A Small and Mighty Venture

Orlando’s La Femme du Fromage has become the go-to for artisan and hard-to-find cheeses.

Big things do come in small packages. That is definitely true for Orlando’s La Femme du Fromage. Although only encompassing 212 square feet, what this cut-to-order cheese shop lacks in size it makes up for in its diverse offerings.

While chains such as Publix and Whole Foods Market may carry a Comté, it won’t be the 18-month aged version carried at La Femme du Fromage, which owner/president Tonda Corrente sourced from a personal contact in France. She also works directly with farms and their owners and will often pick up cheese shipments right from the airport

“I work directly with producers like Deer Creek Creamery and Baetje Farms and have suppliers in Wisconsin and France who send me hard-to-find cheeses,” she says. “There is a ton of representation around the country of things I can’t find down here, and those are the creameries I’m trying to source out to create a diverse cheese case.”

What also sets La Femme du Fromage apart is its educated staff, who will order unique cheeses upon request.

“I have people who travel to my store because I’m the only one of my kind,” Corrente says. “We want to represent what we can [with regional cheeses as well as imports].”

From Wine to Cheese

Corrente fell into the cheese industry by way of wine.

“I got into wine when I was in my early 20s and working in different restaurants and food outlets,” she explains. “I understood that my check average would triple if I knew how to sell wine, and then I started to fall in love with it.”

Corrente went on to work in higher-end restaurants that she felt had decent chefs and great wine lists. This expanded her knowledge of wine and food pairing.

“I wanted to learn why certain dishes sing with wine and about the relationship between food and wine,” she says. “It became my thing, and I loved orchestrating guests’ dining experience.”

This quickly set Corrente apart from others, while also being financially lucrative.

It was in 2006 when, at a low point in her life and without a job, she fell into helping others cook for parties.

“I actually taught myself how to cook and cater, because I love to host, entertain and pair food and wine,” she says. “This side gig helped me financially during a dark time in my life.”

Around this time, a new wine shop was opening in the area that was incorporating cheese.

“I went in to inquire about job opportunities and may have sounded like I was more educated than I was,” Corrente recalls. “They saw my resume and that I had been doing some catering, so assumed I had a culinary background. I really didn’t, as for me it was more about wine, but they still wanted me to help develop their cheese program.”

She underestimated her skills. Corrente had been studying wine for more than a decade at that time and was at the beginning of her foray into the cheese world.

“When you love wine and fall in love with food, then cheese is right around the corner,” she says. “When you start learning about cheese through the back end with your palate, it’s a different ballgame. It opened up a new world for me.”

Corrente says her new obsession was not just the relationship between regions, cheesemakers and styles but how cheese relates to wine. She became fascinated by how wine flavors change when introducing different cheeses and what happens when a pairing goes wrong.

As she continued her cheese and wine journey, Corrente not only refined her pairings, but, in 2008, started teaching classes to share her knowledge with others.

In 2012, Corrente visited Max McCalman, American cheese expert, author and the first Maître Fromager in a North American restaurant. He also spearheaded the creation of the Artisanal Bistro and Artisanal Premium Cheese Center and is an advocate for raw-milk cheeses.

“I went to Max’s cheese class in New York City, sat with him and showed him my pairing book,” Corrente says. “He came to Orlando a couple months later and joined me at one of my classes so he could see what I did here.”

Corrente recalls a ride with McCalman back from Disney, where he told her rather than be a minnow in New York, Los Angeles or one of the hot cheese areas, that she could be a shark in Orlando.

“It was almost one year to that day when I opened my cheese shop in Orlando,” she says. “When we had our grand opening, I flew Max down here so he could open our event space. He sold out a wine and cheese class with over 100 people; Max helped me put my flag in the ground.”

A Leap of Faith

Corrente’s public profile and expertise were what propelled her opportunity.

In January 2013, she was doing publicity at Disney and a local Fox affiliate, which garnered her coverage in local papers. It was during this time that John Rife, the owner of a new Orlando food hall, East End Market, was gathering a collection of entrepreneurs to open stalls in his site.

“He wanted to establish a food hall/public market like Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which would be the first of its kind in the Southeast,” Corrente explains. “When John created this, he knew he wanted certain things represented. He looked to see who could do cheese, and my name kept popping up in his search.”

