home to be aged there. The Blueberry Merlot Chandoka is a deeply decadent cheese spread, soft enough to be dipped out of its container with a finger when it’s at room temperature. The Merlot helps give it a beautiful caramel color as well as a deep fruitiness that helps to round out the flavor of the blueberries. This cheese is rich enough to make a satisfying after-dinner dessert as well as a cocktail party offering.
If you were lucky enough to have the chance to visit the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board booth during the Summer Fancy Food Show, you probably enjoyed the flight of five Wisconsin cheddars that the WMMB had there. These included Vat 17 World Cheddar from Deer Creek Cheese, Hook’s Triple Play-Extra Innings from Hook’s Cheese, Heritage Weis 5-Year Cheddar from Red Barn Family Farms, Red Rock from Roelli Cheese Haus and 8-Year Aged Cheddar from Widmer’s Cheese Cellars.
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is known for traditionally-made cheeses with assertive flavors, but Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer also knows how to make a cheese that’s perfectly balanced so that these strong flavors comfort and satisfy. The Hook’s Triple Play is another example of these interesting mixed-milk cheeses, as it combines milk from cows, goats and sheep. Extra Innings is an extra-aged variety of the original Triple Play, which received a third-place award in the 2015 American Cheese Society contest. The Vat 17 World Cheddar was made from a mix of cheese cultures from the different styles of cheddar cheese that are made around the world, ending with a cheese that combines the flavors of a familiar American-style cheddar with the nuances of British cheddars. Altogether, these five cheeses offered a world of new flavors from a cheese you thought you already knew.
By Lorrie Baumann
With just three tables inside the 900 square foot store and a few more out on the sidewalk outside when weather permits, Marché has become a gathering place for local residents who make it a place to meet during lunch breaks or a stop for a glass of wine and a cheese plate while they’re on their round of the nearby shops in Glen Ellyn’s historic downtown. “We definitely have customers for whom this is their spot,” says Founder Jill Foucré, who opened the store in November, 2015, as an offshoot of Marcel’s Culinary Experience, the kitchenware store two doors down the block that she opened in 2011.
In the cheese cases that took the place of clothing racks after Foucré bought the former clothing store and gutted it to make her specialty cheese shop, Marché regularly offers about 100 cheeses. About half of them are imported, but for the domestic half of the selection, General Manager Daniel Sirko emphasizes the world-class cheeses made in Illinois’ neighboring states. He’s made his entire career in the specialty food business, opening Pastoral, Chicago’s iconic cheese and charcuterie shop, and then moving on to operating in a couple of foodservice establishments before he got a phone call from Foucré, who asked him to come and help her open a cheese shop in Glen Ellyn. “We seek out farmstead artisan cheeses when we can,” he says. “If there’s a cheddar from California or Wisconsin, we’re more likely to go with the Wisconsin cheese.” About half the cheeses in the case belong to a core that Sirko keeps in stock year-round, while the remainder are more seasonal.
The store’s single best seller, though, does come from California. It’s Cypress Grove’s Humboldt Fog. “It’s so recognizable, and so delicious,” Sirko says. The store also offers a range of Manchego cheeses, and those are very popular, as are triple cremes and a house-made pimento cheese. During the summertime, Marché makes its own mozzarella from curd purchased from a New Jersey dairy.
The cheese selection is augmented by a selection of artisanal charcuterie, olives and tapenades, locally made chocolates and breadsticks and a selection of small-production wines that can’t be found in the town’s specialty wine shop. The shop pours seven or eight by the glass and offers a free tasting every Tuesday in a pairing with a complementary cheese. “The popularity of the wine selection has been a happy surprise,” Foucré says. “We sell a lot of wine.”
Marché’s proximity to Marcel’s, a store that already had a loyal following, meant that Marché had interested customers from the day it opened. There’s still some overlap of the two stores’ customer bases, but each also has its own community within the commuter suburb with a population of about 27,000 relatively affluent residents about 45 minutes west of downtown Chicago. It’s conveniently close to the Metra train line that offers a simple connection to the city for the population of young homeowners drawn to Glen Ellyn by its location in DuPage County rather than Chicago’s Cook County. DuPage County offers good schools, while Glen Ellyn boasts upscale neighborhoods of very community-oriented residents. “People grow up here. They leave. They come back,” Foucré says.
That’s been good for Marcel’s, Marché and other downtown small businesses because it’s also a population that’s supportive of local small businesses, Foucré says. “People get that if they don’t shop here, if they send their dollars online, we won’t be here,” she says. The small business community, in turn, supports the Alliance of Downtown Glen Ellyn and the city’s Chamber of Commerce, which are very active in promoting concerts in the park, art festivals and other special events that bring visitors from around Chicago’s metropolitan area as well as local residents out to enjoy the small town ambiance while they patronize the antique shops, book store, clothing boutique and small cafes as well as Marcel’s and Marché.
Marché itself draws two kinds of typical customers, although these come in all ages. There are those who come to buy cheese out of the case to take it home and cook with it or to make a cheese board for their entertaining and those who’ve made the store the gathering place where they meet their friends. “That customer wants us to have more tables and sees us as a quasi-restaurant/cafe,” Foucré says. Both of these kinds of customers rely on Marché to offer them catered cheese boards. These come in four different sizes, serving from five or six up to 40 to 50. They’re served on cherry wood boards that come back to the store when the cheeses and accompaniments have been consumed. “They’re 100 percent complete when you get them,” Foucré says. “People get them for their book club or for the dinner party they’re having.”
Those who are choosing their own cheeses can count on the assistance of Marché’s seven employees, each of whom is very knowledgeable about the store’s wares. During fall, winter and spring, the shop also offers evening classes, and Marché and Marcel’s encourage their respective customers to get to know more about the sister shop by hosting the occasional joint class with a cooking lesson that incorporates cheese and perhaps a wine pairing.
The class schedule is suspended in summertime, when Marché offers extended hours, and there isn’t room in the shop for simultaneous classes and regular retail service. Those extended hours are critical to customers who stop in at the shop to pick up their picnic baskets on their way to an evening concert in the park, either in Glen Ellyn itself or a train ride away in Chicago. The Metra line serving Glen Ellyn cooperates by allowing riders to enjoy their picnic and bottle of wine on the train. “We’re looking to make the on-the-go part accessible for people,” Foucré says. “”So many people take the train…. People have really embraced that.”
She adds, “There will be events throughout the summer that it will be nice to take a picnic box to – and a bottle of wine.”