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.”
By Lorrie Baumann
As both a retailer and a wholesale meat processor, Rastelli Foods Group is in prime position to observe how the American grocery landscape is evolving. Rastelli Foods Group supplies meat in the wholesale market to grocers and meal kit delivery services up and down the East Coast of the U.S., provides meat for U.S. military installations overseas, ships directly to consumers across the U.S. and operates two New Jersey specialty grocery stores, a 6,000-square foot store originally opened in Deptford as Rastelli’s Meat Stop and then remodeled and reopened five years ago as Rastelli Market Fresh and a new 40,000 square-foot specialty grocer in Marlton.
Ray Rastelli, III is the company’s Vice President and son of the Founder who started Rastelli Meat Stop about 40 years ago and grew it into one of the premier meat suppliers on the East Coast. His father, also Ray Rastelli, is still very active in the business and likely to be recognized by the QVC shoppers who see him pitching fresh and frozen meats four to six times a week on their televisions. The QVC sales are part of a direct-to-consumer mail-order operation that delivers 50,000 to 60,000 packages, mainly fresh and frozen meat and seafood products, both to those QVC shoppers and to customers who come directly to the company’s website. “We started our e-commerce platform in 2009,” Rastelli says. “For the first few years, we sold a few thousand packages a month. Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a significant, significant increase.”
From this vantage point, Ray Rastelli, 33, is seeing a trend that’s corroborated by marketing researchers. U.S. government figures document that about half of Americans’ food dollars are now spend on food prepared in restaurants, and even when Americans eat at home, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing the same kind of cooking that their grandmothers did. “The biggest thing I see that’s really changing in the past two years is the evolution of the at-home delivery companies,” Rastelli said.
“Some of the retailers we work with are trying to come out with their own version of that – meal kits right at the front of the store. Those companies are definitely taking market share.” According to market research firm Packaged Facts, there are now more than 150 meal delivery kit services operating in the U.S. and over the past few years, these businesses have raised more than $650 million in venture capital. Most of these meal kit delivery services are targeting young professionals and families with children who live in urban areas.
Americans between the ages of 25 and 55 are increasingly comfortable ordering their food online, and and cooking it at home, often in the form of meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less. Women now spend less than an hour a day on food preparation and cleanup, while men still spend an average of less than half an hour a day working in the kitchen, according to 2015 statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Rastelli says his company’s online customers tend to be foodies who care about the quality of the food they’re getting. “They’re definitely people who are really engaged in food, not people who are just looking to put something on the plate,” he said.
He says they’re increasingly likely to see organic and all-natural foods as healthier options. “Five years ago, organic and all-natural would be one one hundredth of the business,” he said. “These days, it’s between 30 to 45 percent of the product we manufacture.”
Rastelli, who started work sweeping floors in his father’s business when he was 10 years old, then became a regular employee on the night shift while he was a sophomore in high school, now sees these trends playing out in the company’s two retail stores. The original Rastelli Market Fresh was converted from a 6,000-foot Rastelli’s Meat Stop store five years ago. Designed as a kind of hybrid between Whole Foods and the previous store, but with a lot of prepared options, the business at the new store inspired the company to expand with a second, bigger location in Marlton, New Jersey, about a half-hour drive from Philadelphia.
The new Rastelli Market Fresh is more of a prepared food store with a pantry of specialty items than a full-service grocer, with almost half of its business professional customers stopping in to eat in the store rather than purchase a basket of food to take home and cook. The store includes several made-to-order restaurant-type concepts – there’s no hot-line buffet – including a pizza stand, sushi restaurant, a taqueria and a Craftwich sandwich shop. Customers order from any of the concepts and the store’s deli counter from a self-service kiosk that prints out a ticket for the customer, who waits only about 2-1/2 to 3 minutes for a meal that’s made from scratch. “It’s set the world on fire in that area,” Rastelli said. “It’s been beyond our expectations.”
Of the 20,000 customers a week who come through the store and check out with an average $38 purchase, fully 9,000 to 10,000 of them came to eat at the 150-seat cafe/lounge or to pick up a single meal to take home with them. According to research reported by the Washington Post in 2015, less than 60 percent of suppers served at home in 2014 were actually cooked at home, and although that trend stalled a bit during the recession, Americans began picking up takeout again as the economy improved.
The single most popular concept in the Marlton Rastelli Market Fresh store is a create-a-plate offering in which customers select a protein from several choices that might include a chicken breast, a filet mignon, a grilled salmon portion and a lamb chop and then add two sides from a menu of 10 selections to put together a total customized meal priced at $8.99. The concept has lines of customers waiting every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Rastelli said. “We package it up for them and off they go.”
