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Cheese Shop Finds Foodies in Des Moines

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.

IMG_6159The 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.”

Take a Look at Products Debuting at the Summer Fancy Food Show

By Robin Mather

Nashville, Tennessee, producer Mod Squad Martha was among those introducing new products at this year’s Summer Fancy Food Show with the launch of Chive Jive and Bluebird Vinaigrettes, as well as Music Row Moroccan Salmon Marinade and Rub. The company contributes a portion of sales to Crossroads Campus and Bonaparte’s Retreat, two 501(c) charities founded by singer-songwriter Emmylou Harris to strengthen the human/animal bond.

Chocolatier Valrhona unveiled Blond Orelys 35 Percent, chocolate lozenges sweetened with muscovado sugar, to the company’s Blond Range of chocolates.

US Wellness Meats, the Canton, Missouri-based retail purveyors of Heritage Pork, Grass-Fed Beef, Bison and Lamb, Wild-Caught Seafood, plus poultry and rabbit, sampled its sugar-free pork bacon and other products. Boone County Organics sampled its organic chocolate-covered freeze-dried aronia berries, one of the newest trending superfoods, from the US Wellness Meats booth.

Wella Bar, which produces organic nut-based protein bars, showed off four new flavors, including Hazelnut Cacao, Almond Sour Cherry, Almond Blueberry and Almond Cacao. The bars gain their protein boosts from whole milk and egg whites. A portion of the company’s sales benefit the Bee Kind initiative, which Project Apis began.

Everton Toffee introduced a line of butter-toffee covered pretzels, in Original Toffee, Toasted Pecan and Roasted Cashew flavors. The company, nearly 300 years old, also showed off its new gift tins, which feature charming Dickensian cartoon characters, each with his or her own “life story.”

Angelic Bakehouse, producer of sprouted grain breads, showed its new sprouted bread crisps in 7 Grain with Sea Salt, Honey Wheat with Raisins and Sea Salt, and Rye with Sea Salt flavors. Like its other products, the crisps are Non-GMO Certified, Kosher and feature fully transparent labeling.

The Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery sampled its new natural cheddar cheese curds in individual 2-ounce packages, and announced that it will soon add frozen breaded curds to foodservice and retail outlets.

Plocky’s Fine Snacks introduced its Protato Crisps in Original with Himalayan Pink Salt, Spicy Honey Barbecue and Peppercorn Ranch flavors. The chips combine potatoes with plant protein for additional nutrition and are available in three-ounce bags.

Alexian, producers of all-natural pates and specialty meats, revealed their new Specialty Crackers in Olive Oil & Sea Salt flavor, made with just three ingredients. The crackers are Non-GMO Project verified, vegan-certified and kosher.

Dockside Market, a Key Largo-based longtime producer of tropical-flavored cakes, introduced its new Breezer cookies in Key Lime with White Chocolate Chips, Coconut Crunch with Chocolate Chips and Pecas, and Honeybell Orange with Chocolate Chips flavors. The bite-sized cookies come in a resealable bag.

Organic Prairie, a farmer-owned company, introduced its Mighty Beef Grassfed Organic Jerky and Beef Sticks. The jerky comes in Teriyaki, Original and Peppered flavors, while the beef sticks come in Teriyaki, Original and Spicy Jalapeño flavors. All are gluten free, nut-free and non-GMO certified.

Organic Valley introduced its Cream-on-Top Grassmilk Yogurt in a new 6-ounce serving cup, including four new varieties with organic fruit.

Jake’s Nut Roasters introduced five new flavors of its California-grown dry-roasted almonds, available in 5-ounce pouches, 7-ounce cans and four-pack gift sets. The flavors are Mesquite-Smoked, Bleu Cheese with Cracked Pepper, Bloody Mary, Barbecue and Maple.

Lotao showed its three flavors of Coconut Blossom Sugar (Ginger Kiss, Java Kiss and Oriental Kiss) and its line of organic rice and legume products, including Curcuma Sun Golden Rice, Oriental Sensation Smoked Rice, Glam Wedding Pink Rice, and Royal Pearl Black Rice, and Carillas Ahumadas, Caviar de Los Huertos and Tolosas de Leon beans and lentils.

