Michele Buster’s Life in Cheese

Michele Buster

As the co-founder of Forever Cheese, Michele Buster has been instrumental in bringing incredible cheese to the U.S.— from Pecorino Romano from the Fulvi family to La Mancha’s premium Manchego to Paski Sir from Pag Island, Croatia. She’s developed markets for cheeses, brands, and specialty products and done it all with tenacity, discernment and passion.

I sat with Buster at Tarallucci e Vino in Manhattan’s Union Square, near where she lives, to talk about her life in cheese.

CC: As long as I’ve worked in cheese — for more than a decade, now — I’ve been hearing your name. Did you always plan to work in cheese?

Michele Buster

MB: Not at all. All my life it’s been about timing. Way before cheese, I worked in sports. I’m from Philly and a big Philadelphia Phillies fan, and I was trying to get a job with the organization. To prepare for that, all through college I did projects and marketing for Spectacor (a Philadelphia-based sports company). In the end they said, “Look, we don’t have a job with the Phillies, but the U.S. Pro Indoor is hiring a communications director for their tennis tournament.” I interviewed with the managing director and got the job.

At the same time, I was passionate about wine ever since taking a course during college and would have loved to work in that industry, as well. I had a friend who offered me a job as his marketing director, but it was just five weeks before the tennis tournament, and there was no way after working all these hours to make it a success that I was not going to see the tennis tournament through. He couldn’t wait for me, so I had to pass on that opportunity.

Secretly, I have allergies. The sulfites in wine don’t treat me very well, so I can just imagine putting together all these events and having sneezed my head off as I was talking about wine.

CC: Some things are meant to be.

MB: Right. I had studied in Spain my third year of university and although I loved my job, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the country. After working for the tennis organization for a year, I gave my notice, took all my contacts with me, grabbed a backpack and flew to Europe. I didn’t go directly to Spain, as I wanted to learn to speak French in addition to speaking Spanish and Italian. I went to Paris and enrolled in a French class, which I discarded quickly, as I got myself a job at the French Open and realized that I would learn the language more quickly that way than in a classroom. I evolved into a consultant without even realizing it. For the next six years, I worked in professional tennis and golf as well as the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992.

In 1991, I was hired to put together World Cup Golf in Sutri, in the countryside near Rome. Before I could find an apartment, I was staying in a hotel not far from the golf course. One evening while waiting to go have a gelato, a group of guys came to the hotel and asked me to join them for the evening. They were going to a restaurant/country club where there was a wedding and they were the owners. Amongst these guys was Pierluigi Sini, my current partner and his brother-in-law at the time. The hotel owner was friendly with them, and he encouraged me to join them. It worked out perfectly for me, as the restaurant also had a pool and a tennis court, and I had been looking for a gym. They invited me to go there whenever I wanted.

Pierluigi and I ended up playing tennis together. Long story short, we started dating. As a side note, every time I went to the restaurant, I ate the family cheese, loving it.

Michele Buster

CC: Of course!

MB: Pierluigi ended up going to New York to improve his English and help his father with his company while I stayed working in Italy, then went on to work back in Spain. After about a year, the long-distance relationship became more challenging, so I moved to New York, a place I never wanted to be, and lived in Queens with Pierluigi.

CC: You didn’t like New York?

MB: My home, ever since I was a student there, became Valencia, Spain. But if I was going to be in the States, I wanted to be in Philadelphia. I thought New York was just too big.

CC: What was Pierluigi’s cheese?

MB: His family is the producer of Genuine Fulvi Pecorino Romano and other sheep’s milk table cheeses. It was Pierluigi’s vision that the future of his cheese was in specialty food markets. His importer at the time didn’t position the cheeses the way he liked, and Pierluigi was frustrated.

I was impatient working as a data processor while waiting to work for the New Jersey Office of World Cup Soccer. Also, I was tired of hearing Pierluigi complain, and I said to him, “If you teach me about cheese, I will figure out how to get it where it should go. But there’s one caveat. If we’re successful with your family’s cheese, you need to let me go to Spain and find really good Manchego, because what’s in this marketplace is crap and I need to show people just how wonderful Spain is.” That was our deal.

Thus, I started working with Sini Fulvi. The Sinis were producers of cheese in the countryside of Rome, and they bought the Fulvi plant in the 70’s and moved their production there. I started working in the industry in 1993, learning one day at a time from Pierluigi. The two of us combined earned less than the average salary of one person, but it wasn’t the money that motivated us. We were focused on putting his family’s’ cheese on the map. We started to build up one cheese — Genuine Fulvi Pecorino Romano.

The goal was to introduce people to his family’s cheese, which was one of the very few from the countryside of Rome, and teach them why it was different and special. From one cheese we added a few more and focused on building them. Until 1995, it was all about the Sini Fulvi family of cheeses.

