Following the release of a surprise statement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expressing respect for the artisan cheesemaking community and announcing that FDA is “pausing its testing program for non-toxigenic E. coli in cheese,” FDA Deputy Director for Foods and Veterinary Medicine, Michael Taylor, met with raw milk cheese producers on February 12 to learn more about the concerns of the American artisan cheese industry.
This Listening Session was held at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, where Taylor was joined by Dr. Susan Mayne, Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and a number of pertinent FDA staff. In opening remarks, American Cheese Society (ACS) Executive Director, Nora Weiser, expressed that “ACS’s desire to preserve and protect traditional cheesemaking practices; ensure safe, diverse products for consumers; and work with regulators to avoid undue and unnecessary barriers to growth are shared by many allied industry groups.” Weiser went on to name over 20 industry groups that support ACS in this direction, including numerous regional cheese guilds, international cheese organizations, and other dairy industry groups.
Seven ACS members, all raw milk cheesemakers from around the country, lent their voices to advance the dialogue and understanding that are needed to ensure continued growth of the artisan cheese sector. Presenting cheesemakers focused on several key issues:
Taylor emphasized that “we have to work together, and ACS is positioned for leadership in helping FDA understand what works for your product.” He went on to explain that preventive controls (PC) are about industry knowing what is needed and assessing what history has shown is successful. In response to ongoing concerns over changes to the 60-day aging rule, Taylor assured the group that any change to the rule will not be a surprise to stakeholders, and that this open dialogue is a prelude to any future rule-making or comment process. He stated that we must “look at raw milk cheese in [the] context of the PC framework.”
Mayne agreed, stressing the importance of science. She pledged that FDA will seek outside consult from academia and science in approaching artisan cheese safety. She sees moving forward in three steps: dialogue, which was furthered at the Listening Session; data, which must be shared openly; and scientific engagement, with technical discussions informed by what cheesemakers are doing.
Spurred by Taylor and Mayne, those present agreed that the next step is to pull together a group of relevant stakeholders, technical experts, and appropriate FDA staff to convene and discuss what preventive controls might look like for raw milk cheesemaking, and how testing can play its appropriate role in verifying controls. Jeremy Stephenson, cheesemaker at Spring Brook Farm in Vermont and member of the ACS Board of Directors, captured the theme of the meeting when he stated, “Concrete, measurable steps need to be taken on the part of FDA at every level to give the cheesemaking community confidence that regulators are operating in the spirit of FSMA. We need and value good regulation both to protect our customers as well as our collective industry.”
Food Marketing Institute (FMI) commended the U.S. House of Representatives for approving on a bipartisan basis (266-144-1) legislation that offers workable solutions to fix flaws contained in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) final chain restaurant menu labeling regulations that were expanded in 2015 to apply to grocery stores.
FMI President and CEO Leslie G. Sarasin said, “The Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of 2015 (H.R. 2017) is not about being ‘for’ or ‘against’ the inclusion of nutrition information on menus. Instead, the bill injects some common sense into the rule by avoiding a one-size fits all system and allowing supermarkets to provide this important information to their customers in ways that are most accessible and useful to the customers for whom it is intended.”
She continued, “FMI has fervently pursued legislation because FDA has not been able to resolve through regulation the supermarket industry’s recorded concerns and needed clarification. With the quickly approaching deadline for compliance, FMI members desperately need this helpful bi-partisan legislative resolution.”
Importantly, the bill does not exempt supermarkets or any other retailers from the nutrition information requirement. Instead, it offers practical suggestions for menu labeling regulations in a grocery store setting along with flexible disclosure options. Provisions of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act of interest to the supermarket industry include:
Sarasin commented, “We appreciate the support of such an impressive and diverse group of Members of Congress – they are true champions of solving problems for the 1,225 businesses and 40,000 stores FMI represents.”
California’s premier cheese event, California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, is celebrating its tenth year, March 18 – 20, 2016, in and around the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. Representing 10 years of cheese education and appreciation, this year’s festival brings together chefs, artisan cheesemakers, farmers, educators, authors, brewers, winemakers and enthusiastic guests for three days of cheese tasting and celebration. In honor of this exciting milestone, local celebrity chef Joey Altman is emceeing two spirited evening events Under the Big Top: Friday’s lively “Cheesemongers’ Duel – The Best Bite,” and Saturday’s “California Cheesin’ – We Do It Our Whey” 10 Year Celebration.
