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
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.”
By Lorrie Baumann
When Larry Ehlers started working at his local grocery store in Brown Deer, Wisconsin after his return from World War II, it was the kind of neighborhood grocery that sold everything that the neighborhood families really needed from day to day in about 3,000 square feet of selling space. Then times changed, local roads gave way to superhighways, the small village of Brown Deer became a suburb of Milwaukee, and big box stores entered into the grocery marketplace.
Larry’s Market changed with the times by evolving into a specialty grocer. Its produce and meat departments have been eliminated in favor of prepared foods that cater to the lunchtime needs of the workers employed in the nearby office buildings, a highly regarded specialty cheese market makes the store a destination for tourists looking for the best of Wisconsin cheeses, and a busy catering department now provides more than half the store’s revenue.
“It’s an old, old grocery store, but it’s a charming building,” said Patty Peterson, the Manager of Larry’s Market and the daughter of Larry himself. “We’re not on the highway. We’re on the byway…. We don’t have a thousand people walking in front of our store each day.”
After his return from the war, Larry Ehlers worked for the store for years before he finally bought it in 1970. His son, Steve Ehlers, bought the store from him in the late 1980s, and Steve’s wife became the owner upon Steve’s death in 2016.
Around 1971, Peterson’s parents had become fans of French cheeses after their introduction to them at a Summer Fancy Food Show. After tasting some of those cheeses at the show, Larry placed an order. A few days after the cheese was delivered to the store, it was gone, sold to upscale customers who’d learned to appreciate traditional French cheeses during their travels overseas. Larry continued ordering. “Of course my father is the consummate salesman. He can still sell like nobody’s business,” Peterson said. “He still comes in three days a week.”
Steve carried on that romance with French cheeses as he traveled in Europe in the 1970s for his own version of the Grand Tour once made by Victorian gentlemen to broaden their horizons as they started out on their lives as independent adults. “He loved France,” Peterson said.
Steve and his father decided to start carrying artisanal American cheeses in the store after Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese won the American Cheese Society’s Best of Show Award for Pleasant Ridge Reserve, and today, the cheese counter with its 200 to 300 cheeses in it is a destination for travelers who come to Larry’s Market just to buy their cheese.
Most of the business rung up by the store’s 15 full and regular part-time employees, though, comes either at lunchtime or through the store’s catering business. The regular Friday grill-out events are also huge draws that bring 250 to 300 people into the store over the course of a couple of hours.
All told, the deli and catering departments represent about 60 to 70 percent of the business today. “We do a lot of corporate catering, so on any given day, we’ll have five people out delivering, and we can do 400 to 500 people for lunch, just catering,” Peterson said.
The typical lunchtime purchase for the 100 to 150 people who usually come in then is about $12 to $15, although customers will frequently spend $40 to $50 at a time if they’re also buying groceries and cheese. Among the most popular offerings are killer brownies, Wisconsin artisan cheeses and fresh soups, including the turkey chili that’s a particular favorite among Larry’s regulars. “We sell a ton of soup, summer and winter,” Peterson said. “Our local health inspector comes in for lunch quite often.”