JOHN ANTONELLI: Passion for Cheese Propels to Prominence

JOHN ANTONELLI: Passion for Cheese Propels to Prominence

A CPA turned CCP, John Antonelli took the leap from crunching numbers to cutting cheese.

Photos courtesy of John Antonelli

When John Antonelli talks about his journey into and in the cheese business, you can hear the passion in his voice and also the wonder that his renowned store, Antonelli’s Cheese in Austin, TX, is already celebrating its 10-year anniversary this February.

“Becoming a cheesemonger is special,” he says. “Taking the cheeses people have been nurturing for months on end and telling their story is an honor, and I really enjoy it.”

Along the way, Antonelli has made a name for himself in the cheese world, becoming not only a big part of the American Cheese Society and a familiar face at the many trade shows, events and competitions around the world.

Here, Cheese Connoisseur details the journey, challenges and many successes of a man determined to live his best life.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: Your story is an example of someone determined to follow his passion in life. How did a CPA become a cheesemonger?

J.A.: My wife Kendall and I graduated from Georgetown University in 2004 and moved to Austin in 2005. I was a CPA and working for one of the big accounting firms as an auditor. On our Caribbean honeymoon in 2007, I had this introspective moment when I realized I had so much going for me—the perfect wife, dogs and house, but not the job I wanted. I looked at Kendall and wondered if I’d be a miserable husband in the future because I wasn’t finding purpose in my career. At that moment, I told Kendall I wanted to quit my job. Without missing a beat, she asked what I wanted to do. I responded, “Something in cheese.” I don’t know why I said that (but thankfully, Kendall didn’t laugh). At the time, I had no formal background in cheese; I ate a lot of block Cheddar and American slices growing up (and yes, Velveeta), but that was it. We spent much of our honeymoon talking about what that meant, ultimately agreeing that I would put in my notice upon our return and finish out the busy season. I promised Kendall that I’d have my own thing up and running within two years of my quitting date, rationalizing that it was about the same time and debt as pursuing a Master’s degree in business. But instead of putting that money and time into a degree, I’d put it straight into launching my own company. Looking back, Kendall recalls me saying that “No one likes an auditor, but everyone loves cheese. I just want to make people happy.” And that’s where it all started.

Fast forward a month when my mother-in-law was in New York City and just happened by Murray’s Cheese Shop. Aware of my new goals, she walked in and asked the educator at the time, Taylor Cocalis, if they offered some sort of all-encompassing cheese program. Taylor joked that they’d been dreaming of a bootcamp and hadn’t launched it yet, but if someone was willing to come from Texas, then they’d do it. Without a detailed program, Taylor sold my mother-in-law a spot in what would later become their first bootcamp around February 2008, and that’s where I consumed my first ridiculous amounts of cheese, resulting in my first cheese hangover.

At the time, I was formulating a plan to open a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant; ironically, there were only a couple in the States at the time. But I knew I needed experience. In exchange for my accounting expertise, Kerbey Lane Café, a 24-hour diner and Austin institution, offered me an internship. It wasn’t the norm but it was mutually beneficial. For six months, I did everything from washing dishes to frying bacon to creating menus, learning multiple sides of the foodservice business. I completed manager training and even got to assist with opening a new location, an invaluable experience. And it was during this time that I realized how grueling the foodservice industry is and that, instead of bringing me closer to some of my goals, it was taking me further away. After all, Kendall and I were working different schedules and spending hours apart, and our goal was the exact opposite.

So together we started hosting The Grilled Cheese Club out of our house. It was really a time to explore recipes and concept ideas. We cooked awesome four-course grilled cheese meals featuring expensive American artisan cheese. And it was at those tastings when we realized it wasn’t about the recipe or the cooking but instead about everyone gathering together in the kitchen. I’d make friends taste a cheese, then we’d pair it with a beer, then we’d pull something out of the cabinet. And it morphed into an exploration of flavors and storytelling about the cheese and makers. In fact, I’d spend hours in my local Central Market just staring at the cheeses with my Cheese Primer in hand and researching one by one. Kendall grew up on a ranch, showing 4-H lambs and rodeo’ing and could speak to the labor of love that the agricultural lifestyle entailed. And I loved the science behind everything. Then a friend hired us to do a talk about cheese at his parents’ 50th anniversary party. And that’s when it all started coming together—Kendall and me getting to spend time together, making friends over food and through food, yet not just any food but this thing I’d become obsessed with—artisan cheese. And we put it all together and sort of realized that a cut-to-order cheese shop allows for all these things.

