By Lorrie Baumann
I met Connor Pelcher, a Wholesale Account Manager for Murray’s Cheese, one morning over breakfast during the American Cheese Society’s Cheese Camp, after my attention was drawn to him by one of his co-workers who asked him if he was wearing his flamingo socks. He reared back in his chair and raised his leg above the table to demonstrate that, yes, the flamingo socks were sur les pieds.
I missed seeing the matching flamingo shirt that he’d also bought after he’d run out of shirts during his stay at Cheese Camp. “I went to the mall, saw a flamingo shirt, and then I saw the flamingo socks,” he says. “As a salesperson, I like to dress in a way that people will remember. The better dressed you are, the more visually impactful you are. That might help people think about me when they have a question about cheese.”
Pelcher started his career in the food industry as an escape from the reality that a college graduate with a degree in English has when realizing the limited options for turning that degree into a well-paid career. “Anyone who has a degree in English can tell you the feeling of fear you get when you get handed that diploma,” he says. “That fear led me back to Vermont, where I grew up.”
Back in Vermont, he began exploring a passion for cooking and applied to the New England Culinary Institute. “I got a call the same week to say they loved my essay and were looking for people who were passionate and who were looking for a second career,” he says. After graduation from culinary school, he moved to New York and began moving up the ladder in white-tablecloth restaurants until he found himself the general manager of a restaurant and two bars in the East Village, and it dawned on him that he was having more to do with spreadsheets and personnel rosters than with actual food. “I took a step away from that and thought about where I could focus myself,” he says. “I had always been obsessed about beer and wine and cheese, so I sent a resume to Murray’s. I went in and got myself hired as a junior sales person.”
He still remembers what he said in that interview, he says. He mentioned “that cheese with the ash.” Humboldt Fog? the interviewer asked, and he agreed that, yes, that’s the one he had in mind. “It was laughable. Now I could talk to you for an hour about my favorite cheeses.”
He’s now been at Murray’s for two years, has become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and he’s now teaching some of the classes he attended to learn about cheese. Pelcher says he’s more excited now than he was when he started the job. “At Cheese Camp, I got to meet some cheese celebrities. I got to taste a million things that I never even would have known about,” he says. “The panels were incredible – some of the brightest minds, a confluence of some of the best thinkers that the cheese world has to offer. To be allowed to ask questions of them, to have four people that you deeply respect and that you read about answering a question for you…. Someday I’d like to be on one of those panels and to have people look up at me and applaud.”
Chad Farmer Davis, a Kroger Enterprise Set-up Specialist who opens Murray’s Cheese Shops inside partner stores across the country, also remembers the job interview that led to his career in cheese. He’s from Illinois, and he’d never even seen a cheese shop when he applied six years ago for what was supposed to be just a summer job. “I said I was an expert. I ate Kraft every day,” he says. “That was my entire cheese knowledge six years ago – Kraft and Velveeta.”
Much as he loves eating good cheeses now, his favorite part of his job is working with the people he meets as he travels the country, “training new cheese people and spreading the word on curd.” “There are literally so many crazy people in cheese culture. These are people that you tend to be attracted to,” he says. “When I was a kid, I was so focused on Star Wars. When I grew up, it transferred to cheese.”
When he trains new cheesemongers who aren’t yet as obsessed as he is with cheese, he likes to point out that talking about cheese is an easy way to start a conversation with a stranger. “There are so many kinds of people, but most people love cheese, and you can definitely bond with people over cheese. You can start a conversation about cheese, and it leads to, oh, I made a new friend,” he says. “You can meet a lot of new and interesting people, and it makes you a better person because you’re learning so much about other people.”
Like Pelcher, Farmer-Davis’ was once one of those liberal arts graduates willing to think for food. Now, he’s become one willing to spend the rest of his career thinking about food. “This is now a permanent career – one I thought I’d never have,” he says. “It was something that took me by surprise. I fell in love with it the very first day. I’m definitely not going to walk away from it, ever. It’s something that I love to do, and it makes my life extremely interesting.”
Like Pelcher, Cheesemaster and ACS Certified-Cheese Professional Jill Davis started out as a chef. She now works for Kroger at a new Murray’s Cheese Shop inside a Decatur, Georgia store, but before she joined Kroger, she was working for KitchenAid, teaching cooking classes and offering demonstrations to show kitchenware retailers how to use KitchenAid appliances. Before that, she’d worked at Sur Le Table teaching classes in cooking and knife skills, and she’s spent five years as a chocolatier. She intends for Kroger to be her last employer before she retires.
She came to work for Kroger after KitchenAid closed its Atlanta facility. “I’d been a long-time customer of Murray’s and got an email that said, ‘Coming Soon to Atlanta,” she says. “I called directly to New York.”
A Murray’s staffer in New York put her in touch with the Kroger hiring manager in Atlanta, who interviewed her for five minutes and then handed her an airline ticket to leave the next day for training in New York. “I got the whole Murray’s tour and then came back here and directly became a cheesemonger and in charge of the shop,” she says.
“Murray’s is extremely thorough in training, not only about cheese, but about merchandising and the product itself. There are product sheets on every single thing you sell: name of the farmer, name of the cheesemaker, nutritional information, some factoids to help you remember it. You need to have all of this information before you even begin a demo, plus all of this information is on every single sign, which also contains pairings and information on pronunciation,” she continues. “They also bring in their people to teach you the proper way, the Murray’s way, of cutting each cheese within each family of cheeses and how they’re merchandised and displayed.”
Her new shop has about 100 different cheeses, an olive and antipasti bar, a case of charcuterie, pickles, jams and chocolates. Crackers sit on top of he cheese cases. While most of the cheese is cut to order, there are also some grab-and-go precuts because many of the Kroger stores are open 24 hours a day and some customers choose not to interact with the cheesemonger.
“For me, it’s all about the cheese. I like talking to my customers every day. I want to have customers, people who come in and ask for me and say they’re having people over and want to know what to serve,” she says. “Everything – the bottom line – is customer service. It’s not all about the cheese; it’s all about the customer.”