The retail stores also act as a product development lab for products offered by the company’s online and wholesale operations.
For instance, recipes for pre-marinated steaks and chicken breasts, which are extremely popular items, are pilot-tested in the retail stores, where Rastelli and other family members will spend time on the weekends talking to customers about whether they like what they’re eating. If not, the recipe goes back for more work until there’s general agreement that the company has a really good product before it’s mass-marketed to Rastelli’s online customers and to other grocery retailers. “We’re finding that grocery stores are just shifting to what people are looking for. “People still have to eat,” Rastelli said. “We try to cater to business professionals who are in a jam and trying to get dinner for their families because they worked late.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Half the sales for the Eataly store on Fifth Avenue in New York City come from dry grocery, while the other half are rung up at the store’s five restaurants. “We didn’t know that in the beginning,” Lidia Bastianich told an audience at the 2016 Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar & Expo in May. “People really like this combination.”
Eataly is owned by a partnership of Founder Oscar Farinetti, who started the concept in 2007 with a 30,000-square-foot store in Torino, Italy; the B & B Hospitality Group, which includes Lidia Bastianich, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich; and Adam and Alex Saper. Since then, the group has grown to include a store in Chicago, a second store under development in New York’s World Trade Center and planned stores in Boston, Los Angeles and Sao Paulo Brazil.
Lidia Bastianich is the host of PBS’ “Lidia’s Kitchen” television program and the author of 10 cookbooks as well as the owner of a specialty line of pastas and sauces. She opened her first restaurant in 1971 and moved into writing cookbooks from there. Julia Child discovered her and mentored her through the development of her television program. “One thing leads to the next,” she said.
The opportunity to be part of the grocery business came along with a meeting with Oscar Farinetti, who had opened his store in Torino and was eager to find the right partners to open a store in the United States. He found New York restaurateurs B & B Hospitality Group and the Saper brothers, and together, they opened the 50,000-square-foot Eataly store on New York’s Fifth Avenue in 2010. “We found the space, we liked the location,” Bastianich said. The store now gets 50,000 visitors a day, making it one of New York City’s major tourist attractions. “You have a glass of wine, and you travel around and shop,” Bastianich said. “How civilized is that?… It’s relaxed buying.”
The store is built around La Piazza, a hub and meeting place “where people can claim their space,” Bastianich said. Around La Piazza are salumi and cheese counters, bakery, enoteca, ice cream shop and coffee counter tucked between restaurants that use as their ingredients the same products that are sold on the retail floor. “It is embracing the customer 360 degrees,” Bastianich said. “We are the guarantee behind those restaurants.”
The salumi and cheese counter sells 200 to 300 pounds of American and Italian artisan cheese per day. The fresh mozzarella sold at Eataly is stretched on the premises from curds purchased from local artisans. Vegetables on the produce counters are fresh and seasonal, mostly local, with some imported Italian produce. A vegetable butcher on staff can clean the customers’ vegetable for them, so that a customer might pick out the week’s vegetables and then have a snack at the crudo restaurant that’s right there next to the produce counters and consult with the chef about what to do with the purchased produce once it’s at home. “Our target audience is everyone,” Bastianich said. “It’s a 360 degree concept of food from source to preparation and making the consumer a winner…. You need to make the customer feel like they have learned something and they can do it. And if not, they have the opportunity to learn it again in our store.”
Fish, both at the fish counter and in the restaurant, is seasonal and local. “It has to be fresh. The smell when you come to the fish counter should be clean,” Bastianich said. The fishmonger on duty will scale and fillet the customer’s purchase.
The meat counter features a lot of secondary cuts, and the animals from which it came were sustainably raised. “We check all of our producers,” Bastianich said.
The Eataly Bakery and Focacceria makes more than 11,000 loaves of bread per week. “And we sell it. We use it also in our restaurants,” Bastianich said. “Tastings of everything are so important in the store.”
The cooks behind the pasta-making counter make 5,000 pounds of fresh pasta per week. “A lot of it is taken home,” Bastianich said. “We also offer all of the time the opportunity to discuss pasta.” Eataly’s La Pasta restaurant and the La Pizza restaurant right next to it are the two most popular in the store. “We sell 3,000 pizzas a week, easily,” Bastianich said.
The pizza operation is conducted in partnership with Rosso Pomodoro, which built the ovens, and the only type of pizza sold is Neapolitan, which has a crust that’s a little puffier and a little wet in the middle compared to the Roman-style cracker-type crust that’s more familiar to New Yorkers. “You have to send a message. You can’t be everything to everybody,” Bastianich said.
