From Wine to Rind

Gayle Martin curates the best of local and gourmet at Plum Plums Cheese.

Photos by Jane Beiles Photography

It all started thanks to wine.

Gayle Martin and Michael Riahi met while working in the wine business in New York City — she in marketing and he in sales, and the running joke was that they actually got along.

“Life takes many twists and turns,” says Martin. “I was 20-plus years in the marketing world, focusing on both small production and mass production wines and spirits, ranging from everything from Dom Pérignon and Hennessy to introducing Yellow Tail wine to the U.S. from Australia.”

She ran the gamut in the corporate world and about five years after the couple met and fell in love, they got married and decided they wanted out of the big-city life to become entrepreneurs.

The lovebirds started Riahi Selections in 2011, importing and distributing wines from small production, family-owned organic and sustainably harvested wineries. Soon after, Martin decided that some fine cheese would complement the wine tastings.

Now living in Pound Ridge, NY, she came across a small, burgeoning cheese shop in the town, and Martin befriended them because she always had an interest in cheese.

“Nothing goes better than cheese and wine,” she says. “Traveling all over the world in the wine business, I was exposed to cheeses from all over the world, and I wanted to explore that even further.”

The cheese shop was struggling and was going to close, so Martin, knowing she had a strong background in business and consulting, decided to take over the shop. That was more than nine years ago, and it’s grown from a tiny, 500-square-foot store to almost double the space next door.

Then two years ago, the couple moved to New Canaan, CT, and transferred the cheese shop there.

“It’s been growing and blossoming since the beginning, and I’ve never had so much fun in my life,” she says.

Today, Plum Plums Cheese curates the best of local and gourmet cheeses.

“Cheese has the power to bring people together, to incite conversation and to make us smile,” says Martin.

Cheese had always had a place in Martin’s heart. Some of her earliest memories involve sitting with her grandfather while he would munch on his favorite lunchtime meal — cheese and crackers. And today, with two boys of her own, cheese plays a part in many of the family’s meals and is a steady constant at the dining table.

Higher Education

Still eager to learn and grow, Martin achieved the rank of Certified Cheese Professional in 2017, becoming one of the fewer than 900 people in North America and Europe to earn the designation.

“Coming from a marketing background, I’ve always known that education is critical,” she says. “When you’re talking to your customers, the more educated they are, the more willing they will be to try new things and explore and expand their repertoire. And in order for that to happen, I needed to know more.”

Thanks to weeks spent in France, Italy and Spain and more throughout her lifetime, Martin knew a bit more about cheese than the normal person, but she knew she needed to dive deeper.

“I wanted to feel comfortable and confident at my cheese counter, and know that I was bringing in the best repertoire of cheeses for my customers,” she says. “I dove in and started reading everything from encyclopedias to books, to learn the nuances of the language. I realized that the cheese world was very similar to the wine world. Once you understand how it’s made — there is really only one way to make cheese and one way to make wine — so there was a basic simplicity combined with wonderful nuances.”

Once she understood the ideology and styles of cheese better, Martin went to work on learning the chemistry and everything else that went into the designation.

“Thank goodness for the American Cheese Society and all of their books of knowledge that they provide,” says Martin. “There were study classes and study groups on Facebook, and I really just put my head down, dove in, took the test. I succeeded, and I was really, really pleased.”

And she likes to pass down her knowledge of cheese through classes that are offered at the store. They can be for three couples celebrating a special occasion or as many as 50 people at a community gathering.

“There’s always something I can tell somebody that makes them understand more about farmstead cheese making, and the difference between processed cheese and handmade cheese,” says Martin. “The fact that the same cheese can be completely different seasonally — this is one of many things that they’ve never thought of or understood, and you can see the lightbulbs going off over their head, and that makes me so happy. The more comfortable they are, the more often they will come in.”

During the pandemic, Martin did some Zoom classes where customers would get the cheeses and she would explain the origins and other fascinating facts about several cheeses. Those have mostly been replaced by private classes now.

“Customers may ask me to come to their home with cheeses and they’ll drink their wine or beer, and I do like an hour class,” she says. “It’s a wonderful kickoff to their evening. If they have a group of people, we have nice cheese and cocktail class, and then they can continue on with their party.”

Growth Mode

Plum Plums Cheese has been growing almost since the day Martin took over the business. Her first cheese case had about two dozen cheeses, but today there are more than 70, and it bumps up to 90 during the holidays.

“I read the industry magazines to learn more about the new cheeses out there and look at everything online,” she says. “These days, social media is a great resource of things that are new. I keep in touch with a lot of local cheese producers, and I have my main reps and distributors who after working with them nine years, understand my style and the style of our customers.”

She also goes to numerous tastings throughout the year and gets ideas from her customers, who may have tried a different cheese on vacation or somewhere else.

