Cheese-Centric Through and Through

Virginia’s Cheesetique has steadily expanded its business,

but the focus has remained on cheese.

Celebrating more than a decade and a half in business is an accomplishment, but Virginia’s Cheesetique has discovered that the secret to success is continued evolution.

Opening as a traditional cheese shop in 2004 in Alexandria, VA’s Del Ray neighborhood, owner Jill Erber’s goal was to position Cheesetique as a gathering spot for cheese and wine enthusiasts. This led to the opening of its restaurant and wine bar in 2008. Its second location in Arlington’s Shirlington neighborhood 2 ½ miles away opened in 2011, with this site expanding in 2019. Both include a full offering of cheese and charcuterie, a wine retail shop and full-service restaurants.

“We are cheese-centric from beginning to end but not just in our retail concept,” Erber says. “This includes our restaurant, as well.”

Falling into Cheese

Like many in the cheese industry, Erber says she fell into it by chance. Her background was in computer science and first job out of college was software development. However, after the dot com bubble burst in 2001, Erber joined her brother-in-law in his food import business.

“He asked me to help him grow his business in D.C., so I learned direct sales and all that entails,” she says. “I do love food, so I enjoyed working with chefs and selling everything from flour to meat, but cheese was a huge part of what the company did.”

Although Erber always loved cheese, this was the first time she was exposed to it in a business environment. Learning about the many stories behind different cheeses was fascinating and drew her in.

“Every cheese has a story that makes it unique,” Erber explains. “I was able to capture that and communicate it to people.”

She says it was really through serendipity that she decided to open a cheese shop in her neighborhood.

“My husband and I got to talking about a cheese shop working well there, and I thought it would be a cool and amazing opportunity to build a business around,” she says. “But the idea of opening a cheese shop was weird to people back then because they weren’t as common as these types of businesses have become in the last 15 years.”

Taking the Plunge

Although the offerings are the same, Cheesetique’s two locations look completely different. While the flagship site is reminiscent of the Old World with a European feel, the second location is more modern in its ambiance.

“I’d say they are reminiscent of one another, but the overall styling is different,” Erber explains.

The original location seats 70 in the restaurant, while the newer location seats 80 and is broken up into private areas for tastings and events.

Both of Cheesetique’s restaurants have identical menus, and cheese takes center stage. Featured offerings include grilled cheeses like The Grown Up with Artisan Prairie Breeze cheddar from Iowa on grilled sourdough; and the Brie & Pearsciutto, which includes triple crème Belletoile, sliced Asian pear and crispy prosciutto on sourdough with a side of honey. Its award-winning mac and cheese—Mac’N Cheesetique—combines cow, sheep and goat milk cheeses such as Gouda, Asiago and Cacio de Roma topped with truffle-infused breadcrumbs. Even its creamy tomato soup is topped with shreds of New York cheddar.

“We don’t beat people over the head but show people how cheese can be used in different recipes,” Erber says. “One of our best sellers is The Pimiento grilled cheese. We make our own that blends Adam’s Reserve Cheddar, Dragon’s Breath and Dubliner with pimientos. It has a bit of spice and is a killer.”

On the retail side, Cheesetique provides a huge number of imported varieties as well as American artisan cheese. Erber strives to find small producers with hand-made production, introducing customers to cheesemakers from the U.S. and Europe to broaden their exposure to different cheeses.

“We present the standards alongside different, smaller production cheeses many have not tried,” Erber explains. “American farmers are big for us. We source them working directly with local cheesemakers. We also found that when we work with small vendors, they build relationships with small farmers. We then get access to farmers who don’t have support to get their cheeses to people like me.”

She notes that the new and different cheeses are currently her bestsellers. As a style, any sort of triple crème cheeses are popular, including New York-based Four Fat Fowl’s St. Stephen. In addition, any Gouda is bound to be a hit, such as Brabander, a goat milk Gouda from The Netherlands.

“People gravitate toward style rather than nationality so they may want a cheddar and don’t care where it’s from,” Erber says. “It’s more about finding a flavor profile rather than cheese from a particular region. We train our cheesemongers to ask them about the cheeses they love and see what we can find.”

The Pandemic Pivot

Cheesetique, like all businesses, found it needed to pivot quickly in the face of the pandemic. The business found opportunity in expanding its offerings, becoming somewhat of a general store to fulfill a need for its customers and community.

“Customers would order a half pound of Gouda, ¾ of a pound of sliced prosciutto and a box of gloves, for example,” Erber says. “We started carrying a ton of dairy and produce that we wouldn’t normally offer.”

Cheesetique also had a comprehensive online store that enabled customers to shop easily online and offered curbside pickup for added convenience.

“The more we could make ourselves relevant, the better,” Erber says. “And we did it as quickly as we could.”

While its retail store thrived in the early days of COVID, with fruit and vegetables, cleaning supplies and toilet paper selling well, its restaurant and in-person tastings took a hit.

“The restaurant capacity was pulled back, so we jumped into high gear for carryout and delivery,” Erber says. “We always did some of this, but it became our entire business model. Then, in the months ahead, we were limited to half capacity with tables 6 feet apart and no bar seating, so we expanded to our big patio outside. We used heat lamps in the winter.”

Moving forward, Cheesetique has pulled back from cleaning supplies and paper goods but has kept some of the produce that has been selling.

Online Opportunities

Erber says there have been some “gifts of COVID” or opportunities her business may have not otherwise taken advantage of. For example, online events were a new venture for Cheesetique that has taken off.

“We had talked about doing this prior to COVID, and we were able to get it up and running in just one week,” she says. “Virtual events are huge, and this has absolutely exploded for us.”

Its online classes are held every two weeks, with hundreds signing up. Each event has a theme, such as Portuguese cheeses and wine. Participants can pick up a kit the day before or day of a class or have it shipped. Interactive classes are an hour and a half and prices include cheese and instruction. Wine can be purchased for an additional cost. Cheesetique also has had corporate clients doing Zoom holiday events online.

“When we’d do our in-person tastings and classes, we could only accommodate so many people,” Erber says. “Now our attendee size is limitless.”

This has become such a profit center that Erber plans to continue the virtual events after pandemic limitations have ceased.

Erber also has faced issues recently regarding tariffs and the price and availability of European wine.

“Wine producers we’ve worked with for years are no longer exporting to the U.S., so availability has dropped off,” she says. “From the cheese side, COVID, not so much tariffs, has really impacted the availability of products coming from overseas, and costs have gone up.”

Still, Cheesetique remains a business that focuses on both the cheese experience as well as the education.

Its Friday night cheeseboard features three to four cheeses, charcuterie and wine, with different themes every week, like Cheesemonger’s Favorites. This includes a 10-minute online video to educate people and provide pairing ideas.

“It’s not immersive like our classes but people love them,” Erber says. “For March, we did a Women Cheesemakers in honor of Women’s History Month. It’s all connected back to the experience, and people look forward to it. Coming up with creative ideas and seeing what works is fun.”

As things begin to stabilize and the chaotic climate of the pandemic starts to ebb, Erber is getting Cheesetique prepared for the summer. She plans on redoing the entire wine list and continue sourcing unique American cheese producers who are not yet well-known. Her most recent find is Eleven Brothers, a goat’s milk, washed rind Tomme-style cheese from Boston Post Dairy in Enosburg Falls, VT. “It’s about finding cheeses that set us apart and bringing them to people,” she says. “It’s easy to get stuck in emergency thinking when you want to get back to being creative and inspired.”

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