Monthly promotions in the store focus on one of Italy’s 20 food regions at a time. “They are encouraged, demanded to bring in special products from the region,” Bastianich said. “We do have a lot of authentic small producers that have those authentic flavors.”
The La Scuola cooking school has event year-round with food and wine courses, demonstrations and lectures from renowned chefs. A typical class might feature three to four recipes with paired wines, for an experience that the school tries to make a complete immersion in the cuisine even though it’s not hands-on. The store also uses its various spaces as catering venues as well as spaces in which to hold educational and cultural events, often to raise funds for local charities. “You cannot be in business and be isolated from the community where you are doing business,” Bastianich said. “Life is too short. You have to eat well…. You need to be strong and stand your ground because America is ready. They love it.”
By Lorrie Baumann
Steve and Kim Duty’s customers at Denver’s Cheese + Provisions love the funk, and Owner/Cheesemonger Steve Duty loves them right back. “Every [Denver] neighborhood seems to have its favorite categories. The neighborhood I’m in seems to really love washed rinds and blues, which is a cheesemonger’s dream,” he said. “Here, the funkier the cheese, the more interested the folks are.”
“We’ve had to trim back the Alpine collection because our customers want the funky stuff,” added Co-owner Kim. The couple opened their 940 square-foot shop in the Sunnyside neighborhood of northwest Denver on December 15, 2015, just in time for the last bit of the winter holiday trade, after construction delays that finally forced them to cram about six weeks of work into the last two and half weeks of opening. They slept in the store a few of those last few nights just to get that extra 15 minutes of sleep, then opened to greet a rush of customers who’d been waiting for a specialty cheese shop to open in their neighborhood. “We opened with a bang and had amazing sales all the way through January, and it put us on a solid financial footing,” Kim said. “It was worth it, but I don’t necessarily recommend it.”
“We’ve been really very happy with the reception we’ve gotten from our neighborhood and from the city at large,” she added.
The couple, married now for 25 years, took the road less traveled to both their cheese shop and to Denver itself. Neither is originally from Denver.
Steve started working in restaurants right out of high school, then attended the Culinary Institute of America to gain his credentials as a chef. Then he did what young chefs then and now frequently do right after graduation from CIA – he headed for New York to stage. From the New York restaurant scene to a brief stop in Arkansas to help with a family restaurant to many years in Washington, DC. But one day, he decided to pursue his love of controlled fermentation and ended up getting a job as the winemaker and general manager at a He spent five years at the winery, with Kim acting as the part-time marketing director, until the winery’s owners discovered the truth of the old saying that if you want to make a small fortune with a winery, the way to do that is to start with a big fortune. By that time, Steve and Kim had had enough experience of the countryside to know they wanted to stay on the land.
“At one point, I said, ‘If you wanted to do something of your own, what would it be?’ He said, ‘It’s always been cheese,’” Kim tells the story. So, naturally, they bought a 25-acre farm and started a sheep dairy.
“He turned me into a foodie very deliberately over the years,” the story continues. “My passion is the people and the animals. He comes to it through the food first, and I come to it through the farm and the animals and what the people are doing.”
That part of the story ends just about the way you’re already starting to suspect. “We were not good sheep farmers. It’s just too difficult to take those cute lambs to slaughter. And you really do need kids to make it work!” Kim said.
They operated the sheep dairy into 2007, when they decided to get away from that hard, hard life for a while and take off for Nepal to celebrate Kim’s 40th birthday with a hike to the Mount Everest Base Camp. The Himalayas have always been a place for spiritual reflection and self-discovery. What Steve and Kim discovered was that they wanted to stay near the mountains after they’d returned home to the U.S.
So they moved to Colorado, to a fast-growing city where the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains rises out of the plains in a dramatic backdrop to destiny, and Steve went to work at Whole Foods and then a few other local cheese shops. Kim kept the day job she’s had for nearly 20 years running the communications department for a DC-based trade association, commuting back and forth between DC and Denver, and together they waited until they thought that Denver’s interest in artisanal cheeses was strong enough to support another cheese shop. “Denver’s food culture has exploded, with new chefs coming into the city and the population growing at the rate of 1,000 new residents a month,” Kim said. “The city is transforming pretty dramatically.”
They found a shop in a gentrifying neighborhood with a growing population of Millennials who share the foodie culture of their peers. “They feel that good food comes first,” Kim said. “They might buy $30 worth of cheese when they’re having trouble paying their rent.”
