When a dream becomes a reality.
When Greg O’Neill, co-owner of Chicago’s pastoral artisan cheese, Bread & Wine shops, describes how he and his husband/business partner Ken Miller came into the cheese business, he says it was as corporate refugees.
O’Neill, who graduated with an MBA from Duke, worked in international marketing for a Fortune 500 company. Miller, a William & Mary graduate, is a former nuclear software systems developer for the U.S. Navy.
After the couple, together now for 27 years, lived in Europe, New York City and Boston in the 90s and early 2000s, they became accustomed to frequenting the local cheese and wine shops.
“We both worked long days, we’d sometimes get home as late as 10 p.m. and didn’t feel like cooking,” says O’Neill. “So we’d sit on the patio with our neighbors, and cheese, charcuterie and a glass of wine became our dinner.”
Back in the States, Miller went to culinary school in New York City at what is now the Institute of Culinary Education, training under notable chefs, including Chanterelle’s David Waltuck. Both had the idea of someday opening an upscale cheese shop, but at that point O’Neill says, “the dream was still germinating in our heads.”
An Original Creation
It wasn’t until 2004 that their vision materialized into a 383-square-foot store in Chicago’s East Lakeview neighborhood, known by locals as Boystown or Wrigleyville due to its proximity to Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs’ ballpark. This is where Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine was born.
Like the trendy and evolving area, the shop was all about atmosphere and experience.
“It is meant to be European-inspired and celebrating products made by small producers from around the world as well as from around the block,” says O’Neill. “It is 50/50 European/global classics and American artisan products across a variety of cheese categories.”
Cheese has always been the core of O’Neill and Miller’s shops, even more so than wine.
“When we did our research prior to opening the shop, we discovered cheese was more important than wine, and people needed a cheese retailer in Chicago,” O’Neill says.
The partners were up for the challenge, despite the Windy City’s checkered past of reliable gourmet retailers. In this town, independents and even big chains tend to come and go. And in the early 2000s, the idea of opening a neighborhood cheese shop was somewhat novel to the upscale Lakeview neighborhood’s generation, which now includes Gen X families, along with Millennials.
Yet, despite the odds, the shop prevailed. An unexpected accolade helped increase the visibility, viability and prestige of Pastoral in its early years.
“Due to our success, we became the youngest and smallest retailer to be named Outstanding Retailer of the Year in 2007 by the Specialty Food Association at its New York Fancy Food Show,” O’Neill says. “We were by far the smallest shop to win it and had the shortest duration in business, opening just three years prior.”
He attributes the recognition to solving an unmet need, being knowledgeable about the products and also carefully caring for and curating its cheeses.
This success led to a second location opening in Chicago’s downtown Loop area on Lake Street between Michigan Avenue and Wabash in 2007. Being a block from the famous Millennium Park, a popular resident and tourist attraction, didn’t hurt either. Its third site opened in 2009 at the Chicago French Market, where Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine became the first tenant at the year-round food hall, which celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year. This location also is optimal, as it is in the Ogilvy Transportation Center building, which is a big hub that houses a number of suburban train lines.
Expanding the Space
In 2012, O’Neill and Miller realized more and more original Lakeview customers were looking for a place where they could sit down to enjoy their cheese, charcuterie and wine, along with bistro food. With the space next door to their shop becoming vacant, the couple expanded their location to create Bar Pastoral in November of that year. This was after building a commissary/warehouse, which also includes office space, a few months earlier.
“At Bar Pastoral, we have a synergy with the products we sell in our stores,” O’Neil says. “Cheese is the center of our universe and paired thoughtfully with small production natural wine, beer and cider.”
The stores have American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professionals leading the charge as well as a certified sommelier, who’s also the wine buyer and educator.
“The idea was to take our expertise and bring it to a small bistro,” O’Neill says. “We’re not looking to be a big downtown hyped restaurant, but want to be called out for being very good at what we do.”
Goal achieved. Bar Pastoral is touted as a place to visit in Chicago by the prestigious Michelin Guide and always makes the city’s best cheese shops lists.
Pulling up to Bar Pastoral, visitors see two different store fronts, both with big red awnings that tie them together.
“We were lucky there was a covered doorway, so when we purchased the space next door, we didn’t have to cut through a brick wall,” O’Neill says.
The bistro now consists of two rooms connected by a hallway. It seats 50 inside at 11 tables and a cheese bar, with 20 to 22 seats on the outdoor patio. O’Neill describes the ambiance as both “intimate and authentic”.
It also is sustainable, with the architect concentrating on repurposing items and materials for the décor. For example, the wood on the wall is from reclaimed Douglas fir trees, while the tin around the edges of the cheese bar is sourced from reclaimed ceiling tin. The wine bar is made from reclaimed French oak in the likeness of a wine barrel.
“In our design, we used a lot of industrial and dairy antiques that invoke authenticity,” O’Neill says. “We didn’t want a theme park feel, but instead a neighborhood setting.”
The standout in terms of the interior is the curved cave ceiling, which is constructed to enhance both the acoustics and the aesthetics of the space. To create this, two wooden cross beams were removed and repurposed into bistro tables.
