Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Sell Cheese

Weeks two and three of the Diplôme Universitaire: "Fromage et Patrimoine" program also took place in La Croix en Touraine under the direction of Rodolphe Le Meunier at his aging and storage facility at Les Fromages du Moulin. Half of each day was devoted to cheese plates, and the other half on how to maximize profits if you run a cheese shop. Selecting the cheeses and forming relationships with the producers is an important part, of course, but what's also important is how you present the cheeses in your store. How you arrange them in the cases, whether you have samples out, making "value-added" products like spreads and tartes and quiches with the cheese - it's all part of the business model for a fromager. If your boutique includes a bar or small restaurant, then you need to know how to cook with cheese, as well as how to prepare and arrange tasting plates of the cheeses themselves. You (and your staff) need to know how to store cheeses, how to cut them for sale, which ones to pre-wrap and which to leave unwrapped, and how to package them for the customer. And that's above and beyond the critical knowledge of the cheeses that you're selling, so that you can help the customers decide what to buy.

There's more to a cheese business than cheese, and so we also talked about hiring and staffing, the number of people you might need in businesses of various sizes, startup and equipment costs, and general facility design and layout. Should you use yellow- or blue-tinged or just plain white lamp bulbs in the store and in the display cases? What size and shape and color should your plates be? What determines the price of cheese at point of sale? That's something that often changes depending on the region - in other words, a perfectly-ripe Camembert might be much more if you're buying it in the Var rather than in Normandy. And you need to know whether there's a set price limit, and the difference between wholesale and resale, and maybe even what your competitors are selling their cheeses for, whether that's at the boutique shop five blocks away or the giant supermarket across town.

I will admit that while I listened attentively and took notes, not much of this really made an impression on me, because the business side of cheese is the least attractive one. The business side of anything is unattractive, in fact, which is something that is causing me some problems as I slowly develop my freelance writing business. Money should just appear in my bank account, I think, without my having to worry about it. If that's not going to be the case, then I'd prefer to have someone else worry about the financial side of things, which is why I will never run my own cheese shop, though I may work at one in the future.

Our first "selling" assignment was to arrange a cheese case as if it were in our store. That was a fairly straightforward exercise, and though we all had different ideas about what to put where at first, we worked together to arrange the goat cheeses in a basket, placing the wrapped and unwrapped cheeses of other types (sheep cheeses in a group, blues to one side, washed-rind and finally hard cheeses at the end) in a visually pleasing order. It's important to think about how the cheeses are displayed, because that will attract the customer, but also how that display will impact the workers who need to get the cheeses in and out of the case. You can't build a big architectural display at the rear of the case if that means you've got to awkwardly reach over it to get to the crottins de chèvre you've artistically piled up at the front. M. Le Meunier gave us feedback afterwards, pointing out some of the design difficulties, and also discussed ways to set up cases to minimize a lot of back-and-forth behind the counter.

When we did the cheese case exercise in the second week, we were using whole cheeses, but in the third class we had a display assignment of a different sort, one that involved cut cheeses. We'd spent the entire morning on our cheese plates, so there was a lot of sliced cheese lying around, and M. Le Meunier directed us to set up a large cheese buffet table, designed so that people could come up and help themselves, imagining that the table would be flush against the wall so that only one side would be accessible to them. He reminded us that a good portion size for cheese tasting is 60-80g per person, and that a typical cheese plate would have between three and seven types of cheese, and that some cheeses were better left unsliced until the last minute (like a runny Brie). With a buffet, there might be servers, in which case a suggested plate could have five types of cheese from the selections offered: a soft natural or bloomy-rind cheese, a washed-rind, a semisoft aged cheese, a hard cheese, and a bit of blue. You can set up a buffet with large quantities of a few varieties, or smaller amounts of a larger variety.

There are decisions to be made with a buffet, as well. You'll need to know what the client's budget is, and if this is for a cheese-and-wine sort of event, or something to end a full dinner (in which case, find out what they're serving). Will you be there to help people select and portion the cheeses, and to replace empty platters and spaces? Or are you going to just set it up and let people ravage the buffet as they like? That's an important consideration when it comes to cheeses that are hard to cut, like Mimolette, or messy, like Époisses de Bourgogne.

Again, we all had slightly different design directions, but managed to pull them together into a (mostly) coherent whole, using the cheeses and garnishes we had been playing with all morning. Different sizes and shapes for platters and raised racks added interest, and we even pulled some whole cheeses out of storage because they looked good in the display. M. Le Meunier complimented us on how quickly we put the buffet together, and how even though seven people were working on the display, we managed to combine our efforts to produce a generally unified whole, and quite quickly, too. He pointed out that when we first started working with the cheese plates, we were much slower, and had less of an eye for color and arrangement; that afternoon, by contrast, we worked swiftly and decisively to cut, plate, arrange, and decorate.

And finally, as is the case in all cheese-related efforts, it was time for cleaning and putting everything away. We divided up all of the pieces of cheese - the Chevriers in Saumur were the delighted recipients of my one-seventh share of the booty - and washed and dried all the trays and plates, shook out the tablecloths, and took off our work coats. Rodolphe Le Meunier gave us an excellent introduction to the cheese business, and a solid basis for practical work in the industry. I'm looking forward to classes in April, which will focus on cheese varieties, and some of the history of cheesemaking in France.


  1. You look so beautiful, and professional! And Anglo-Saxon. And poor.

  2. I reject the Anglo-Saxon label, but admit to the poverty.