Karoun Dairies unveiled four flavors of its Mediterranean-style labne, a yogurt-cheese spread in Lite, Original, Tzatziki and Spicy (with spicy red pepper, garlic and parsley). The company also introduced Blue Isle yogurt dips in Tzatziki, Masala and Hummus flavors.

Cypress Grove, makers of the iconic Humboldt Fog and other fine cheeses, announced its plans to produce individually-sized portions of many of its popular cheeses.

The Italian company Terra d Tuono showed its “Ballsamic” sphere ― a golf ball-sized sphere of solid balsamic vinegar, made possible by a patented new process. The sphere is designed to be grated over many dishes, including pasta, meat and fish, vegetables and salads, cheeses, and fruit, ice cream and desserts.

Biscotti Brothers, makers of traditionally twice-baked biscotti, revealed new packaging for three of its best-selling flavors ― Cranberry Pistachio, Classic Almond and Double Chocolate Chunk. The resealable gusseted bags provide a nine-month shelf life for the biscotti.
Ines Rosales, makers of the traditional Spanish olive-oil tortas, has introduced individually packaged traditional cinnamon cookies, baked with high-oleic sunflower oil. The cookies are light and crisp, sodium free and low in saturated fat.

Sierra Nevada Cheese Company sampled its new Russian-style fresh “farmer cheese,’ with live probiotic cultures. The company suggests using it as a filling for blintzes or in lasagna or filled pasta, cheesecake and other deserts, or simply to spread on toast or bagels.

Marich Chocolates showed its new holiday-flavored cookies and caramels. Candy Cane Caramels offer dark chocolate cloaked in the company’s signature candy cane coating, while its Dark and White Chocolate Gingerbread cookies are covered in white chocolate and dark chocolate marbling.

Sweet Shop USA introduced two new three-ounce chocolate bars in Spicy Peanut or Dark Goji Berry. Both are organic. The company also now offers boxed and individually wrapped singles in Salted Butter Rum Pecan Cluster, Fudge Love Truffle, and Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Carmel, Milk Chocolate Bourbon Caramel, Dark Chocolate Mint Sticks, Milk Chocolate Peca Praline, Milk Chocolate Almond toffee and Dark Almond Sea Salt toffee flavors.

Olli Snacks has introduced new snack packs of Genoa Salami and Calabrese Salami, both including cheese and crackers, and sliced 2-ounce chubs of both Genoa and Calabrese Salamis.

SFA Honors Industry Achievers

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:

  • Lorie and the late Harold Alexander of Koppers Chocolate, which has exhibited at every Fancy Food Show since 1955. Harold is credited with being the first to produce chocolate-covered espresso beans.
  • The late Ted Koryn of Liberty Foods, honored posthumously. He took part in the very first Fancy Food Show and earned the loving nickname of “The Cecil B. DeMille of the specialty food industry.”
  • Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. Zingerman’s 10 businesses have a combined $60 million in annual sales, and the pair were named among “The World’s 10 Top CEOs” by INC magazine.
  • Jerry Santucci of Santucci Associates, honored posthumously. Founder of one of the first specialty food brokerage firms, Santucci was lauded as a mentor to countless individuals and served twice as president of the National Association of Specialty Food & Confection Brokers.
  • Winston Stona of Busha Browne’s line of Jamaican condiments. Stona is also a well-known Jamaican actor, and he is committed to promoting Caribbean development all over the world through exports.

New inductees into the Hall of Fame are:

  • John H. Affel of World Finer Foods Inc., who has more than 40 years of experience in specialty food manufacturing, sales, marketing and general management.
  • Bruce Aidells of Aidells Sausage Company, author of 12 cookbooks and winner of awards for outstanding meat and outstanding product line. He started Aidells Sausage Company in 1983 to produce Cajun sausages for Bay Area chefs.
  • Ted Bolle of Telefood Magazine, and an early co-chair of the Fancy Food Show committee, who helped the show become more meaningful to specialty food buyers.
  • Bob and Verna Budd of Oak Hill Farms, who made the Vidalia onion a household name. The Budds started their business in their kitchen in 1983, and eventually grew to a multi-plant company with 120 employees.
  • Jeffrey Cohen of Sutton Place Gourmet, the Metro Washington, D.C., shop that opened in 1980 to cater to sophisticated international diplomats.
  • Al Cook of Melba Food Specialties Inc. in New York. He helped create the Fancy Food Show, and specialized in international imports, including Twinings Tea.
  • Leo A. Dick of L.A. Dick Imports, LLC, founded in 1975 with five employees. The company grew to 65 associates serving 400 manufacturers and 1,500 retailers before it was sold to Lipari Foods of Warren, Michigan, in 2016.
  • Samuel W. Edwards III of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse of Surry, Virginia. A third-generation cure-master, Edwards opened the company’s first retail stores and began direct-to-consumer sales via catalog and web. The company specializes in curing meats from certified humane, pasture-raised hogs.
  • Kurt Hamburger, President of the Jacob Hamburger Company. Hamburger was a leader in distribution and marketing of sustainable Northwest regional products and specialty foods.
  • Rex Howell-Smith of Central Market in Texas. The market’s high-caliber and devoted employees have forged relationships with foreign and domestic producers, bringing specialty food products to their customers.
  • Scott Jensen of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q and Rhythm Superfoods. After co-founding One World Foods, which produced Stubb’s, Jensen founded Rhythm Superfoods after One World Foods was sold to McCormick in 2015. Rhythm Superfoods manufactures plant-based superfoods snacks.
  • Natalie King of Stonewall Kitchen. King joined Stonewall Kitchens in 1996, and has led all of the company’s profit centers since then. She has exhibited at the Fancy Food Show for 20 years, and has served on the Specialty Food Association’s board.
  • Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company in Dallas, which grew from a few pounds of fresh mozzarella to producing thousands of pounds of more than 30 different hand-made cheeses in its 35 years. Lambert has been inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who in Food and Wine in America.”
  • David Lemberger of the Lemberger Candy Corporation. The company, which began as Lemberger Food Co. in 1954, concentrated on candy and chocolate for the children’s novelty market. Choc-Aid and Gummi-Aid were its best known and best-selling products.
    Leo Lemberger of the Lemberger Food Company, David Lemberger’s father. He started the company in 1938 after arriving from Germany with his wife and two children as refugees. After World War II, Leo Lemberger began importing products from Europe, and some are still among the best-known in the U.S.
  • Fred Meyer of the Fred Meyer Company. Credited with inventing “one-stop shopping,” Meyer was called “the last of the great American entrepreneurs” by the Wall Street Journal. He started at age 22 selling coffee from a horse-drawn cart, and opened the first Fred Meyer store in 1922.
  • Joseph Markowitz of Larkin Cold Storage/Columbia Cheese. Markowitz’s pioneering work in product and logistics led him on an entrepreneurial streak. Among his start-ups were Champignon North America, Somerdale USA, Emmi USA and Redondo Iglesias USA.
  • Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics. Co-founded in 1993 with her father, the iconic actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, Newman’s Own created the number one snack in the natural foods industry that year. By 2015, the company had donated more than $40 million to charity.
  • Frank Patrick of the George Delallo Company. Patrick leads the national grocery team at George Delallo. While he was senior vice president of Tree of Life, he and his group grew specialty foods sales from $110 million to more than $1.5 billion in 10 years.
  • Stanley Poll of William Poll Gourmet Foods and Catering. Poll’s Upper East Side Manhattan store has expanded its line of products, concentrating on foods produced in-house, during its 95-year run. Stanley and his brother James are now focusing on the company’s 100th anniversary.
  • Ron Shalinsky of The Better Cheddar, the Kansas City destination shop for cheese and specialty foods. Shalinsky started the small cheese and sandwich shop in 1983, and by 2003, the Specialty Food Association honored the shops, now in two locations, as an “Outstanding Retailer of the Year.”
  • Michael Silver of Neomonde Baking Co. in Morrisville, North Carolina. Silver has served on more than 20 Specialty Food Association committees, is a past chair of the board for the organization and helped set up the Specialty Food Foundation.
  • Hal Theis of Reese Finer Foods, which was one of the most important importers of European and Australian foods. Reece was a pioneer in bringing specialty foods to supermarkets.
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