“The neighborhood itself is full of young families, but the shop pulls customers from all over the city. Word seems to have spread,” Steve added. “The core demographic from the neighborhood is in the 30s, who are the adventurous folks, plus the older people who have been fortunate enough to travel overseas.”
Cheese + Provisions’ offering focuses on high-quality American cheeses and salumi as well as a careful selection of accompaniments, with emphasis on locally produced products. Steve works in the shop with one full-time employee, while Kim keeps her day job, helps in the shop on weekends and evenings when special occasions are scheduled and does the shop’s marketing and newsletters. Steve does the cheese and salumi buying, working directly with a number of American artisan cheesemakers. Kim focuses on buying the dry goods. “I really like interacting with the dry goods producers,” she said. “Once we started digging into the Colorado products, we realized that we have an abundance of good food producers here in the state.”
Part of the shop’s model is that customers can trust Steve’s experience as a chef to guide them in selecting their cheese. “We focus on American artisan cheese. We also focus on telling the stories behind these cheeses. Being former cheesemakers ourselves, we understand the difficulty and the passion and dedication it takes. You certainly don’t do it for the money,” Steve said. “We focus on American artisan rather than European. We want to showcase what America can really do these days. We’re competitive with the best of European cheeses. We’re not constricted by the DOP restrictions of European cheeses. The philosophy is bringing in interesting cheeses that pique my interest and the interest of the public at large.”
Customers have responded enthusiastically, allowing Steve to lead them toward bolder choices like washed rind and blue cheeses. “I like them to have a story, and something like a washed bloomy certainly has a story behind it. Rock Hill Creamery in Utah – the woman has six cows, and when she sends a wheel, it comes with a picture of the cow that made the milk,” Steve said. “When I find a cheese like that, I pounce on it.”
“We’re bringing cheeses into Colorado that have never been in Colorado before,” Kim said. “We’re trying to help cheesemakers be successful and to expose those who live in Denver to quality cheeses. It’s a passion of ours.”
By Robert Boumis
Proper Meats + Provisions has burst on to food scene in Flagstaff, Arizona as a whole animal butcher shop and deli. The new butcher shop is distinguishing itself with a philosophy of sustainability and a connection to local farms.
According to Owner Paul Moir, Proper Meats + Provisions embraces the concept of a whole animal butcher shop. “It means we literally buy animals direct from the ranchers, bring them into the shop whole and push nose-to-tail utilization. We sell stock and broth, we sell bones, we sell tallow. We even make dog food out of the parts that aren’t necessarily not fit for human consumption, but people aren’t willing to buy, which has become quite popular–particularly with my dog,” jokes Moir.
In addition to using every bit of the cow that they can, Proper also works around locally-sourced meats. In fact, the idea of promoting the local meat industry was a big part of the impetus behind the founding of Proper Meats + Provisions. Before opening Proper, Moir’s company already owned several Arizona restaurants built around the local food movement. While Moir found plenty of locally-sourced vegetables, he had a hard time finding local meat, despite a thriving beef industry in the state that produces hundreds of thousands of heads of beef a year. “Arizona creates an amazing amount of meat, exports it out of the state, and then imports meat back in, which doesn’t make a lot of sense,” explained Moir. To remedy this, Moir created Proper in order to try and promote local use of Arizona meats.
Proper’s nose-to-tail philosophy extends to products like pork. “We know the ranchers, the owners of the ranches, the farmers,” Findach said. We know where we’re getting everything from and we have a personal relationship with the farmers and ranchers.”
By Lorrie Baumann
In a society that’s deeply conflicted about much that’s happening in the Middle East and its potential repercussions for the American homeland, Houston grocer Phoenicia Specialty Foods offers a yummy reminder that we’re all on this planet together and our respective cultures have much to offer each other. Phoenicia Specialty Foods operates in two Houston locations, a 90,000 -square-foot west side location that’s like a warehouse for international foods, and the newer 28,000-square-foot location in downtown Houston.
The family behind the two stores (retail and wholesale operation), and the original restaurant: parents Zohrab and Arpi Tcholakian, who started the business by opening the Phoenicia Deli in 1983, brother Raffi, who oversees the company’s wholesale business and much of its import operation at the Phoenicia Foods Westside location, brother Haig, who curates the stores’ beer and wine offering and is half the marketing team along with sister Ann-Marie, who also manages the downtown store, also still operate the original restaurant that’s the particular province of the matriarch of the family. “It’s in our blood, and we are cut from the same cloth in regards to our work ethic, passion and detail-oriented nature. Mom is the matriarch of the restaurant, Arpi’s Phoenicia Deli restaurant, which is where it all began. She’s definitely the most famous out of all of us. Everybody recognizes her because she’s always in the restaurant,” says Ann-Marie. “My parents don’t want to retire; they love the business; they love the energy. They really enjoy providing these services and these hard to find specialty items to the community, and also having the opportunity to interact with friendly faces. Dad is always in the store teaching employees and customers about the products’ cooking techniques and origins.”