There are also an array of educational seminars and pairing demonstrations on Saturday morning and afternoon, led by some of the world’s most respected cheese experts. Seminar topics range from pairing cheese with sake to the similarities of making cheese and chocolate, and will take place at the Sheraton Sonoma County and the new Cowgirl Creamery Warehouse in Petaluma. Details about these seminars and the weekend’s festive evening celebrations Under the Big Top are as follows:
Friday, March 18
Cheesemonger’s Duel – The Best Bite
Friday night Under the Big Top at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma is where California’s top cheesemongers will take center stage in a light-hearted yet energetic competition to see who can create the best bite using local artisan cheese. Local celebrity chef and educator Joey Altman is joining in on the fun as judge and emcee for the evening, and guests are encouraged to vote for their favorite bite while enjoying plenty of artisan wine, cider and beer. A “Fantasy Cheese Table” will also be on display, so guests may taste the wide variety of local and rare cheeses at this not-to-be-missed party to kick off the weekend. Tickets $50; Under the Big Top at the Sheraton Sonoma County, 6 – 9 p.m.
Saturday, March 19
Seminars and Pairing Demonstrations
Bringing attendees face-to-face with the experts who work with and create some of America’s best artisan cheeses, the Saturday seminars and pairing demonstrations tend to sell out early every year. Taking place at both the Sheraton Sonoma County and at Cowgirl Creamery’s new warehouse in Petaluma, industry experts will enlighten guests on a variety of topics, such as:
The ticket prices for the seminars include a catered lunch by Petaluma Market from 11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. During the lunch break and after the afternoon seminars, several local cheese authors will be available for book signings in the lobby of the Sheraton Sonoma County and books will be available for purchase by Copperfield’s Books.
Seminars and Pairing Demonstrations to take place at the Sheraton Sonoma County and Cowgirl Creamery Warehouse; 10 – 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 – 3 p.m.; Tickets $75; More seminar details may be found at http://artisancheesefestival.com/schedule-of-events/saturday-evening-grand-tasting/
California Cheesin’ — We Do It Our Whey!
In celebration of a decade of California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, guests are invited to taste their way around this evening celebration of California cheese, Under the Big Top at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma. Guests will sample cheese-infused dishes from some of the Bay Area’s best chefs and restaurants, including Backyard (Forestville), the girl and the fig (Sonoma), and Nick’s Cove and Cottages (Marshall). Attendees will then cast their vote for their favorite dish and the winner will be announced by the evening’s emcee and local celebrity chef, Joey Altman. Artisan wines, beers and ciders will be on hand to complement each dish, and live music, a “Whey Cool Bubbles Lounge,” and a special tribute to some of the icons of California’s artisan cheese industry will round out this festive gastronomic showdown.
Saturday, March 19, 2016; Under the Big Top at the Sheraton Sonoma County, 6 – 9 p.m. Tickets $75.
Throughout the weekend, guests will have the opportunity to experience new, limited-production and rare artisan cheeses while supporting California farmers and cheesemakers in their ongoing effort to advance sustainability. Tickets to most of the festival’s events are still available, including two days of farm tours exploring northern California farms from Marin County to Sacramento; Sunday’s Bubbles and Brunch with visionary chef John Ash; and the grand finale: Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace. Tickets for all events may be purchased at www.artisancheesefestival.com.
By Lorrie Baumann
As the market for quality cheeses grows, cheesemakers like Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda depend on professional cheesemongers to continue educating their customers about the products in their cases. That’s particularly important if, as some cheesemakers say, the cheese market is not driven so much by a definition of “local” that depends solely on geography as it is by a definition of “local” that connotes a community of like-minded people who share a cultural context. It’s cheesemongers who tell the stories that communicate that cultural context to their customers, Penterman observes. “It’s fun to see the cheesemonger community grow and develop a passion for the cheeses. It’s a kind of community,” she says. “Those people are so essential to the food industry. They represent us in the stores, and they talk about us, and they pass on that passion for cheese. It’s just phenomenal.”
