Today’s Hooked on Cheese story is an interview with Gordon Edgar, a San Francisco-based cheese writer and the cheesemonger for the storied Rainbow Grocery Co-operative since 1994. Rainbow is San Francisco's largest independent grocery store as well as the biggest retail worker co-op in the United States. Edgar currently serves on the Board of Directors of the California Artisan Cheese Guild and helped develop the educational programming at the annual Sonoma Valley Cheese Conference. He is also a frequent cheese event panelist and has acted as an aesthetic judge at scores of national cheese competitions.
Edgar is one of the most passionate, dedicated cheesemongers I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He has written an extremely informative (and hilarious) cheese blog since 2002. Be sure to check it out.
Raymond Hook: Tell us a little about Rainbow Grocery Co-op. How long you have been in charge of the cheese department there? What is Rainbow’s mission?
Gordon Edgar: Rainbow Grocery Co-op is the largest worker-coop retail store in the country. We are a natural foods grocery and general store where all 250 employees own an equal share, or are on the way to being share owners. I’ve been in the cheese department here since 1994, and even though we are one of the smaller departments in the store we try to be bigger than our footprint, carrying high quality cheese with an emphasis on American and local cheeses. We are a grocery-store cheese department rather than a stand-alone store, so we are able to carry a lot of cheeses. Our mission – as a department -- is to sell good cheese and represent the producers well.
Also, I am not in charge of the cheese. I am the buyer, so I have a lot of day-to-day responsibilities, but major decisions are voted on by our whole department of ten worker-owners.
You are not the typical cheesemonger, but rather a well-respected, top-of-your-game type. Is that an advantage or a challenge?
Oh, I don’t know. It helps to be able to walk into a cheese event and know people. The first time I went to a professional event I didn’t know how to talk to anyone, and the first time I went to the ACS [American Cheese Society] I was totally intimidated. It’s nice to be past that, but in retrospect, it was mostly in my own head.
You select cheeses for many different types of people: for the novice, the cheese curious and the cheese geek. How do you determine your in-store selections and keep the selection balanced?
The first step is assessing my customers. After twenty years of selling cheese, it’s something I do without thinking, and even though I am still wrong sometimes, I usually have a suggestion or question in mind based on the first words out of a customer’s mouth. Our customers will ask anything from, “Where’s the Pepper Jack?” to “What small-production Alpage cheeses are you carrying right now?” Those questions have obvious answers; the trick is figuring out the folks who are interested in cheese but don’t have the vocabulary to ask for what they want. Those are my favorites. We end up tasting a lot of cheese together until they leave the store happy.
At one time (and this is most likely still the case), you sold more California cheeses than any other retailer. How important is that to Rainbow and to you?
It’s very important. We will never be a store that carries only California or only American cheeses – there are just too many good cheeses out there in the world. But we took a big risk a few years back by turning our main case into one that had only American (and mostly California) cheeses. I think it has helped California cheesemakers and made customers realize that they can get almost any style of cheese made by a local (or relatively local) cheesemaker. This will always be a focus for us.
How do you remain so passionate after being on the “front lines” of selling cheese for so long? It’s amazing to me that after twenty years, people can still walk into Rainbow and see you working the counter and ask you cheese questions.
The funniest thing to me is when people say, “You still work behind the counter? I thought you would quit when your book came out!” I wish society valued writers that much!
But really, even if my book had sold a million copies, I would still love working the front lines on a Saturday. No sales representatives come by on Saturdays, no invoices need to be dealt with, no emails returned. It’s just pure cheese love. Putting cheese in people’s mouths and watching them get excited, or suddenly understand the connection between grass and milk, or taste sheep’s milk cheese for the first time. What’s more fun than that?
What three pointers would you give a young cheesemonger just getting started in the field?
First off, it all starts with good food-handling practices and good rotation. Rainbow has the luxury (now) of 3000 people walking past our case every day. But you have to scale the number of cheeses you carry to the volume you can sell, otherwise you will be selling bad cheese or throwing it away. Similarly, if you or your co-workers do not treat the cheese with respect –clean counter, clean wrap, clean hands – you will go nowhere. The first day of training should be about the safe handling of food, not the romance of the Alps.
Secondly, don’t let your selection be stagnant. Keep your staples stable, but experiment elsewhere. Copy from other stores, but know why you are doing it. Ask (nice!) customers what they want to see in the case. Taste everything every time, and go with your tongue. That awesome cheese that killed it last year may not be as good this year as it used to be.
Which leads me to my third point: taste trumps storytelling. It’s easy to fall so in love with a cheese’s story that you end up putting a lot of energy into a cheese that people don’t ultimately want. It’s not even necessarily a judgment on the cheese itself; not all cheese sells in all stores or at all times. Be honest with cheesemakers about this if you are in direct contact with them.
And a fourth point – yes, I added a fourth. This seems obvious (and I almost left it out) but I realized it’s too important to omit: pay your suppliers and cheesemakers on time and don’t make them ask for their money! We are all in this together.
What are your future goals for the cheese program at Rainbow?
We moved into our current location eighteen years ago – even though I still call it “the new store” – and we are finally about to get new coolers and change the arrangement of our section. Right now, we have too many people crowded into our section on busy days! If you’ve ever been here when the cheese section was too crowded to make it up to the counter and ask a question, then you should know that the layout will be a lot better in six months or so.
What is exciting, inspiring and makes you happiest about working with cheese?
Many, many things, but in the end, it’s the people. Cheesemakers are pretty awesome folks and I am proud to help them make a living by getting urban customers addicted to a rural product.
Could Rainbow Market exist anywhere but in San Francisco?
Maybe. But Rainbow is a special confluence of old food-hippies, political engagement, democratic structures and love of food. It is a special combination.
You wrote a fantastic cheese book in 2010: Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge. Any plans on a follow-up to that?
At the moment I am on a writing vacation, but I just signed a contract with Chelsea Green for my next book, tentatively called The United States of Cheddar. It will be a journey to see what cheddar cheese can tell us about food production in this country. It’s not due to the publisher until 2015 though, so don’t look for it yet. Heck, go buy another copy of Cheesemonger to tide you over until then!
Additional reporting by Madeleine James.