The stores’ product mix includes more than 50,000 SKUs representing products from more than 50 countries and is focused on international specialty items, especially Middle Eastern, Eastern European and European specialties. Many of the bakery items and prepared foods are produced in house, with some commissaried over from the West Side location to the downtown store.
“There are other stores who sell some of the same products, like olive oils and cheeses, and they call it gourmet, but these were staples that we grew up with and were always in our home… So, we try to keep the prices reasonable on these quality selections. We work to transfer cost saving to our customers through the economies of scale provided by our import buying power at our west side Houston headquarters,” says Ann-Marie.
The Tcholakian family are ethnic Armenians who were living in Lebanon when civil war broke out there. As the war intensified, the family began looking for a way out in 1979, particularly since Arpi was eight months pregnant with her youngest and wanted a safe place to raise her children. The family had a cousin in Houston who lived next to a hospital, so when flight became a matter of survival, Houston it was.
Zohrab, an architectural engineer, got a job in the oil industry, and things were going fine until the oil industry collapsed in the early 1980s. Zohrab decided that the time was right to leave the industry and start his own business, following the example of his father, who had owned a neighborhood store in Beirut. “He didn’t want to wait for his pink slip, so he convinced my mom,” Ann-Marie says. In 1983, he and Arpi opened a little cafe on the west side of Houston where they offered deli items and shawarmas, which Arpi described to her customers as a sandwich that resembled “a Middle Eastern burrito.”
“Back when my parents started, they had to educate people. They always wanted to make it international because they had a mix of culinary influences being Armenians born in cosmopolitan, European-influenced Lebanon,” says Ann-Marie. “Back then, when my parents started, not many knew what hummus dip was in Texas. Now everybody knows what hummus is.”
As the cafe’s following grew, the Tcholakians added more and more grocery to the business. “It was a struggle in the ’80s for my parents to keep the business open. It just took a lot of work and dedication to keep the business alive in the 1980s in a collapsed economy,” Ann-Marie says. “My brothers and I used to do our homework and watch TV in the back of the store. People knew our lives.” The downtown store opened five years ago after the developer of the building in which the store is now located offered them a space on the ground floor of a residential tower in a neighborhood that hadn’t seen a grocery store for 40 years. “We were very attracted to what the city was doing and what the Downtown District was doing. There is a lovely park next door called Discovery Green with lots of programming and culture, catering to Houston’s diversity. It was a natural fit for Phoenicia,” Ann-Marie says. “We’ve always felt very connected to the Houston’s growth, and it was really exciting to be part of the revitalization of downtown.”
In addition to the grocery, downtown Phoenicia Foods has an in-house beer and wine bar called MKT BAR. This gastropub concept offers comfort food with an international twist, artisan beers, boutique wines, music and art programming and has become a hub for locals and visitors alike. Monday nights are Fun and Games Nights with retro board games, ping pong and more. Wednesdays are Vinyl and Vino Nights with guest disc jockeys playing their favorite vinyl records on stage. Tuesdays and Thursdays are popular MKT Steak Nights, “offering a nice steak for a minimal amount of money, which draws people from the neighborhood,” Ann-Marie says. Cartoons & Cereal is a new event on Saturday mornings, with retro cartoons on the televisions from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. “People are always gravitating to the TVs,” Ann-Marie says. “It’s always been our goal to make Phoenicia Specialty Foods and MKT BAR down-to-earth and fun.”
“For the downtown location, we work hard to create events that attract attention, to gain a clientele. In the urban market space, you have to do a little more to capture people’s attention and to create a neighborhood destination and feel,” Ann-Marie says. “Downtown Houston is still emerging, and so we had to put a lot of energy in from the beginning to grow the business. That’s the reason why MKT BAR exists today.”
“A lot of people come to MKT BAR for a music performance for example, and then they buy their feta cheese to take home. It’s a symbiotic relationship between MKT BAR and the grocery,” she continues. “There are other customers who come for the groceries and discover MKT BAR and are amazed. They work hand in hand very well.”