Penterman herself experiences that sense of community among those who appreciate fine cheeses, she says. “When you go to a food show, it’s always fun to see people enjoy it, and it’s so rewarding and encouraging in what you’re doing.”
The awards that Penterman has won at many of those food shows are permanent symbols of how much her cheeses are enjoyed. Since she started making cheese in 2006, Penterman’s company, Holland’s Family Cheese, has won more than 100 national and international awards, including awards for all of its Marieke Gouda varieties. She has recently added Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Cranberry (seasonal) and Marieke Gouda Jalapeno to her line. Marieke Gouda Bacon is the very latest flavor in the line, made in collaboration with Nolechek’s Meats, a butcher that’s local to Marieke Gouda’s home in Thorp, Wisconsin.
“They have been phenomenal. They put our Gouda in their brats and their hot dogs, so we thought we’d put their bacon in our Gouda,” Penterman says. “Bacon Gouda is really phenomenal!”
Marieka Gouda Foenegreek, which has won multiple awards, was one of the first cheeses Penterman made when she went into commercial production. She’d been thinking about adding walnuts to her gouda, but she’d hesitated because bringing tree nuts into a food facility is not done lightly. Then she tasted a fenugreek Gouda during a visit to the Netherlands and decided that the nutty flavor of the fenugreek seeds satisfied that craving without adding the tree nut complication, so she decided to try making it herself. It didn’t go well at first.
“It was so smelly in the house. I cooked the herbs in those days in our home kitchen,” she recalls. The simmering fenugreek smelled so bad that she changed her mind about adding it to her cheese, but then her husband, Rolf, suggested that she go ahead, give it a try and see how it turned out. “He doesn’t like to waste things,” Penterman says.
The cheese was aging when Penterman got a call from the Dairy Business Innovation Center to alert her to a 2007 competition. She picked a cheese to enter, and she asked one of her team members to pick a cheese. Rolf picked a third cheese, the Marieke Gouda Foenegreek. “Rolf picked the Foenegreek, and right away it won a gold award at the 2007 championship, so it was pretty cool,” Penterman says.
American consumers’ enthusiasm for Marieke Gouda and for Gouda cheeses in general is elevating both the availability and the quality of fine cheeses in the marketplace as cheesemakers improve their products to meet consumers’ expectations, Penterman says. “You can see the consumer starting to realize what good cheese is. Consumers are willing to spend a little extra to taste good cheese and to support local farmstead cheesemakers,” she says. “Overall cheese quality has improved. Flavor profiles are getting better. People are traveling and tasting cheeses and returning passionate about cheeses. I think that in general the quality for sure made a big jump in the last 10 years.”
By Lorrie Baumann
If you happen to see Aaron Anker tooling around at the wheel of a Volkswagen bus, don’t let good manners keep you from calling him a granola to his face. He won’t mind. “We are who we are,” he says. “We make granola, but we also drive our VW buses, and when you meet our staff, you’ll know why we have all been called granolas at some time in our life. We are authentic. We are who we say we are.”
Anker is a co-owner and Chief Granola Officer at GrandyOats, a Maine maker of organic cereals and snacks that’s just finished its third straight year with more than 25 percent annual growth. Over the past year, the company achieved 28 percent growth and made 1.2 million pounds of organic granola, trail mix and roasted nuts and generated $5.3 million in sales.
GrandyOats is also just settling into a state-of-the-art 100 percent solar powered facility that will make the company the first net zero food production facility in New England. The new facility is located in Hiram, Maine, where it’s adding 21 to the only 39 jobs currently existing in the town of Hiram. “We are literally in the mountains, in the hills of Maine, way off the beaten path…. One of the things that’s happening in rural New England is that there isn’t much economic growth and people are migrating to the cities. A lot of these towns don’t have much going on,” Anker says. “We really enjoy being able to employ people. We get people who are excited to join us, who are excited to be part of the company…. We’re helping the community grow. It’s a really nice feeling.”
