Cheese & The Economy

Amidst the national political conventions, the presidential nominees emphasize their abilities to create jobs and improve our economy and our lives. They could do far worse than to look at the specialty cheese industry as a model.

In urban areas all over the country, a boom in specialty cheese shops, an expansion of departments in larger retailers and an explosion of wine and cheese bars and cheese plates on restaurant menus are adding life, excitement, interest — and jobs to the local scene.

This phenomenon was recently captured in Who moved my cheese? How small cheese shops and local producers expanded the Austin cheese scene, which appeared in CultureMap Austin:

“We’ve started telling the stories of cheese,” says Jenna Layden, specialty coordinator for the Southwest region at Whole Foods

Market. “From my experience of working here, there used to be only just a few places you could buy your cheeses from, and a lot of what you saw would be the commodity-style cheeses.

“I think what’s helped us evolve [beyond] that are influential retailers like Whole Foods and small neighborhood artisanal shops. We’re starting to talk about the stories, traditions, and creations behind cheeses and what makes them so unique. I almost liken it to the craft beer scene because there are so many different cheesemakers and producers popping up all the time now.”

Austin’s interest in locally made, locally sourced food has caused people to rethink how they purchase cheese:

John Antonelli, the owner of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, started piecing together the idea for his Hyde Park shop during his honeymoon with his wife and now business partner, Kendall. He realized he’d need to learn more about the aesthetics and science of cheese, but he felt a calling to fill a gap in the Austin culinary scene. In February 2010, Antonelli opened his shop and started transforming people’s typical cheese-purchasing experiences.

“We wanted to change the way people thought about their cheeses. I personally loved that shock that took over me when I

would bite into a great piece of cheese, and I wanted our customers to discover that,” he says.

“Cheese is one of the few products that encompasses a whole range of knowledge components, and there is a great science to it. There’s so much to learn, but that’s what we’re here for. We want to teach people about great cheese.”

Entrepreneurial retailing, expanded large retailers, newly interesting restaurants — and the production base needed to supply this growing demand. This is a recipe for tasting great cheese, for an exciting experience and for new economic vitality. Candidates, take note.