“Travel is critical for us as well; going to Europe and sampling things over there,” Martin says. “Sometimes you get an ‘a-ha’ moment that sometimes I try to duplicate with some domestic producers here.”

All of that has helped the shop continue to gain customers and become one of the area’s most prominent cheese shops.

Overcoming Challenges

In 2020, when the decision was made to move from New York to Connecticut, plans were disrupted because of the pandemic.

“The term pivot has been used a lot around here, especially during COVID,” says Martin. “We were able to provide our small community with a lot more than just cheese during COVID, and we took that and built upon it as we were making the move to a bigger space.”

During that time, the shop started doing more — making their own dips and spreads, and using meats to make meatballs, and expanding its mac-and-cheese offerings.

“It’s all about understanding what people are looking for, providing the best quality you can, and always having something new and fresh to talk about,” says Martin. “Listening to the customer is super important. There have been a couple of dips that we’ve put out that we thought were great, but they didn’t really work with them, and you have to read that, try something new, and get their input as well.”

During that time, the store went through some issues with delivery and delayed product, and while she still hears of other cheese shops using this as an excuse, she feels that it’s time to be past those issues and have solutions in hand.

“My biggest issue and frustration is continued availability,” says Martin.

Marketing Measures

One of the big ways that Plum Plums has thrived comes thanks to Martin’s background in marketing. Still, she has found that most of the success of the shop has come from word of mouth.

“People who sign up for my newsletter do so because we request it when they check out,” she says. “People have signed on to my social media accounts because they want to, not because I solicit them. I don’t over-market. I do a monthly newsletter that keeps people in tune and talks about new things in the shop.”

She knows not to hit people over the head with too much info, because as a consumer herself, she dislikes when companies inundate her with daily and weekly messages.

“I don’t want that to happen; I want to be entertaining, educational and have a reason to talk to my customers,” says Martin.

All About the Cheese

Of those 70 cheeses, Martin refuses to choose a favorite, comparing it to picking a favorite child.

“I don’t want the other cheeses to get jealous,” she laughs. “I do have what I call my ‘dessert island’ cheese of the moment, and that’s basically what I consider a really snackable cheese that I wouldn’t tire of if I had to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. These days, I am a big fan of The Farm at Doe Run in Unionville, PA, and I am a huge fan of their aged Seven Sisters and I love their Hummingbird.”

The store’s cheese selection reflects what Martin believes is the best of what farmstead cheese makers have to offer right now, ranging from soft and fresh to aged Alpines and Goudas, always cut-to-order and always in their prime.

Plum Plums Cheese also offers hand-sliced premium charcuterie, including regional epicurean delicacies such as Jamon Iberico, Prosciutto di San Daniele, Chorizo de Bellota and Coro Salumi Artisan Cured Meats from Seattle, WA.

“My customers trust me to make selections for them,” says Martin. “We learn their palate and keep a history of everybody’s purchases so we can always refer back to see what they’ve had in the past, so it’s a sense of comfort. I love talking about cheese, and there’s always something new and unique to talk about.”

A Team Approach

Plum Plums Cheese has a manager on staff who has been with the business for several years and has built up his relationship with customers. There’s also a full-time helper, and the store brings in more people for the holiday season (usually local teens) when people clamor for cheese at double the amount of the rest of the year.

“We’re happy to be in a small town where people really care about it and have the ability to bring people on staff when I need them,” says Martin.

Looking Ahead

Reflecting on more than a decade in the biz, Martin notes her favorite thing about the cheese industry is it’s always changing.

“I’ve always had a love for food, especially crafted food, and the people behind it who are passionate about making it,” she says. “I love telling their stories, tasting new things and how our palates change through the course of the season. This keeps me going.”

One thing that Martin hasn’t shown much interest in is making her own cheese, but only because she knows how hard it is to make.

“I will leave that to the professionals on that end of the business. I’ll stay on my end,” she says. “I have made ricotta and stuff for a kid’s class, just so they can see how the curds and whey separate and all that stuff. But I have no real desire to go into a hot vat and pull mozzarella or anything. I’ll just happily receive those in my shop from the real pros.”

While she doesn’t eat as much cheese as maybe she did in the beginning, Martin reveals that she is taking a lot of nibbles to ensure that what the people are getting at the counter is the best that it can be.

“I’m constantly eating little bites of cheese, but unless I am overseas in Europe, you probably won’t see me ordering a cheese plate for dinner,” she says. “But when you hand someone else a piece of cheese and their eyes light up, that’s what it’s all about.”

For those who want to follow in her footsteps and open their own cheese shop someday, Martin offers the following advice. “Prepare for hard work but great rewards, because seeing the loyalty of our customers and seeing these young kids grow up and trying all these cheese profiles, is so rewarding. I say, ‘put your mind to it, study hard and always be looking out for the next thing.’”

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