With a refined vision in mind, I reached out to Taylor again in 2009 to see if she could recommend European destinations to further my cheese education. She connected me to French fromager and affineur Hervé Mons, where I worked in the caves flipping wheels, washing wheels and cleaning racks. It wasn’t a class; I was a laborer for two weeks. And besides eating as much cheese as you can, there’s no better education than just getting your hands on a lot of cheese. They nicknamed me Mike Tyson clearly because of my tall, strong stature. Kendall was still in her job at the time but it was taking its toll on her. She ran a program for immigrant survivors of sex trafficking crimes at a nonprofit that had one of the highest caseloads in the nation for that type of case at the time. She got some time off and joined me for a driving tour of eastern France, northern Italy and Switzerland. We had no itinerary besides stopping everywhere we saw a dairy, creamery or cheese sign. We ended up on a lot of treacherous roads visiting closed-down dairies but somehow managed to get great behind-the-scenes experiences.

We got home that summer and committed to opening Austin’s first cut-to-order cheese shop. Realizing it made use of all the things we’re best at—eating, talking, being together and traveling, I started writing what would turn out to a 100-page business plan. I was clearly already on a path to “do something in cheese” as I’d set out to do, but it was only when Kendall agreed to do it alongside me, creating a family business, that the gas really turned on.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: What drew you into the world of cheese?

J.A.: I love that cheese brings people together. Yeah, I know that’s cheese-y. But I love telling people what I do and nine times out of 10, no 99 times out of 100, their eyes will light up and they’ll say, “I love cheese!” That’s a reaction I never saw as an auditor. And the more I learn about it, the more I learn that I have so much more to learn. That’s amazing. I’m also drawn to the science, history and economics of cheese, like the economics of producing Comté. I’m also super passionate about the business of retail and the psychology of shopping and creating ideal customer experiences. And since getting into this business, it’s by far the community that keeps me in cheese.

I also discovered during my internships/travels that it’s a monumental thing to be surrounded by so much cheese. It’s inspiring to see a couple hundred cheeses aging in the region where they were created. Until you wash a young rind with a paint brush, you have no idea what it’s like. After you spend eight-hour shifts just painting baby cheeses it’s to the point where you either stop liking something or fall in love more, and I was in love.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: How do you decide which artisans to partner with?

J.A.: We carry between 80 and 100 cheeses in our retail case at any given time, with additional cheeses in our warehouse for our wholesale customers and partners. Initially, it was about which cheeses we could get and/or bring to our area that weren’t represented. We’ve also had the huge honor of being the first retailer for many artisans, something we don’t take lightly. And once we’re in business together, it’s our goal to stay that way. Our team makes fun of me for being the LTR guy—the long-term relationship guy. While it hasn’t always worked out this way, it’s most often the case that we’re building relationships with our producers, distributors and more. Folks walk into our shop and see cheeses, jars, bottles. We see the faces of each and every maker. And we have a commitment to them to do the best we can by their products. That being said, we only have limited shelf and case space, and there are so many good makers out there. So we try to only carry a max of two products from one producer at a given time, noticing a dip in sales if we carry more. We think it creates shopping angst for customers. Instead, it’s our job to say what we like best at that time or season. As we’ve grown, it’s been our goal to all grow together. If we pick up a new distributor, we try to keep an eye on our other relationships and not take a dip there. We also work as a team these days to select all our products in our weekly “buyer’s club meetings.” As for picking up new products, it’s hard because it often means saying goodbye to something else. So we may not move forward with a producer right away but will look to partner with them in some other way months later.

Cheese Connoisseur The Antonelli family

CC: Since your initial European cheese tasting trip, you’ve been on others.

