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.”