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 Robin Mather
The Specialty Food Association honored seven members with Lifetime Achievement awards, and inducted 26 members into its Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York in July.
The Lifetime Achievement awards went to:
New inductees into the Hall of Fame are:
Organic leaders representing more than a half-million organic farmers throughout the Americas convened in Portland, Oregon, recently for the 9th Annual Inter-American Commission for Organic Agriculture (ICOA) Conference and discussed the latest research, challenges and opportunities for organic agriculture and trade in the Americas.
This year’s annual gathering marked the first time the conference was held in the United States and the first ICOA annual gathering hosted and organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Organic Trade Association. It drew the heads of national organic programs and organic trade leaders from 13 nations outside the U.S. spanning South and Central America. ICOA and its conference promote organic agriculture, equivalency, standards alignment and trade among participating countries.
“The members of ICOA play an important role in the global organic industry,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director for the Organic Trade Association. “Nearly 20 percent of all organic land in the world is contained in the 19 member countries, along with some 600,000 organic farmers and operations. These countries are also active in the global organic market, with the U.S. importing around $750 million worth of organic products from this region last year.”
“There has never been a more essential time for organic industry representatives from the United States, Central America and South America to gather, collaborate and align,” added Monique Marez, Director of International Trade at the Organic Trade Association. “We were delighted to serve as the host country and trade association. We look forward to taking part in an even more collaborative trade environment as a result of this highly productive conference.”
ICOA (identified in Spanish as CIAO) was established in 2008 by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). Its mission is to help support organic agriculture in the Americas by building ties with countries within the hemisphere that have organic regulatory systems and standards, and also to support countries establishing an institutional process to regulate organic agriculture. Nineteen countries are members of ICOA. Attendees at the Portland conference represented member nations with still fledgling organic sectors to ones with well-established organic systems–Argentina, Chile, Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Costa Rica, and the United States.
Providing Tools to Grow Organic
The organic sector in Central and South America is dominated by small family farmers, and those farmers are eager to obtain more educational information on organic agricultural practices and standards. The Organic Trade Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were praised for developing an informative agenda at the conference and providing attendees with useful tools that can be put into practice in their home countries.
“There are currently few Spanish-language resources on organic practices and certification, so having the Organic Trade Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture offer this depth of information and training is incredibly valuable,” said Graciela Lacaze of Argentina, Executive Director of ICOA. “Attendees from both Spanish and Latin American countries came away with the tools necessary to strengthen the development of organic activity in their respective countries to further grow trade of their products.”
Leader of the U.S. delegation, Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of the USDA’s National Organic Program, noted that a strong global control system for organic depends on collaboration and coordination with the global community through bodies like ICOA.
“We covered everything from organic benefits and equivalency standards to growth opportunities and trade arrangements at the ICOA meeting,” said McEvoy. “Continuing this work with ICOA is a crucial piece in protecting organic integrity through the global control system. I look forward to building meaningful connections and creating lasting results.”
The week-long conference included three days of meetings of ICOA’s General Assembly and a day-long public summit on international organic cooperation and trade within the Americas.
Director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture Alexis Taylor addressed the ICOA General Assembly on the importance of organic agriculture to Oregon’s farming community and to the state’s overall economy, and on the commitment of Oregon to organic and to a strong regulatory system for organic. “Oregon has a long history of supporting organic agriculture through strong regulatory framework and protecting integrity for consumers,” she said.
Presenters at the public summit included Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director for the Organic Trade Association, speaking on how to build organic farmer coalitions and encourage farmers to transition to organic; Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center, presenting the latest research on the benefits of organic; and Monique Marez, who gave an update and analysis of global organic trade and imports.
The group also heard presentations on organic certification from Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) and on organic standards from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).
The conference ended with a day-long field trip to area organic producers and retailers, including visits to Organic Trade Association members Bob’s Red Mill and New Seasons Market. Bob Moore, who founded Bob’s Red Mill with his wife Charlee in 1978 to produce healthy, organic whole grain flour and products, met with the group. The group also toured a store of New Seasons Market, the Portland-based organic and natural food store which since 2000 has been serving communities in Oregon, Washington and northern California.
“The Organic Trade Association has worked hard to become the go-to source of information on international trade,” said Marez. “We were excited to host this international meeting, and we’ll continue to advocate for and help advance organic in the global community.”