J.A.: I mentioned that Kendall and I opened a cheese shop so we could travel. Well, that wasn’t realistic for a couple years. As all the smaller specialty shop owners out there know, a day off was hard to come by. We joke that Kendall had to get pregnant just to force ourselves to take some time off. But in those early years, we loved working the long, hard hours. And it paid off. Because now we have an amazing team, who help us live our goals to get out and meet our makers on their turf. Since that initial Europe trip, Kendall and I have also visited makers in England, getting to stay with the one-and-only awesome Mary Quicke as well as work various Neal’s Yard Dairy shifts and go on a northern England cheese run with co-owner David Lockwood. When I got invited to judge the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Contest, we took the family and traveled throughout both islands, meeting makers and visiting shops. When I spoke in Bra at Slow Food Cheese, my son Everett ate his first huge wedge of Montgomery’s Cheddar. (He’d previously only been a geo goat dude.) And this past summer, we visited 18 producers in 31 days in Spain. It was a whirlwind trip. Stateside, we’ve done cheese trips in Vermont, Oregon, Wisconsin and California. For each, it’s important to us that we see what’s important to the maker, so that we can communicate that messaging to our customers. And it’s equally important to us that our kids come with us and see just how much we love our jobs. Our kids have gotten into some pretty amazing places. As you can tell, all our trips are centered on food. It’s the way we blend personal and professional, and we couldn’t imagine it any other way. My goal is to visit each of the producers we work with at their shops. This is not something we can do overnight but we’ve already visited over half of the producers we work with, and it’s awesome.

Cheese Connoisseur The Antonellis

CC: You have been very involved with the American Cheese Society even before you opened your shop. How did that start and transpire?

J.A.: About four months before we opened our cheese shop, the annual American Cheese Society Competition and Conference was held in Austin. I knew it was a rare opportunity and that I needed to be involved. I reached out to mentor Michele Haram and asked what I could do. She and Debra Dickerson put me to work with the judging and the competition team. I was unpacking boxes for the first few hours, then got put in a cheese cooler and became a cooler captain with amazing people. We worked so hard those seven days that I ended up in the hospital at the end of the week and missed the rest of the conference when it actually started. I did make it to David Gremmels’ opening presentation, was hospitalized, then made it back for the awards ceremony. On the last day, David asked if I was the guy trying to take his job. Obviously we laughed. When I later became president of ACS eight years later, I remembered that day. (And to commemorate this, David and I swap company shirts each year at ACS.) That conference inspired me in a great way to be involved with ACS moving forward; I knew it was a community I wanted and needed to be a part of. We’ve made great friends, people who initially had faith in us before we opened our shop, which was special.

We got home that summer and committed to opening Austin’s first cut-to-order cheese shop.

— John Antonelli

Since that first conference, it has been an incredible journey. I volunteered for the next ACS conference in Seattle as cooler captain again. It’s a badge of honor to receive and help handle and store those products. It’s pretty special being a part of that team. I was then invited to be on the committee for judging ACS’ competition in 2011. I joined committees and volunteered there and was invited to apply to be on the board in 2012. I wouldn’t have said yes if I knew it was put to a vote, but thankfully I was elected by the membership. It was a huge honor to be on the board and judging the competition for a handful of years. I served as vice chair and chair of the judging competition committee, then treasurer, vice president, president and chair of the Board of Directors. ACS has a strong board and committees. I was blessed to work with everyone and make great friends along the way. I’m sure some days Kendall wondered if I was employed by ACS or our business but we both knew that being involved and giving back was a commitment we wanted to make.

CC: At your cheese shop, you hold cheese appreciation classes, sharing your love of cheese with those in the community. How did that come about?

J.A.: In 2011, we were at work bright and early at 5:30 a.m. and saw a moving truck at the property across the street. We had always joked about buying the house across the street. Kendall said I needed to ask them what they were doing, so I did and found out they were moving out and selling the building. After six months of negotiations, we purchased the space. We’d always wanted a business where we could bring our (future) kids but the cheese shop was too small for it. Plus, our kids can get pretty dirty and honestly, we didn’t want them around the cheese. But when we got the Cheese House, our events venue, we had a place we could bring them to work. We even set up their crib in our office, not that anyone actually slept there (nor got any work done while they were there, for that matter). Today, we host 300 events a year in the building, including cheese tasting events. It’s a pretty amazing opportunity to connect with customers throughout the year, and we get lots of repeat customers. We have raclette and fondue nights, and recently had a Black Betty release party, which was a silent disco to celebrate seasonal cheeses. Many producers have come down and held talks, like Andy Hatch (from Wisconsin’s Uplands Cheese Co.). We also have a small distribution warehouse and sell wholesale to 150 chefs and restaurants in central Texas. And we sell cheese trays galore, as many as we can make in a given day.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: Local cheese tours are a part of your offerings. What can attendees expect?

J.A.: Our mission is ‘Do good, eat good’. We make sure that cheesemakers are represented in the way they want to be. We take up to 50 people at a time out on a bus and, over the course of six hours, do four different tastings and two tours. We’ll visit local dairies, breweries and distilleries and talk about our favorite producers. It has been very successful for us, and we’re focused on growing this part of our business. There is demand in people wanting to know what they’re eating, and we’ve been lucky that our cheesemakers enjoy partnering with us. It’s a chance to all get together for a bit.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: What is your fondest memory of cheese?