CC: How did you learn about the world of importing? And about the product?

MB: Pierluigi taught me cheese. Day by day, night by night, I learned about it by being around it, eating it, breathing it. I went to the plant and learned about it. It was all a learning experience in how the cheese arrived and how we ordered it and sold it.

When the cheese didn’t arrive perfectly due to packaging challenges, we’d go sort it out. We spent some Saturdays in the cooler. For the next few years, I rarely saw the light of day on the weekends. We were demoing, we were throwing cheese in a car to make a delivery; we did whatever it took to get started and to sell and introduce the cheese.

At the time, Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Foods Market was still around. The saying was if your cheese was ‘goochable,’ then others would be interested in the cheese. That was one of my first goals.

Everything was a learning curve. We didn’t even know the best way to send samples. We didn’t know we could send a cut wedge so we would send full wheels. We took what Pierluigi had learned from the time with his importer and built on that with my marketing instinct as a tool as well as a love of his family’s cheese.

By 1995, we had done a good job placing his cheeses in specialty stores. One day Pierluigi said to me “Go ahead, go find your Manchego.”

CC: How did you find your Manchego?

MB: I didn’t find Manchego right away. It took me over a year and a half to find Manchego that I loved. When I did, it was with Carlos Corcuera, in Madrid where he cut into a wheel of the six- month El Trigal on a cardboard box on top of his car, in a garage. Even with all of those fumes it was clear I had found the most amazing cheese. It tasted like pure butter and just melted in my mouth.

What I actually found first was the Drunken Goat although at the time it was Queso de Cabra al Vino. Just about the time I started importing that cheese to this country, Steve Jenkins’ The Cheese Primer came out. In it, he said, “I have not yet managed to import either cheese, though I suspect it will happen in the not too distant future.” My copy had been autographed by Steve and no sooner had I read that then I called him up and said, “Steve, I just did!”

CC: Steven Jenkins has been a wonderful mentor to me.

MB: Steve and I go way back. I always seem to get along with the strong personalities. I have the nerve to say what I feel, based on my passion and conviction.

CC: Is Pierluigi a strong personality, too?

MB: In a business capacity he is. We have known each other since 1991 and worked together since 1993, so it definitely has been a good partnership for us. Although we are no longer together as a couple, we still have the same philosophy about our company and how we run it.

CC: Was that a difficult transition?

MB: It was, I won’t lie to you. I spent so many years crisscrossing the country telling the story of how we met and integrating that into the story of our cheese that it was difficult to separate things. After talking about Fulvi, I’d have tears in my eyes.

It was tough but it’s a modern-day world story. It just shifted slightly, as I was still as passionate as ever about his family’s cheese. I’m very proud that we could work through it and remain such fantastic partners.

CC: When did you become Forever Cheese?

MB: We incorporated in 1998, although we didn’t use the name right away. The main reason we changed the name was so that people knew what our company did. Most people could not pronounce Sini Fulvi. On the phone, so many people understood us as Sini Folding!! I joked that people thought we sold cardboard boxes. We said “let’s come up with a name where people will never forget that we sell cheese.” Thus, Forever Cheese was born.

Once we had touched on Spain, we wanted to explore it as much as we wanted to explore Italy. And then we saw Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula that nobody was paying attention to and felt it deserved a bunch of love. Funny enough, right after we created the name Forever Cheese, I met these great fig cake producers and that was that – we were already more than Forever Cheese.

CC: So much has changed in the cheese business during the more than 20 years you’ve been a part of it.

MB: Absolutely. There were years of freewheeling, everybody buying everything, and price wasn’t an issue. Then, there was a recession. After that, the industry kind of rebounded, but there’s just so much of everything. It’s a difficult climate. Everyone is duking it out. There are so many importers, so many cheeses, so much of everything. Today, there are all sorts of people in the industry and all sorts of prices. It’s very competitive. Through it all, our standard has always been the best.

We’ve spearheaded many iconic products that we’re very proud of. The Drunken Goat — I helped the DOP protect the trademark here. Central Quesera Montesinos and Quesos Corcuera were the basis for starting our Spanish program so that we had an incredible goat cheese and the most amazing Manchego. If it weren’t for those companies that believed in Forever Cheese, it would have been hard to grow.

I’m pleased to have been instrumental in the growth of the whole accompaniment category. People weren’t actively marketing cheese together with things like fig cakes, date cakes and mostardas. We developed a whole category of unique, value-added products to help the cheese departments encourage consumers to take home not just cheese, but so many other items that would help build sales.

“If it weren’t for those companies that believed in Forever Cheese, it would have been hard to grow.”

And that leads to the Marcona almond — an almond that took me 10 years to learn what it was called. I had eaten these almonds as a student while studying in Valencia. I couldn’t believe they actually were almonds, since I never liked them in the United States. These, however, were unbelievable. From the time I went to college, through when I worked in Spain in sports to when I got into the cheese business, I kept trying to find out the name of these mysterious almonds.