By Richard Thompson
The winters in Milton, Massachusetts, bring brisk cold-snaps and 30 degree rains to its historic red-brick buildings and famous waterfront restaurants. Red-cheeked children skate on the frozen brook in nearby Cunningham Park and short horn blasts from incoming barges are carried over the sea air all the way to East Milton Square. It’s here that residents put on their Red Sox embroidered scarves and head out into the cold, because they know that if they want some of Mike’s Fresh Sushi or need to stop by Kinnealey’s Meat Shop for a whole chicken, they have to make it to the Fruit Center Marketplace.
“This is a family run business that’s been around for 42 years now,” says Michael Dwyer, Marketing Director for the Fruit Center Marketplace Milton. Focused on specialty and gourmet products, Dwyer says that residents come here because its a place they can trust. “From bread and butter to paper goods and detergents, all the stuff you’d find at a regular grocery store, you’ll find here – with countless gourmet items as well.”
The Fruit Center Marketplace, named by The Boston Globe as one of the Top Places to Work in Massachusetts for four years running, began in 1973 with the simple idea of providing exceptional produce to customers in the South Shore community. Its loyal base and reputation quickly saw business expand, so the original store was replaced with two locations to meet demand – one in Milton and a smaller location found down the road in Hingham. Says Dwyer, “Folks come to us because they’re looking for the complete food experience.”
The Milton Marketplace, in which Fruit Center Marketplace resides, is a 10,000 square-foot two-story building that houses the Fruit Center Marketplace on the first floor, while upstairs, customers will find an assortment of stores and a gourmet eatery, The Plate, that makes for a complete shopping experience. According to Dwyer, the layout is designed this way to entice customers to stay and shop: “We have a range of customers; some who shop here weekly for their groceries and leave, while others spend the entire day here, shopping upstairs before picking up some bananas and a few takeaway items to bring home for dinner. Different customers…different purposes.”
The grocery store itself is home to an assortment of gourmet and specialty departments that are locally sourced, high-end and are highly regarded by both customers and upscale restaurants. Dwyer says that an important factor in choosing their partners was that these companies have experience in working with hotels and restaurants and specialize in high-quality products. He said, “This is certainly not usual for any other grocery retailer.”
Inside, customers are offered a selection of locally sourced produce from the Boston area, a 40 foot salad bar that boasts over 100 fresh items everyday, a baked goods display, an olive bar and even a line of prepared meals and side dishes such as meatloaf, chicken Parmesan, scallops au gratin and butternut squash, for those busy shoppers looking for something to eat without dealing with the hassle of cooking.
Mike’s Fresh Sushi, which partnered in 2008, specializes in all things raw, making all of its products in-house, right on the floor. While there is no seating available, shoppers are able to pick up restaurant style sushi and take it home without a second thought. Everyday, the itamae – or sushi chef – behind the bar creates 10 to 12 varieties of sushi ranging from traditional California rolls to more creative sushi offerings like eel with strawberries.
Kinnealey’s Meat Shop, which has worked alongside the Fruit Center for nearly 30 years, is its own business run inside the marketplace and is a high-end meat purveyor that caters to high-end restaurants and hotels in the Boston area. Aged sirloin steaks, veal cutlets, pork ribs, game, sausage and organic poultry options are all offered by the specialty butcher.
On the second floor of The Marketplace, shoppers will encounter the newly opened restaurant, The Plate, offering customers a sit-down compliment to the food-center motif downstairs. “The new cafe will offer an inventive dining experience with a partially open kitchen,” says Suzanne Lombardi, Chef and Owner of The Plate.
Says Dwyer, “Suzanne [Lombardi] has a long and impressive food background in Boston and we know from her two wildly successful past enterprises that she could bring homemade food and innovative dishes to Fruit Center.”
The 2,600 square-foot marketplace cafe serves handmade, gourmet breakfasts and lunches Tuesday through Sunday, allowing patrons to enjoy its reclaimed wood décor, natural sunlight and variety of seating options. Everything from commuter breakfasts for on-the-go professionals to organic eggs and smoked bacon dishes are offered as eat-in or take out choices. Lombardi even makes her own English muffins and jams.
After filling themselves up at The Plate, shoppers who meander upstairs will find a small assortment of retail merchants selling clothes, jewelry and toys. The Gift Garden carries a selection of upscale women’s clothing and jewelry plus greeting cards, cookbooks, candles and ceramics, while The Nutshell focuses solely on children’s clothing. Rounding out the second floor is The Toy Chest, a toy store that harkens back to a simpler time, where customers can treat their grand-kids, nieces and nephews with toys that don’t require batteries or AC adapters. “It’s a traditional toy store,” says Dwyer.
