A Domestic Cheese Mecca

For almost a decade, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines has cultivated its offerings of mainly regional and domestic artisanal cheese.

The impetus for C.J. Bienert opening The Cheese Shop of Des Moines was simple; after years of working in the cheese industry for different retailers, he was tired of being told no.

“I had worked at various cheese counters, markets and a wine shop that went out of business, and was sick of being told ‘no, you cannot have a closed case for American artisan cheeses,” says owner C.J. Bienert. “I knew the demand was there, and there was nothing like it in the area, so I decided to go on my own path.”

When Bienert started selling cheese back in 2001, there wasn’t the influx of American artisan cheeses as there is today.

He had one particular inspiration from the get-go. “The lack of delicious, dynamic cheeses being produced in the U.S. is what led me to my love of Cellar of Jasper Hill’s Winnimere,” says Bienert. “I thought to myself, there is no way this cheese was made in the U.S.”

He then sent co-founder and CEO of the Greensboro Bend, VT company, Mateo Kehler, an e-mail saying the cheese had inspired him, and Kehler responded with an internship offer.

“It was perfect timing for me, so I left Des Moines and did a four-month-long internship on Jasper Hill’s farm,” says Bienert. “The eight- to 10-hour days were intense and taught me all about cheesemaking. Yet, I primarily washed dishes and flipped cheese.”

He also found amazing cheese producers by working on other farms on his days off. While he started his journey as a European-centric foodie, Bienert was blown away by the passion of the U.S. cheesemakers he served alongside and the impressive quality of their product.

An Epiphany

Despite these life-changing experiences, it was early on in his journey that Bienert realized he didn’t want to be a cheesemaker.

“The alchemy and everything is cool, but I didn’t like the day to day monotony; I like interacting with people,” he says. “Plus, Mateo starts his creameries at 4 a.m.”

It was wise words from Kehler and his brother Andy, Jasper Hill’s co-founder and managing member, that set Bienert on his path to retailing.

“After I was asked to sit on a tasting analysis, Mateo and Andy wheeled their office chairs over to me with such an intensity that I felt instantly interrogated,” says Bienert. “They then asked me what I was going to do; out of nowhere, I immediately replied that I’d be opening a cheese shop in Des Moines that focused on American producers.”

It was after his internship in 2009 that Bienert went on what he calls his year-long cheese sabbatical.

“It was my walk about to find my calling in cheese,” he says.

With Mateo Kehler’s blessing, Bienert spent a holiday season at Cowgirl Creamery’s San Francisco store assisting with orders that totaled upwards of $20,000 a day while helping with endless deliveries.

“I knew if I was going to have a cheese shop and be a monger, I had to prove myself,” he says. “I also made great connections during a stint in Wisconsin.”

Bienert met a number of mentors along the way, including John and Kendall Antonelli, owners of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin and Cheese Connoisseur cover subjects this past winter.

“I did a lot of traveling, everyone gave me their time, and I listened to whoever I could,” says Bienert. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it without connections from that sabbatical, so I picked the best people to talk to.”

When he returned to Des Moines, Bienert sold Wisconsin cheeses at a local farmers market to see if Iowans would be supportive of his venture. It was during this time that he queried his customers, asking which location would be best for his store. A year after coming back to Iowa, in November 2011, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines became a reality. Its location is in a historic area of the city as a result of the farmers market poll.

“Although I knew Des Moines well, I needed to confirm the best site for the store,” he says. “It was fun working on the business side of things and gathering information during my travels. It also gave me time to write a business plan and do the necessary research.”

It is serendipitous that the location happens to be the same strip mall where Bienert’s father had his coffee shop when he was growing up.

“There’s also one of only a handful of bakeries in the city in our strip mall, La Mie Bakery, and we carry their bread.” he says. “That type of partnership works well for us, and any independent cheese shop needs to co-merchant.”

Expanding the Business

In homage to Jasper Hill, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ rustic décor includes live edge and recycled wood. Bienert also piggy backed on Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick Café concept when he added a café to his store.

Bienert knew it was time to diversify after he began offering sandwiches in his shop, which garnered lines of 30- to 60-minutes, with people sitting on the floor eating grilled cheese sandwiches.

He opened the 75-seat Cheese bar in June 2017.

“I came into the industry with a culinary background but told my wife if I ever said I wanted to open a restaurant to please kick me,” Bienert says. “But we got into the business purely accidentally, due to people asking for it. This cheese-centric restaurant was a big twist for us.”

Initially, creator of Portland, OR’s Cheese Bar, Steve Jones, was not on board with the name.

“I told him it’s like a wine bar, and every city should have one,” says Bienert. “Steve agreed, but wanted me to change the name; it didn’t happen.”

The full-service restaurant, which is in a separate location from the shop, allowed Bienert to further support local farmers and producers. It also offers 30 beers on tap and a cocktail program.

“We’re providing a service to the community, with wholesome, delicious and glutenous food,” he says. “My rule in business is once you provide something, you can’t take it away. Stopping would be a disservice. You have to build upon it, and make it work.”