Anker joined the company in 2000 after co-owner and Head Honcho, Nat Peirce, a college friend from the University of New Hampshire bought the company and invited him to join the partnership. The two have pursued their goals of creating a healthy, good place for people to work and keeping the organic integrity of their products. Their ownership of the company and a strategy of gradual growth and reinvestment in the business frees them from having to meet investor goals as well, Anker says.
When GrandyOats outgrew its previous facility and Anker and Peirce went looking for new premises that would allow them to fulfill a dream of powering their operations with solar energy, they were fortunate to find a disused elementary school made available by consolidation of the local school district. The 8.5-acre site included more than an acre of space where the students used to play soccer and kickball and that’s now used as the site for 288 solar panels that are expected to produce an average of 95.622 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. That’s enough to offset 145,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions each year. “We looked at all the different options for space, including some that would have required cutting down trees, but that wasn’t the granola thing to do,” Anker says. “Revitalizing an old building was.”
Everything in the new building is powered with solar electricity, including the ovens, the forklifts, the heating and cooling. “We won’t have any petroleum on premises at all,” Anker says. “We’re really excited about it, and we’re the first food production facility in New England to do that.”
With its new plant, the company is ready to expand its distribution into additional retailers in California, Arizona and Nevada under the leadership of a new Western U.S. Account Manager, Becky LaFord. GrandyOats is already being sold in the South Pacific region of Whole Foods, and the product line is doing well in independent natural food stores and co-ops as well as Hannaford, Wegmans and MOM’s Organic Markets. All of those retailers are good partners for the brand, which does best when it’s in the hands of retailers who care about the integrity of the products they sell, value transparency about how the products are made and are willing to educate customers to help them make good decisions, Anker says.
GrandyOats is also offered in 75 college and university dining halls. “It’s been really a fun segment for us,” Anker says. “It helps universities communicate their commitment to healthy, quality offerings they can feel good about. It’s been positive for the schools, the students, and has helped grow our business and brand.”
The company’s product line comprises more than 40 SKUs of trail mixes, granolas, roasted nuts, and hot cereals. The Classic Granola has 11 ingredients. The trail mixes generally have seven or eight. Those ingredients don’t include either refined sugars, canola oil or corn. “With our granolas, you’re never going to find any refined sugar. We only sweeten with honey, maple syrup, fruit juice and agave. We use fruits and nuts and wholesome grains,” Anker says. “For instance, our Instant Oatmeal Cup: Why make something simple like oatmeal complicated? Organic oats, cranberries, raisins and apples – delicious oatmeal with 35 percent fruit. You can add whatever milk you want, whatever sweetener you want. That’s our philosophy – pure, clean food, 100 percent organic…. We make good, clean food. We don’t think it needs to be overly complicated.”
Super King Markets has been announced as the recipient of Unified Grocers’ 2016 “Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award.” The award is named after Ben Schwartz, the 96-year old former Unified Chairman of the Board.
“This is the eleventh year that Unified has given the award to an outstanding independent retailer. On behalf of the entire Unified team, I’d like to congratulate and thank Super King and the Fermanian family for being part of our family,” said Bob Ling, President and Chief Executive Officer, Unified Grocers, in presenting the award. “The Ben Schwartz Retail Grocery Visionary Award is given annually to the company in our membership that best embodies the spirit of Ben. There are lots of great stories of success in our membership, but I can think of no better recipient for this award. Super King has built a reputation as a forward-looking, creative and visionary company and I’m excited to see them grow and thrive as a Unified member in the years ahead.”
The Fermanian family opened the first Super King store in Anaheim in 1993. The company has grown and evolved, building a strong market share in and around Los Angeles. Today, Super King operates six markets, with locations in Anaheim, Altadena, Claremont, Van Nuys, Northridge and Los Angeles.
“Ben Schwartz is a legend in our business and it’s an honor to receive this prestigious award. My thanks to Unified,” said Super King co-founder Vache Fermanian in accepting the award surrounded by the rest of the Fermanian family on stage.
In addition to the award that was presented to Super King Markets, a duplicate is on permanent display in the lobby of Unified’s headquarters building in Commerce, California. A plaque recognizing Super King Markets has been added to the permanent award.