During certain times of the year, the Fruit Center works collaboratively with the retailers upstairs for social and shopping events such as a “stroll” night where shoppers can go to the second floor and take advantage of special deals, and then come downstairs to enjoy some wine tasting and cheese and chocolate sampling downstairs.
Says Dwyer, “Having regular product samplings within the store, a busy restaurant and a wide range of products that customers desire not only brings them back, but they tend to come back with greater frequency.”
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.”
By Lorrie Baumann
This is a good time, and Nashville is a good place for a tiny cheese shop that operates as a cut-to-order counter inside a specialty butcher shop, says Kathleen Cotter, Owner of The Bloomy Rind.
The Bloomy Rind is tucked inside Porter Road Butcher, a whole-animal butcher shop that specializes in locally sourced pasture-raised meats. The pairing of a cheese shop and specialty butchers came about after a local farmer introduced Cotter, who was selling cheeses at local farmers markets, to business partners James Peisker and Chris Carter, who had been working together as caterers when they realized that what Nashville lacked was a good source of high-quality local meat. They were getting ready to open a butcher shop in East Nashville to meet that need, and when they met Cotter, it just seemed right that they might also team up with Cotter and her specialty cheeses. “I pitched the idea to sell cheese in their shop. At that point we didn’t know what the setup would look like,” Cotter says. “As their plans for the space crystalized, they worked a small cheese counter for The Bloomy Rind into their layout. So I was able to open up inside Porter Road instead of having to find the funds to build out my own shop.”
Cotter can’t focus on local cheeses the way Peisker and Carter focus on local meats because there just aren’t enough cheeses made locally to Nashville to meet her customers’ needs, but all three partners share a similar passion for sustainably produced foods. “Our philosophy and our passion were very much in alignment,” she says.
Part of their job is educating Nashville residents who are more accustomed to shopping for all their food needs at conventional grocery stores rather than stopping in at a variety of specialty shops, Cotter says. “It’s a change of habit to have to make an extra stop for specialty meats and cheese. But people are more and more willing to make that extra stop as the desire grows to know where their food comes from and how it was produced.”
“There’s also a population who comes in and says they grew up going to the butcher shop,” she adds. “They come back to that experience, which is cool…. We’re having a lot of people moving here from big cities, where they’re a little more used to specialty shops and come in looking for a personalized cheese experience.”
Her corner of the 1,500 square foot store houses a cheese case and a cutting table, and she shares a market area where she has some logs of chevre and a few other cheese accompaniments in a grab-and-go case. She carries 40 to 50 different cheeses in the case, all cut to order. At the moment, she has one particular favorite cheese in her case: a wheel of extra-aged St. Malachi from the Farm at Doe Run that she acquired when the farm sold extra wheels of a cheese they were entering in the American Cheese Society awards competition. “It’s sort of an aged cheddar meets aged Gouda, firm and crystally and brown-buttery,” Cotter says. “I find cheese is very much a mood thing. I don’t know if other people feel the same way. Sometimes you want a cheese that’s mild, fresh and creamy. Other times you want something with a more challenging profile and stronger flavors.”
In addition to her retail business, she operates a thriving wholesale business in which she works with about 20 restaurants in the city on a regular basis. “That helps me to move product through the case so inventory never sits fr too long and I can rotate the selection more frequently,” she says. “The combination of retail and wholesale also makes it possible to earn a living, which can be tough as an independent cheese retailer.” The wholesale business has become more integral to the shop than Cotter expected, which has been a pleasant surprise, she said. “It’s another avenue to market the cheese counter. If people order a Bloomy Rind cheese plate at a restaurant and enjoy it, then they come into the shop and want to try other things as well.”
As she’s grown her business at the shop, Cotter has also founded the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival, which started five years ago and which she has organized each year since then. “It’s been fun to watch that grow and to be a part of growing the awareness of Southern cheese,” she says. “I think Southern cheeses were under appreciated, but along with greater appreciation of Southern food in general, people are becoming more aware of it. We have people from different cities asking for Southern cheeses to be sent to them. It’s on the upswing. People are really excited about it.”
Nashville’s growing food culture makes this an exciting time to be selling specialty cheese there, Cotter says. “I happened to get into this at a good time when American cheeses are getting better and better and better. There are many great cheeses to introduce people to and chefs are more into interesting domestic cheeses,” she says. “Nashville has become the ‘It Girl’ of food and is attracting more chefs, although we already had good ones, as well as visitors who are interested in good food. It’s a fun time to be in Nashville and to be in cheese.”