As it were, I was invited on a trip to Murcia by the region in the late ‘90s. We visited an almond grower with whom I still work today. It was they who taught me that the Marcona almond — that wonderful, round, tan almond with a higher oil content than other almonds — was my true love.

I have to say I wasn’t the first to bring Marconas here. I found a few tins or jars in some stores, usually getting dusty on bottom shelves. They tasted a bit like sawdust, since the salt had fallen off them and they were very dry. After visiting the almond grower, I had the idea to bring the almonds the way people ate them served at bars in Spain — coated in oil.

I look back to when it was so hard to get people to buy an almond that was so expensive. In today’s world, there is not enough supply. They are being grown in Morocco, even in California, yet they are different and confuse the market of the true Marcona grown in Spain.

CC: What’s the most rewarding part of your work?

Michele Buster

MB: I walk into shops and get all teary eyed and pinch myself. I must say I never take for granted all those hours, all the hard work, all the education and the building.

I try to instill in people — as you look at the cheeses in the case, do you know who made them? Do you know the names of the people? Do you know that is Giuseppe and that’s Ana and that one’s Bruno? These are the people who make these cheeses for us. And we affect their livelihood, in a positive way.

When I started, cheese was not a glamorous business. I’d go to parties and tell my mom’s friends that I sold cheese for a living. They’d look at me and raise one eyebrow and say, “Oh, how interesting.”

I’d say to myself — okay Michele, you love the man you’re with, you believe in the product, it doesn’t matter that you don’t exactly make a difference in the world. Yes it did. I always wanted to make a difference.

CC: So how do you make a difference?

MB: As I said, I didn’t really see it our first few years. At some point, I saw how our producers flourished. Suddenly, they had some more machinery. Our Manchego producer went from just having a little house to building a fancy glass building with a pond, and fish and a bridge! I began to see the impact we had on these people and their livelihoods. It’s so rewarding. It took my awhile to understand that.

The producers we work with know that we really care. So many of these producers are so, so small. It’s been such a huge effort for them to try to sell to us, to do the R&D to know at what age their products should come, and how to pack their gems so they don’t get soggy or too moldy or crack. Our producers, they believe in us. They believe in our mission and know we will do anything to take care of their cheese with pride. We have always approached everything from the viewpoint of producers. Our producers are not just our suppliers. They are friends and family.

I have been to several suppliers’ weddings. I have had their kids stay in my friends’ homes, taken care of their kids.

Today, finding products and producers is harder than it used to be. Before I could just go to a mountain and talk with a producer because I could speak the language. I would assure them that if they gave us good cheese, we would help them do all the rest. Not today. First it’s the passion, then it’s a bunch of other questions. Are you willing to do what it takes to work in the U.S. market? Are you willing to abide by all the FDA regulations? Are you willing to go through a third-party audit?

Michele Buster

CC: Has anyone said “no thank you?”

MB: Yes they have. We’ve also lost a few with time, as the regulations became more of a challenge for the smaller companies. I’ve said, no thank you, to them as well, after conducting a plant visit. My most recent few have said, “We’re in, we’re not sure where this will take us, but we want to go for it.” In the past few years, it’s been less of a journey of romance and more of a journey about being safe.

CC: What does a day in the life of Michele Buster look like?

MB: I’m our primary person for sourcing, things that I might find at a show, or friends share with me or I may trip over. Things that I love and want to share. I feel where there might be an opening. We’re true to who we are — passionate about quality above all else.

I’m looking for products that are truly indigenous to Italy, Spain, Portugal and now Croatia. The products represent our love for those countries, which is why we’ve stayed in the countries we did, and how Croatia crept in. I just fell utterly, totally in love with The Adriatic.

You may find me sourcing product, going over FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act) rules or GMO with our suppliers, working on our marketing, putting together events, hitting the street to visit restaurants or stores or to accompany distributors to sell our products. I don’t get out as much as I used to, visiting customers, but I absolutely love it. I work on the annual holiday gift, which our customers can’t wait to get every year.

Renewable energy has been a passion of mine for at least 15 years. All my life, I’ve loved our natural resources. We support Carbonfund and have been donating to them for at least 12 years. This year, we’ve increased our contribution. That’s part of the future.

I admit that while I was such a great PR person for us for so long, I need to do it more. It was always so rewarding to go talk to magazines. The passion just came out of my pores, how proud I was of our products, and how proud I still am.

CC: Did you ever come back to wine?

MB: I’ve always loved wine, and now it’s come full circle. I’m studying for my sommelier certification.

I love food, wine, travel and speaking other languages — so I love what I do. It’s an honor, a dream job. I love all of it. It’s not just places. It’s all about the people. We’re nothing without them.

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