By Greg Gonzales
When it comes to hemp-based foods, no company has been as close to the frontier as Manitoba Harvest. With its beginnings in the legalization of hemp in Canada, the company focuses on providing quality hemp foods and consumer education, and incorporates sustainability and forward thinking into its daily operations.
After hemp foods helped him lose weight and gain energy as a teen, CEO and Co-founder Mike Fata started Manitoba Hemp Alliance, a pro-hemp advocacy group that helped legalize hemp in Canada. Once the legislation passed in 1998, he and his partners began Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods, helping to open the doors to an entirely new market and set the standard for the industry.
Manitoba Harvest products are all made from hemp hearts. These shelled hemp seeds have a somewhat nutty flavor, rich and creamy with a taste like sunflower seeds or pine nuts, and the versatility of the food makes it an easy addition to lax and rigorous diets, and everywhere beyond and between. Manitoba Harvest raw hemp hearts and hemp oil can be added to cereals, ice cream and salads. And the hemp heart bars make a convenient and healthy snack for kids, commuters, hikers or anyone on the go. The bars come in chocolate, vanilla and apple-cinnamon flavors to please multiple palates.
Food sourcing can get difficult when finding a seller, with a lot of questions about quality, contamination and farming practices, but Manitoba Harvest is the largest vertically integrated hemp foods producer. The company grows, manufactures and sells its own product lines, so it has control over product quality from seed to shelf and is the largest hemp seed contractor worldwide. In 2012, the company’s manufacturing facility received British Retail Consortium’s Global Standards Certification, and the products are also certified organic, GMO-free and all-natural.
The company is also a certified B Corporation, meaning Manitoba Harvest is held to higher standards of social and environmental performance, along with transparency and accountability. That includes taking good care of the team: All employees are paid 20 percent more than living wages, with bonus eligibility. On the sustainability side, 75 percent of the company’s printed materials use sustainable materials while half the energy used in corporate offices comes from renewable sources. The company also educates farmers about hemp’s potential, and encourages them to grow more hemp acres, which continues its efforts to spread the word about hemp foods.
The buzz around hemp-based foods has been about their dense nutritional value, along with taste. A single 30-gram serving provides 10 grams of plant protein, 10 grams of omegas and only three grams of carbohydrates. Hemp hearts also provide iron and vitamin E. Their high nutrition puts them in the superfoods category, even surpassing chia and flax.
Not a lot of consumers are familiar with hemp foods beyond what they know about hemp fibers and psychoactive varieties of the cannabis plant. According to Kelly Saunderson, Manager of Corporate and Public Affairs, the best strategy is to let people try hemp foods for themselves. To prove it, Manitoba Harvest sent out 2 million samples. While attending various trade shows, Saunderson said she’s noticed a before-and-after kind of reaction to trying hemp hearts.
“You pour them in a sample cup, in their hand, and they get this look on their face,” she said. “You can kind of see the transformation on their face; they like it.”
With the company’s December acquisition of Hemp Oil Canada, Saunderson said to expect further company growth in coming years, along with new and delicious hemp food products.
To learn more about Manitoba Harvest and hemp heart products, go to manitobaharvest.com or call 1.800.655.HEMP.
By Lorrie Baumann
Face Rock Creamery is a three-year-old operation on the southern Oregon coast that’s already producing award-winning Cheddars with “in your face” flavors. Face Rock Creamery 2 Year Extra Aged Cheddar won a first place award for aged Cheddars between 12 and 24 months from the American Cheese Society in 2015 and its Vampire Slayer Garlic Cheese Curds won a first place award for flavored cheese curds in the 2013 American Cheese Society competition. “We’ve been really fortunate to win these awards right out of the gate, and it’s given us some credibility and momentum, so that’s been wonderful,” says Face Rock Creamery President Greg Drobot.
Face Rock Creamery is located in Bandon, Oregon, a town of about 3,000 people with a heritage of cheesemaking. Cheese had been made in Bandon for about 100 years from milk produced at dairies upstream along the Coquille River and barged down the river to the cheese factory that employed 50-60 of the town’s residents until 2005, when a large cheese company bought the creamery to shut it down.