When Rife initially reached out, Corrente thought he was asking her to help run someone else’s store. The thought of opening up her own business was not at all on her radar.

“I remember thinking I have no money, how would this work? How do I come up with financing?” she recalls. “John told me not to worry about the money, that it would come.”

Corrente was able to figure it out, financing used pieces of equipment, taking on a small overhead and starting with one tiny 8-foot cheese case. It obviously was a recipe for success; this October, La Femme du Fromage will celebrate its eighth year in business.

“It really changed my whole life,” Corrente says. “I went from being in the worst place I’ve been in my life emotionally to this miraculous journey; cheese saved my life.”

Yet, it wasn’t easy at first, as Corrente admits she was still pretty green in the industry. Although she had tasted and experienced a lot when it came to cheese, she had no business experience in terms of opening and running a retail store.

“How do you go into business without taking a college course?” she says. “Well, I taught myself how to be a cheesemonger, wine expert and chef, so I asked for help along the way to perfect my game. If you have the right attitude, you can’t go wrong.”

Getting Up and Running

From the start, Corrente carried cheeses she could acquire through a local distribution chain.

“Our distribution ability with purveyors opened up with the cheese explosion,” she says. “We were seeing a lot more availability.”

Initially, it was the Disney chefs that were her biggest customers, as she was the only high-end cheese shop in the area. But Corrente had to get creative when attracting other customers, setting herself apart from Whole Foods and other chains.

“COVID impacted everything, as local grocery chains have more buying power and can secure better deals than I can,” she says. “They also have other means to support their stores, so can take less margins. It has been a challenge for sure.”

Corrente says her “ammo” has been to constantly source cheeses that are hard to find by working directly with purveyors and artisan creameries.

“I’m working with people who can find me things I can special order, like seasonal items to survive this game,” she says. “But being the only cheese shop in Orlando for eight years with a reputation prior to starting, I have cemented myself in here in a way that people value my opinion and what I bring to the table.”

Surprisingly, even though space couldn’t be tighter, La Femme du Fromage offers an impressive cheese-centric menu of prepared foods. In addition to charcuterie boards and boxes, it includes croissant breakfast sandwiches, a variety of grilled cheese and other sandwiches, salads and flatbread pizza. The store has a Grilled Cheese Happy Hour every Friday and weekly pairings with sandwiches and beer.

“We work with a local French bakery to source our bread and include its French macarons for a pop of color and sweet treat with our charcuterie boxes,” Corrente says. “We also make jams and pickled vegetables and fruit.”

Corrente estimates that 35% to 40% of her business is catering, and she also does classes and collaborations with area chefs.

While some items are prepared in the food hall’s community kitchen, part of the store’s very limited square footage is dedicated to a hot line with an oven for preparing flatbreads and toasting sandwiches, a griddle for grill cheeses and a hot plate to heat up mac and cheese.

Despite its name, La Femme du Fromage is not exclusively a cheese purveyor; the shop includes a wide range of specialty food and beverages, from truffles to sangria.

With production space at a premium, there is not much room for retail. During COVID, one of the food hall spaces became available, and Corrente jumped at the chance to expand.

“This gave me a back storage room, so I could have everything at one site and under one roof, rather than utilizing an off-site storage facility,” she says. “Now, we have a room in the back as well as upstairs.”

This past March, Corrente turned the upstairs space into a vintage store, La Boutique. While some of the items pertain to food, like cheese boards, cheese knives and tea towels, there also are things like jewelry and homemade soap.

About two years ago, Corrente took the plunge and began construction on a new full-service restaurant that will be separate from the store.

“I was elbow deep in new restaurant construction when COVID hit, and I am 100% financially committed,” she says.

At press time, the restaurant was 80% completed. It will be located in downtown Orlando and includes a wine and cheese tapas bar with a lounge. Corrente describes it as having an “Old World style vibe”.

Her story is inspiring, and advice is even more so. “I’m giving a footprint for someone else to do this, too, especially rebuilding and rebalancing post-COVID,” Corrente advises. “Figure out what you want to do with your life and go get it; that’s what happened to me.”

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