The menu is simple—grilled cheese, fondue and raclette.

“We put cheese on anything, including our raclette hot dog,” says Bienert. “We also offer other classic dishes with a twist, like Alpine Macaroni, a Tart Raclette and aligot potatoes. We’re in the Midwest, which is meat and potatoes territory.”

The emphasis is on clean product sourcing from local producers, no matter what the cost. The Cheese Bar uses local Gouda from the Pella Dutch community and cheeses from Milton Creamery in Milton and Frisian Farms in Leighton blended in a grilled cheese sandwich. Its cast iron mac and cheese, inspired by Mission Cheese’s presentation, uses Hook’s Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese Co. in Mineral Point, WI, and is baked in a 500-degree oven for a caramely finish.

An American Focus

Bienert estimates that 70 percent of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ cheeses would be classified as American artisan.

“We’re the number one by square feet seller of La Quercia prosciutto, produced in Norwalk nearby,” he says. “We hang our hat on local producers and want there to be more.”

That’s not to say he shuns imported cheeses. The Cheese Shop of Des Moines works with producers overseas, including the UK’s Neal’s Yard.

Yet, his most popular cheese, and what he’s best known for, is Dodgeville, WI-based Uplands Cheese’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve selection.

Bienert said it took some convincing before Uplands Cheese co-owner Andy Hatch would provide a full batch of cheese.

“He said the first year he couldn’t do it,” says Bienert. “Then, in our second year in business, Andy had me come out and do a selection. Since then, we’ve been offering varieties of full cheese batches, 90 to 100 wheels, and we’ve stuck with that model.”

Bienert says there is always aging out of certain cheeses as well as dialing in to pick special batches of versatile types that can be sold younger and older.

“It’s fun when a cheese reaches its peak at holiday time and is hitting its stride,” he says. “We’re able to give people the world’s best cheeses, and they can taste the difference. They come here for cheese like Pleasant Ridge because they know we’ll take care of it.”

When asked his favorite cheese, Bienert doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s Comté, and will be forever,” he says. “It’s a cheese that’s so versatile; a young Comté for breakfast is delicious with grainy bread, while a 14-month Comté on a ham and cheese sandwich is perfect for lunch and Comté after dinner makes an ideal dessert.”

Bienert’s newest find is Cultivo cheeses from Madrid’s Queseria Cultivo.

“I’ve been excited with their Mahon and Frida, a funky washed rind sheep cheese,” he says. “Finding new cheeses from the Old World is exciting to me.”

He also says Columbia Cheese’s expert Bavarian cheese selector Norbert Sieghart is doing cool stuff. Another favorite is Calderwood, a collaboration between Jasper Hill and New York City’s Saxelby cheesemongers.

“And everyone is in love with Tulip Tree Creamery in Indianapolis and Shadowbrook Farm in Lincoln, NE, which has outstanding Gouda-style cheeses,” Bienert says. “We finally have a cold chain to get these cheeses through C.E. Zuercher out of Chicago, since we don’t have the infrastructure here.”

Diversifying Pays Off

The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ e-commerce site provides regional shipping through its Cheese Club.

“We have many customers who are no longer local, but still want our cheese,” says Bienert. “We do three-, six- and 12-month length cheese clubs that ship a pound of cheese to members.”

These feature exciting, hot, seasonal selections, with one of the recent ones being Winnimere and Jasper Blue.

Because Bienert put in many years educating customers at a wine store prior to opening his cheese shop, he gained a big following. This transcended in The Cheese Shop of Des Moines holding weekly wine and cheese classes.

“When I began my wine education, I was 19, not even old enough to drink wine legally,” he says. “Many of the people from my classes way back when come to my classes now. It’s a big part of our business, and we would get about 25 paying customers who participate.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bienert was in the process of retrofitting an old taco cart into a raclette cart, with plans to sell his food at local summer festivals.

“I thought this will let us get out to be seen more and mobilize,” he says. “A big part of our success is off premise events. I’ll go anywhere there are people who will pay for cheese, including churches, libraries and people’s dining rooms.”

The cart was to serve as a gorilla marketing tool, along with the e-commerce offerings, to evolve with the times.

During the pandemic, the shop was ‘telemongering’, while the restaurant offered curbside and carryout menu items.

The twist in his story is now Bienert says he is balder and fatter and has two children—five-year-old son Solomon and three-year-old daughter Coral Blue. But his wife and the operation’s co-owner, Kari, still puts up with him.

“I want people to know if you build it, they will come, but you have to keep working at it and be flexible,” he says about cheese shop ownership. “There will be constant challenges, but you can usually overcome them. Every person questioned me about opening a cheese shop in Des Moines.” It was Zingerman’s founder Ari Weinzweig, one of Bienert’s mentors, who gave him sound advice. “He said ‘of course you can do it in Des Moines, look at what we’re doing in Ann Arbor!’” recalls Bienert. “He was right. Now, we get people from Minneapolis and Chicago visiting our Iowa store.”  

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