Drobot happened to have moved to Bandon in 2005 to pursue a real estate project, and when the project was completed, he was looking for something else to do when local resident and friend Daniel Graham suggested that he think about starting a new creamery and reviving that part of their heritage. “I thought at first it was nuts…. I didn’t know anything about cheesemaking, but it’s such an integral part of everyone’s like here that it stuck with me,” he says. “When we reopened, we had community members coming in in tears to talk about how they felt that the cheese plant was a part of their family legacy. I’m really proud and happy that I can do that.”
He wrote a business plan, got a loan, and suddenly, he was starting a cheese business. He took his plans up to Seattle and showed them to Brad Sinko, a son of Joe Sinko, who’d owned the cheese plant before it had been bought and closed. Sinko was the founding cheesemaker for Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, another award-winning maker of fine Cheddars, and after he’d finished reviewing the drawings for the new plant, he said he might be interested in coming to work there. “He was top of the world, a rock star in the cheese community, and I didn’t even think it was a possibility that he’d come back to Bandon,” Drobot says. “I about fell off my chair when he told me that. It changed things a lot.”
Sinko moved back home to Bandon, and the plant started operating in May, 2013. The plant employs about 25 people directly and provides employment indirectly for about another 15, including delivery drivers and service providers. Holstein, Brown Swiss and Jersey cow milk is sourced from Bob and Leonard Scolari’s family dairy just up the valley, where a temperate climate and coastal rains mean that the cows can be on pasture about 70 to 80 percent of the year. Products include conventional aged Cheddars as well as flavored varieties like In Your Face, a three-pepper Cheddar; Vampire Slayer, which is flavored with garlic; and Super Slayer, which has both peppers and garlic. “Cheese is, for a lot of people, intimidating, but we want to make sure people have fun and enjoy their cheese, so that’s the route we went, especially with some of our flavors,” Drobot says. “We put kind of a fun twist on it.”
The Face Rock Creamery cheeses are currently sold in 2,500 retail locations across 10 states. “We would like to continue to move west and continue to spread the word about Face Rock,” Drobot says. “We want to continue to make wonderful cheeses. We would like to be nationally distributed. We’re never going to be a commodity cheese, we’re always going to be small batch, but the flavors have national appeal.”
Tickets are now on sale for the United States’ premier public artisan cheese event, the 10th Annual California’s Artisan Cheese Festival, which takes place March 18 – 20, 2016. The weekend-long festival is a celebration of California cheesemakers, chefs, brewers, cider makers, winemakers and passionate guests, all coming together for three days of learning about, tasting and supporting artisan cheese.
Bringing attendees face-to-face with the farmers and cheesemakers who work together to create some of America’s best artisan cheeses, the farm tours tend to sell out early every year. This year, in honor of the 10-year milestone, there will be two full days of farm tours, on both Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, including destinations outside of the Bay Area, as well as educational components included in every tour.
Tickets to the festival’s other events are also now available, including Friday’s Cheesemongers’ Duel, Saturday’s “California Cheesin’ – We Do It Our Whey!” 10 Year Celebration, and Sunday’s Bubbles Brunch with Celebrity Chef John Ash and The Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace. Tickets for all events may be purchased at www.artisancheesefestival.com.
Those interested can also follow updates by “liking” the Artisan Cheese Festival on Facebook and following the event on Twitter. All events are priced separately and the Sheraton Sonoma County – Petaluma is offering special discounted rates on rooms for festival-goers.
Generous sponsors of the Artisan Cheese Festival include American AgCredit, Beehive Cheese Company, Bellwether Farms, Central Coast Creamery, Chevoo, Cheese Connoisseur Magazine, Cowgirl Creamery, Culture Magazine, Cypress Grove Chevre, Donald & Maureen Green Foundation, Fiscalini Farmstead Cheese Co., Lagunitas Brewing Company, Laura Chenel’s Chevre, Mike Hudson Distributing, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company, Nugget Markets, Oak Packaging, Oliver’s Markets, Pennyroyal Farm, Petaluma Market, Petaluma Post, Pisenti & Brinker LLP, Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co., Pure Luxury Transportation, Real California Milk, Redwood Hill Farms & Creamery, Rustic Bakery, Sheraton Sonoma County, Valley Ford Cheese Company and Willapa Hills Cheese.
