I recently met up with my friend Nate McElroy for a visit to a major SoHo retailer to take a look at their cheese case presentation. Nate and I first met when we both lived and worked in San Francisco. He worked at Cheese Plus, a fantastic cheese store near Russian Hill, then moved to New York and became the general manager at Bedford Cheese Shop, a celebrated retailer with locations in Williamsburg and Union Square. He now works with the iconic California goat cheese makers Cypress Grove Cheese.
The shops Nate oversaw always boasted pristine cheese cases. Each wedge was wrapped tightly, the glass was spotless, the cutting area always immaculate. These may seem like basic requirements of a high-end cheese retailer; sadly, that’s not always the case.
As we walked into the SoHo store, I asked Nate to review the appearance of the cheese counter. Shoppers are there to purchase luxury goods, and it goes without saying that each item should be presented in an impeccable manner.
As we looked at the cases, I could tell right off the bat that Nate had a few issues. He was bothered that so many cheeses were cut in half only to be used as risers for display. “Why cut the cheese just to use it as a bolster?” he asked, remarking that the shelf life of the cheese begins to diminish as soon as it’s cut. He also looked disapprovingly at a large clothbound English Cheddar that had been quartered and left sitting on the counter. “Those thirty pounds of cut cheese are not benefiting from being held at room temperature,” Nate grumbled. There was visible oil (“tears,” as cheese folks call them) weeping from the cheese – “that’s all the flavor and texture seeping out,” Nate noted. He said he would’ve only set out the “working” piece and left the cut pieces in the cooler. Having all the pieces above the counter might make for a bountiful display, but quickly lessens the quality of the cheese.
A retailer must always balance the best way to preserve a cheese’s condition with how to retail it beautifully. But ultimately, I agree with Nate: the verdict should be determined by what benefits the cheese the most.