J.A.: There are so many! My favorite cheese memories are often the simplest ones… finding ourselves stranded in the Jura mountains at a rural country b-and-b with no food and remembering leftover saucisson and pizza in the trunk, and a wheel of Vacherin Mont d’or with a bottle of vin jaune. Or pulling over on a lookout in Spain and making a popup picnic with the kids and a hunk of Cabrales. Making cheese at Jasper Hill while Kendall, nauseous from pregnancy, watched outside with her face glued to the glass. The other memory that comes to mind is when we went up on a gondola in northern Italy with the kids. There was one restaurant that had just closed and we hadn’t eaten all day, so we just pleaded for some of their stale rolls, which we dunked into Vacherin Mont D’Or that had been in our backpack. Granted, I’m pretty sure the kids ate all the cheese. One of my other favorite memories is a visit with David Gremmels, who was doing the weekly tasting of his blue cheese batches in the conference room at Rogue Creamery. My kids were 3 and 18 months old, and they ate through a half of a quarter wheel of blue cheese in front of David. That was the first blue cheese they’d eat. Those are special memories. The last seven years have influenced us significantly with the kids in our lives.

CC: You’ve experienced some challenges along the way. Can you talk about those experiences?

J.A.: In January 2018, we opened our second retail location—this one with a kitchen, and a handful of months later, Kendall was bedridden for 11 weeks, culminating in back surgery. We cancelled our trip to Spain the day before, and I took on the role of sole caregiver to our kids and Kendall. It was a challenging few months. As we came out of the fog from Kendall’s surgery and started looking back into the business that fall, we realized just how far we’d gotten off course. Our team had done a good job of keeping the business operational but it was far from profit-generating, and everyone was working to keep their heads above water. Our flagship, events and warehouse businesses were doing well but being eclipsed by the hardships of our new location. After a couple grueling months of brainstorming, getting really lean and meeting with attorneys, we made the decision to close that location and make changes to the business in order to save it. This required making a half dozen major decisions in a week. At the time, my business acumen and volunteer service record were called into question during a particular phone call. I fell into a deep depression at that time. Before then, I had never understood the impact it would have on me working in a business and having to make decisions that impacted others. It was tough and didn’t feel good.

The bright side of the story? We made it through with the help of an amazing team, lots of mentors and really good friends. We closed the doors to that location on Dec. 31, 2018. It was a couple weeks later at the Fancy Food Show, when I ran into many industry friends who commented on my fatigued look (I’d lost 20 pounds), that I realized I needed help. Like, immediately. I stood in the corner out of the hall, made a phone call, and scheduled my first therapist visit. Since then, I’ve spent the majority of the last 12 months working on my mental health and discussing my journey with whomever will listen. As a survivor of depression in her youth, Kendall is big advocate for mental health and has taken away any stigma that existed in my life. It’s not that I didn’t believe in mental health, but I didn’t realize I was dealing with depression. I’ve made changes to my habits and lifestyle. We got a chance to speak at the last ACS conference about our journey. It’s an experience I’ll never forget. It has highs and lows, but now it has allowed me to have a better perspective going forward to keep working on my mental health and always doing checkups. It’s the most significant thing that happened to me in the last few years, and this has been our best business year yet.

Cheese Connoisseur

CC: This is a loaded question, but do you have a favorite cheese?

J.A.: I have favorite cheese memories for each cheese in the case, but it depends on my mood. I know what cheese will be perfect for that moment. So I’ll throw it to my kids, Elia and Everett. Both have been begging for Pure Luck’s Ste. Maure or Capriole’s Sofia as an afterschool snack every day this week.

CC: What are your plans for the years ahead?

J.A.: Kendall and I are actively discussing public speaking opportunities. We loved sharing the stage for a TedX talk last year and feel that we have the ability to share some of life’s successes and challenges through our humor and strength together; plus, we love talking about living a passionate, purposeful life. It’s coming from the lens of partners working together, mental health advocacy and small business owners. We see an opportunity to grow our food tours. We’re also looking at selling more cheese in Texas. And we’re looking to be more involved in the community, joining boards and nonprofits. Kendall and I have the opportunity to give back our time and energy. Our business team is amazing and has allowed us to do these things. It all goes back to our mission, ‘do good, eat good’.

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Written by Lisa White