Laura Downey has long been a lover of cheese. “My parents are both European. My dad was born in Greece and my mom was born in Spain. When I was a kid we lived in France and London, and real food and good cheese were always part of our table.”
As an adult, she moved to a small community in Connecticut that didn’t have a good cheese shop. So Downey took matters into her own hands and opened one herself. Fairfield Cheese Co. and its sister shop, Greenwich Cheese Co., have garnered an international reputation for providing quality, interesting products in a welcoming environment.
Downey and her business partner, long-time friend Chris Palumbo, have done a lot of things right in the nine years they’ve been in business. They employ a passionate staff that provides great service. They’ve worked hard to educate the public through classes and sampling events.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the cheese. There’s no doubt this is an area where the shops excel. “We have good relationships with distributors and producers,” says Downey. “They know we represent the cheese well and that we know what we’re doing. You’re never going to come into our shop and find cheese with mold on it,” she says. As a result, she gets great quality products that keep cheese nuts coming back for more.
Downey spent her early adult life in Boston, New York and other large East Coast cities. In those places, she frequented small, specialty cheese shops that sold good food and wine. Such a shop didn’t exist when she arrived in Fairfield. “When I first moved here I thought, ‘Someone should open a cheese shop.’ I thought about doing it, but my kids were really young, so I put it on the back burner.”
Eventually, she took a job with a woman who worked as an event planner and also owned a gift shop. There was a wine store next door, and on the weekends Downey started selling cheese out of the gift store’s back room. People loved being able to buy the items at adjoining locations.
After a few years, it became obvious that the gift shop was struggling. The one thing that was doing well was Downey’s side venture. “My idea of a cheese shop sort of percolated back up,” she says. “One of my kids was going to college and the other one was finishing high school. That space was also available because the gift shop owner wasn’t renewing her lease.”
Downey helped her colleague close down the gift shop. Sitting amid the shrinking inventory and vacant racks, she started writing her own business plan. As she worked through it, she realized she would need an investor or partner to make the new venture viable. Her first potential partner didn’t work out, and she struggled to find someone else.
“Chris and I had become friendly over the years, and one day he asked how the cheese shop planning was going,” she says. “I said, ‘I don’t know that it’s going at all because I lost my partner.’ He said, ‘Well, maybe I could do it.’” He had a background in foodservice and catering, but was looking to get into a different business. Ironically, he had considered moving into the same space occupied by the gift shop right before it opened, so he was even familiar with the storefront Downey was looking at.
The new partners launched Fairfield Cheese Co. in 2009. Greenwich Cheese Co., which is located about 40 miles away, opened in 2014.
Downey has always placed a high priority on providing the best-quality products from top artisans. “Our mission is to support real food producers and help to make sure real, traditionally-made foods are eaten, understood and appreciated,” she says. “We try to accomplish this by curating the best cheeses and selling them in an approachable, fun way. We’re definitely not stuffy or snooty.”
Another important part of the shop’s ethos is to have a staff that’s knowledgeable and can help the public select and fall in love with cheese. To help meet that goal, Downey takes all of her employees on site visits three or four times a year. “We’ll spend the night and see the farms and the cheesemakers and the aging caves the next day. It’s great for us, but it’s really great for our staff. It excites them and engages them and helps them really understand what artisan cheese is.”
Both Downey and Palumbo have received the Certified Cheese Professional designation from the American Cheese Society (ACS). But despite their deep knowledge, Downey says her education is far from over. “Cheese is such a vast subject, and I continue to learn every day.”
Classic and Non Traditionals
Fairfield Cheese Co. and Greenwich Cheese Co. stock between 65 and 70 cheeses year-round. That number can be as high as 85 varieties during the holiday season. About half of their inventory is American-made; the remainder comes from European producers.
Downey focuses on the classics—Comte, Parmigiano Reggiano, Cheddar—but has a few non-traditional favorites, as well. She loves Grayson from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia and the Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co. in Wisconsin. “It’s the American cheese that’s won the most awards at the ACS’s annual cheese competition,” she says. “It’s a firm, alpine style loosely based on the French Beaufort.” The company only produces this cheese in the summer, when the cows are grazing on grass, which gives it a mild and distinctive flavor. In the winter, it switches to Rush Creek Reserve, a strongly flavored washed-rind cheese that’s also well worth trying.
The Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont is another favorite. “It’s a raw milk Blue that’s sort of made in the style of Stilton,” says Downey. “It’s a natural rind cheese that’s super delicious. It’s really fudgy in texture.” And she’s a big fan of Wabash Cannonball, a round ash-ripened chèvre from Capriole Goat Cheese in Indiana. Founder Judy Schad was one of the people who re-introduced goat cheese to American palates and produces delicious cheeses that are consistent in quality.
Besides flavor, Downey says she looks for cheeses that are balanced. “They can be strong or subtle, but for me balance is the name of the game. The American cheeses I named are great examples of that. I like cheese that reflects its place, too. Come to think of it, that’s why I’m typically a fan of old world wines, too.”
Palumbo is a fan of Pawlet, an Italian Toma-style cheese that comes from a community in Vermont with the same name. It’s a pungent raw milk cheese similar to Swiss that’s great for melting.
In addition to cheese, the stores carry a full line of charcuterie and a variety of grocery products. “Our shelves are chock full of jams, honey, crackers, olive oils, pasta, olives and chocolate,” says Downey. She’s partial to Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate from California, Ritual Chocolate from Utah and Raaka Chocolate from Brooklyn. They use some of these ingredients to put together cheese and charcuterie platters that are popular for parties and gift baskets. Shoppers can also pick up cookbooks, interesting cheese boards and utensils, and gift items.
In addition to retailing, Fairfield Cheese Co. runs a well-regarded cheese “school.” It offers instruction on subjects such as pairing cheese with wine or chocolate, Cheese 101 and 102, and getting to know the different cheesemaking regions.
On occasion, Downey and Palumbo partner with local businesses to offer pop-up dinners with cheese-focused menus. At a recent New Year’s Eve event, attendees indulged in three different types of fondue. Each course was paired with wine from Harry’s Wine and Liquor, their next-door neighbor.
Subscription Service Success
One of the shop’s staff members recently took over organizing the cheese school classes, which has freed Downey and Palumbo up to pursue new business opportunities. Their latest is Cheesemonger Box, a subscription service that delivers artisan cheese to people’s doors. The Classic box contains three half-pound servings of cheese. The Signature box has the same amount of cheese, but also contains crackers and an accompaniment, such as jam or charcuterie. Consumers can purchase an annual subscription or request a one-time delivery.
One of Cheesemonger Box’s goals is to help consumers become cheese experts. A card in the box describes each item and recommends what to pair it with. “Our plan is to expand the website content with lots of cheese education that’s presented in a very consumer-friendly way,” Downey says.
The idea came from the store’s customers. Downey says people often asked if she offered a gift of the month club. She was hesitant to start such a service because the packaging, shipping and marketing seemed daunting. When she and Palumbo wanted to expand their business a few years ago, they looked into opening a restaurant or cheese bar instead.
What they found is that the restaurant business is high investment and high risk. Suddenly, e-commerce didn’t sound so bad. That was especially the case given the boom in subscription services in the past few years. Downey looked into shave of the month clubs, grass fed meat delivery programs and other similar services for ideas.
Cheesemonger Box has been doing well since it launched last October. The company got good publicity during the holiday season and is seeing steady growth every month. “It’s probably the right amount of growth,” Downey says — enough to keep them in business, but not enough to distract her and Palumbo from the things that makes their signature cheese shops a mecca for cheese lovers everywhere.