By Richard Thompson
On Highway 202, just across the valley from Chateau Ste. Michelle, in the northern woodland region of Washington, stands the Sky River Mead and Honey Wine Meadery. Nestled comfortably off the scenic green-way of the Sammamish River Trail since 2012, this award-winning Washington meadery has tantalized customers with its line of quality meads and honey wines – including its flagship product, SOLAS – through its tasting rooms, community engagement and guiding principle that “in life, you get to make your own cubicle.”
“We only make mead.” says Denice Ingalls, President and Wine Maker at Sky River, “We keep it simple and try not to make it too complicated. We like to keep things relaxed.”
First opening in 1997 in the foothills of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountain Range, Sky River Meadery debuted its first bottle, SOLAS, in 1999, but eventually moved to the Woodinville Winery district in Washington in 2012 to what Ingalls considers to be “a little Washington Napa Valley,” as interest in mead grew. It was in this region that Ingalls and her sister, Glenda Downs, who joined the company in 2005, grew up, valuing the craft of working with honey as an ingredient in gourmet breads and home breweries. “If there was any place to reintroduce [mead], it would be Seattle.” says Ingalls, “We found a building, started with a blank slate and got the ball rolling by making a nice tasting room.” The space is so big, according to Ingalls, that the sister team sublets space in the two-building facility to a couple local grape wineries, Icon Sellers and Pleasant Hills, that serve out of their facility.
Both Ingalls and her sister took an unorthodox path into the mead business, but now that they’ve found it, they wouldn’t give it up for the world. Ingalls graduated from Pepperdine University in California, earning a Bachelors of Arts in Economics and after years of working alongside her father-in-law who ran the operations of a honey packing plant, remembered learning of mead in an Old English literature course she took years before, starting her journey into mead making, she says. Now she is involved in every step of the process, from selecting the honeys that will be used and dealing with the hefty paperwork that comes with running any business to collaborating on packaging and teaching customers about mead itself.
Downs graduated from Western Washington University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Non-Profit Administration and Fine Arts, and worked in the restaurant and marketing industry. Currently handling outside sales, Downs is responsible for sales and marketing, social media, the tasting room and the company website, sharing her knowledge of mead making with customers as she learns.
Sky River offers 10 different varieties of mead – with nine currently available – that range from traditional honeyed meads to fruit-inspired honey wines for those who are looking for a beverage that isn’t as naturally sweet.
The Sky River Sweet Mead is reminiscent of a fine German Riesling and is enjoyed as a delicate aperitif whose flavor notes are heightened with a touch of cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamon. The Sky River Semi-Sweet Mead hints of pear and is best served with the herbal flavors of pan-Asian and Mediterranean dishes, while the Sky River Dry Mead’s subtle honey flavor pairs perfectly with Thai and Indian cuisine. A 750 ml bottle costs $14.50, but a half case or a full case is also ready for purchase for $87 (six bottles) and $174 (12 bottles).
The traditional Brochet Mead that Sky River offers has a darker, richer quality due to the honey being caramelized before fermentation and exhibits a shadowy, sweet and alluring experience that is great on a summer evening, according to Ingalls. The Ginger mead has a sassy ginger note that harmonizes with the honey base into a fresh taste that zings with a spicy finish. “Our Rose mead is the ‘boudoir’ wine, luscious and indulgent, and pairs beautifully with meals where there are a lot of pistachios, like Persian and Middle Eastern foods,” says Ingalls. Both the Sky River Ginger Mead and the Brochet Mead are available in a 750 ml bottle for $16.95, $101.70 for a half case and $203.40 for a full case of 12 bottles. The Rose Mead starts at $17.95 for a 375 ml bottle and $107.70 and $215.40 for a half and full case respectively.
SOLAS, the meadery’s flagship mead, is a tribute to Old World meads. Using saturated, smoky whiskey barrels from Dry Fly[TM] Distillery, SOLAS is a very sweet mead that combines honey and wheat whiskey flavors and is definitely an indulgence that should be sipped. Available for $25.95 per 750 ml bottle, $155.70 per half case and $311.40 for a full case.
The Sky River Raspberry Honey Wine has warm honey notes that are offset by the lush raspberry flavor, making for a versatile beverage that pairs well with a pork roast and berry chutney or a very rich cheese cake. The Sky River Blackberry Honey Wine goes well with salmon, cheesecake or even just on its own. “This [honey wine] goes well with food or without food,” says Ingalls. Both honey wines retail for $15.50 for a 750 ml bottle, $93.00 per half case and $186 for a case of 12 bottles.
Ingalls speaks with a folksy wisdom when talking about why people purchase her mead, “We’re the grandaddy of the mead world….We’re still out plugging because we know what we’re doing.”