“We took the cross beams from the ceiling and had a local artist make tables that emulate wooden wine cases. These were inspired by Ma Cuisine a renowned family-run restaurant in Beaune, France,” O’Neill says. “These include place settings with names of different vineyards.”
On the curved cave ceiling is silica and hay, which adds dimension and a bit of sparkle as the light hits it.
“We had an artist work at night like Michelangelo and created the amazing plaster curved ceiling,” says O’Neill.
Customers sitting at the L-shaped cheese bar can watch the talented cheesemongers prepare cheese and charcuterie plates. This area is lit by a custom-made Daisy butter churn chandelier.
“We sourced the churns from Wisconsin, Vermont and eBay and had them made to define the room,” O’Neill explains.
There also is a chef’s table that seats eight, called the ‘udder table’ due to the lighting fixture above that is made out of a milking claw. The stainless steel contraption, placed on cow teets for milking, hangs upside down and includes globe lights. Cheese photography by Christine Hyatt adorns the walls, as a final personal touch.
A Cheese-inspired Menu
Bar Pastoral’s unique décor is not the only thing that sets it apart from other cheese bistros.
“The way we do our program and what works out great is we do cheese slates rather than boards or plates,” says O’Neill. “We make all our accompaniments in house, such as truffle popcorn, strawberry champagne preserves and cauliflower puree, really experimental stuff.”
When it came to the cheese, O’Neill and Miller decided not to preordain what people should order. As a result, the shops have a good, strong mix of international classics and the best of American artisans. Cheeses are classified by style and categorized as soft, firm, washed and blue. Shops celebrate occasions, putting together a French cheese plate for Bastille Day or an Irish sampling for St. Patty’s Day, for example. Selections are rotated seasonally. At press time, the focus was on fresh cheeses like Burrata.
Bar Pastoral’s dishes are cheese centric, such as a Pimento Cheese Slate, Spring Mac & Cheese with Podda, red pepper cream, cherry tomatoes, corn and peas; and Panzanella with chevré, cucumber, tomato, spinach, peas and balsamic dressing. Its European brunch features a charcuterie board with meats, fruit, bread and cheese, and a house-made quiche highlighting a rotation of cheeses, including local chevrés and Podda from the Italian island of Sardinia.
“We make all pâtés in house, and bring in some of the better salume and cured meat producers,” says O’Neill. “Our customers can pick three to five charcuterie selections, as we’ve found the ability to build their own is very much appreciated. Sandwiches also continue to be a big part of our business.”
As for bestselling cheeses, the shops see a lot of movement with the soft varieties including triple cremes, along with Alpine-style cheese.
“I continue to be astounded by how much blue cheese we sell,” O’Neill says. “We educate our customers to not be scared off by labels and try new things.”
The shops sell a lot of Oma from Von Trapps in Vermont and Dreamweaver from Central Coast Creamery in California. British Isle varieties also do well.
“We mix it up enough so we don’t have just one cheese that everyone orders,” O’Neill says. “It’s fairly well distributed, and we make sure people try all the different types.”
Bar Pastoral also focuses on wine, and instead of offering traditional flights, it has wine by the half glass, full glass and bottle.
“We structure our wine program for people to experiment,” O’Neill says. “Customers can order half glasses to create their own flights or experiment.”
The retailer focuses on small wine producers and also has its own private label sparkling rosé on tap from Michigan’s Mawby winery. Bar Patoral’s private Pinot Noir cuvee is created in conjunction with Brooks Winery in Oregon and other private label selections.
“Every year, we produce 100 to 150 cases of Pastoral Cuvee that is really high quality and food friendly,” O’Neill says. “Our team selects from six different Pinot flavor profiles. We’re selling our second vintage now and doing a tasting this week for next year’s vintage. Not only does this show our passion and commitment, but it’s also a differentiator.”
Bar Pastoral regularly holds special events, including an all-you-can-eat raclette dinner every Sunday night from November through April that costs $35 a head. It includes raclette over pork shoulder with roasted potatoes and vegetables, and it has a big following. It also holds a rosé and cheese tasting class on a summer Saturday afternoon between lunch and dinner that sells out every year. This includes representatives from Northern California’s Cypress Grove Cheese as well as Pastoral’s own resident sommelier.
And the accolades keep coming. Chicago Magazine recognized Bar Pastoral as the Best of Chicago for a first date and the bistro was honored with Open Table’s Diner’s Choice Award for the best date place in the city. All three of the stores were recognized with the Specialty Food Association’s Outstanding Retailer of the Year award in 2012, the association’s highest honor for a retailer.
O’Neill himself has been very involved in the cheese industry, serving as president of the American Cheese Society in 2013 as well as on its Board and that of the Specialty Food Association, the latter since 2016.
“We’re not trying to be overly fancy, but what we do, we do well and you can’t get what we offer down the street,” O’Neill says. “When you look at our menu, you’ll know where the cheese came from, since the descriptors are important. Part of our credo is to celebrate producers and products; we want people to know where our cheese comes from and who made it.”