By Lorrie Baumann
As love did for Mama Cass Elliott, Peter Lovis’ parade for Crucolo cheese just started quietly and grew. Last December’s 100-yard parade route around the Walden Street corner from Main Street to the front of The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts was the sixth annual Cheese Parade hosted by Lovis in honor of the arrival of a 400-pound wheel of cheese from the Italian village of Scurelle, where Crucolo has been produced by the Purin family for the past 200 years.
The parade started out six years ago as a couple of 8-foot red carpets that rolled out along the street from a delivery truck into the store. But like Cass Elliott’s love affair, it’s getting better and growing stronger, until last year it included, not just a horse-drawn wagon to carry the cheese along in style, but dancing mice, Miss Crucolo Universe, Miss Crucolo USA, Little Miss Crucolo, a marching band, and a military escort of His Majesty’s 10th Foot, on furlough from their Revolutionary War service in the British army. “Now they’re friends. We don’t hold a grudge in Concord,” Lovis quips. “When it turns on Walden [Street], that’s where the band picks up and the dancers and the mice…. There’s nothing like a cheese parade. Go big or go home. It’s just fun. It’s really just for fun.”
When the wagon stops outside The Cheese Shop, the tractor tire-size wheel is rolled ceremoniously off the wagon onto red carpet, to be welcomed with the reading of a proclamation from the Concord Board of Selectmen; the waving of Italian flags; a speech by the Italian representative of Rifugio Crucolo, another by Tyrolean-hatted and white-aproned Lovis, each line of his text echoed by the crowd; and a protest march by local vegans carrying signs announcing that “Milk comes from grieving mothers.” Lovis says that he didn’t arrange the protest, but he admits without shame that, “If I’d thought of it, I’d have set it up.”
The event, held annually on the first Thursday in December at 3:30, so the kids have time to get home from school first, has become something of a tradition in Concord. People take the day off work for it, some driving in from out of town. “It’s over by 4:30 because it’s dark,” Lovis says. Last year, more than 1,500 spectators showed up. The parade has been featured in news reports all over the world, and the YouTube videos have been seen by thousands.
At the very end of the celebration, someone cuts the cheese to reveal its ivory paste laced with small irregular eyes, samples are passed out to the crowd, and the whole 400-pound wheel is gone in a week. For most of the rest of the year, the Crucolo lovers will have to get by with wedges cut from the 30-pound wheels that arrive in the shop without benefit of a parade. Crucolo, an Asiago fresco-style raw cow milk cheese with a mild, buttery taste and a tangy finish, is one of about 200 cheeses in the case at The Cheese Shop at any given time. The 200 rotate in and out to make a total of about 1,000 cheeses offered to The Cheese Shop’s customers over the course of a year. “We’re always out of about 80 percent,” Lovis says. “People come in and ask for what they want. We can’t have everything all the time.”
The cheese is sold by Lovis and his 16 year-round employees, who are augmented by seasonal employees during the winter holiday season. Lovis has eight seasonal employees who’ve come back year after year during the holiday season, so that they’re now fully trained in every job in the store – one now in her eleventh Christmas at the Cheese Shop, another in her tenth year. “They love it. They love the work, they love the place, they love the customers, and they know I love them,” Lovis says.
Lovis has been in the business since 1976, when he was 15 years old and started a career that has included retail, wholesale, importing – every link of the supply chain. He signed the agreement to purchase the store in 2001 and closed the deal in 2003. “My whole life has been an apprenticeship for owning this store,” he says. In that time, he’s learned a lot about selling cheese for prices that range from about $8.99 to $40 a pound. “One thing I work very hard is not to be a cheese snob about the cheeses we sell,” he says. “The point of being in business is to give the customers what they want…. What we need to focus on is not how good we are about selling cheese. What we focus on is how we get you what you want.”
How you sell people a $40/pound piece of cheese is to give them a taste, he says. “You should never buy a cheese if you can’t taste it first. Have a taste. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. If you can’t afford it, I have other cheeses in the same family. But there’s a reason why it’s $40. It’s not cranked out of a machine; it’s made by hand. But if you want something less expensive, I’ll get you something less expensive,” he says. “Give people a taste. It’s not about the cheese. It’s about the customer.”