The Luxurious TRUFFLE CHEESE

The sought after fungi takes cheese to unique heights.

Pictured: Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor

When we think of luxurious food ingredients, few carry the mystique, or command the price tag, of truffles. The fungi, not the chocolates.

Synonymous with the extravagance of four-star dining, the price per pound may exceed a month’s rent. The cost of truffles is related to the challenges of harvesting them, bringing these highly perishable fungi to market and selling them under the pressure of an extremely short shelf life.

Once harvested, these tubers, priced by weight, must be shipped and distributed within 36 hours to a prevent a water loss of 10 percent per day. Fresh truffles must be consumed within five to seven days to avoid becoming mushy (over ripe) and losing their most salient feature—the aromatics. They are a fragile product that can be easily damaged by processing and direct heat during cooking, so they require expert handling.

Perhaps these facts can help us appreciate why they are so expensive, although that won’t make the price  any easier on the pocketbook.

Upping the Ante

To get more truffle-bang for the buck when craving a bit of culinary pizzazz, think truffle cheese. In recent years, the presence of truffle cheese has mushroomed in the marketplace. Cheese with truffle inclusions is a smart way to grate on layers of flavor for a fraction of the cost. Still, add the word ‘truffle’ to any product, and you can expect to pay a premium. When is this coveted ingredient worth it? And when is it hype? A little background can help us to discern the difference.

Truffles grow among tree roots and have an important forest-nurturing function that goes beyond the mere titillation of gourmet palates. Given their ecological role, their valuation might be as ethically desirable as a carbon tax. The thought of truffles may conjure up the image of hogs running through woodlands with farmers in hot pursuit. But since 1985, Italy has banned truffle-hunting sows. Apparently, they make pigs of themselves plundering the terrain and scarfing down the treasured fungi. Trained dogs, on the other hand, particularly the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, simply paw at the ground to signal they’ve detected the scent.

Make no mistake, the flavor of truffles is mostly in the human nose, too, which leads us to chemical abuse; that is, aromatic spiking through the use of 2 4-dithiapentane (bismethylthio methane), a petroleum-formaldyhyde-based sulfide, known to be an eye, lung and skin irritant. The chemical is used in so-called truffle oils to imitate the white truffle (Tuber magnatum) aroma. Surprisingly, most oils contain no real truffle whatsoever. The synthetic aroma, which mimics only a key component, primes consumers to expect less range and subtlety. For example, take just a single type of fresh truffle, the black melanosporum. I found that in sampling just a few within that species, there was a different aromatic flavor profile for each one.

Given that you will pay a premium for any truffle product, check the ingredients. What does flavoring, essence or aroma actually mean? Usually, it means chemicals. As I reviewed more than a dozen truffle cheeses, the degree to which the aromatics were synthetically spiked influenced my selection process. Synthetics suggest either penny-pinching or a lack of skill. Remember that truffle is fragile and loses aroma along with its moisture. When processing truffles, timing and technique are everything to lock in flavor. Since ‘truffle’ implies luxury, we should expect to pay for a truffle cheese priced to reflect authenticity and expertise.

A Truffle Education

A multitude of truffle species, both wild and cultivated, grow around the world, but only a handful are worth eating. To explore fresh truffles and truffle products, I visited the showroom of Urbani Truffles in New York City, where I met with Marta Castillo Peinado, food scientist and manager of the Urbani Truffle Lab. Unfortunately, it was in February, too late for the White Truffle (Tuber magnatum) season, but I was able to sample a few three-day-old Black Winter Truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Shaved razor thin, the aromas ranged from floral to earthy or spicy. They are each so varied that Marta advises local clients to come in to select ones with the aromatic profiles they prefer. On the palate, the floral smelling truffle was the sweetest. For me, once in the mouth, the experience quickly shifted to texture. One was powdery, another mildly fibrous. Marta described the White Alba Truffle (Tuber magnatum) as more delicate, saying it melts on the tongue.

Truffles are seasonal and predominantly grown in Europe (France, Italy and Spain, for the most part). But since they are now being cultivated in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly in Australia, the boundaries of seasonality are expanding for certain types. Climate change looms as a consideration for future growing locations. North Americans are laying the groundwork to farm truffles by planting hazelnut, oak and other trees that are hospitable to European species.

A native species, the Oregon Truffle (both black and white varieties) grows wild in the Pacific Northwest from Northern California to British Columbia, wherever Douglas Fir forests are found. Another native type is the Pecan Truffle that takes its name from its affinity for pecan orchards. Of the many truffle cheeses I encountered, all used prestigious European species. That suggests a potential for North American artisan cheesemakers to embrace truffles reflecting their own terroir.

In the accompanying sidebar, you will find a list of truffles that you are likely to encounter in cheese, followed by a truffle cheese containing that particular type. When shopping, you may see words, such as Vitt. (Vittadini) or Pico, after the Latin names of the tuber. These are the names of the mycologists credited with first describing that particular species centuries ago. Products are often labeled ‘Black Truffle’ or ‘White Truffle’, but unless the manufacturer lists the Latin name, it’s hard to know what you’re actually getting.        

Truffles and Cheeses that Contain Them

Tuber Magnatum (Pico) aka White Italian or Alba Truffle

Grown in the Piedmont region of Italy, available from mid-September to December/January. This is the most highly prized variety, increasingly rare and so valuable that it almost never shows up in a cheese.

Cheese:

Central Fromaggi (Italy) first developed Smeraldo al Tartufo Bianco for a private client before making it seasonally available. You can generally find it in November/December and sometimes around Easter time. This is a Sardinian sheep Pecorino, aged approximately five to six months, with a natural truffle aroma of French oniony soup and subtle umami notes that play harmoniously in the Pecorino.

Serving suggestion: Shave some onto an elegant risotto or let it work its magic on a simple baked potato. Exquisite!

Tuber Melanosporum (Vittadini) aka French Black Winter or Perigord Truffle

Available from January through the end of March, Australian melanosporum are available from June-August.

Tuber Uncinatum (Chatin) or Black Burgundy Truffle

Grown across much of Europe, they are a type of autumn/winter tuber available from September to late December.

Tuber Aestivum (Vitt) or Summer Black or White Truffle

Aestivum seems to be the most common variety of truffle used in cheese. Four delicious examples are listed below. Grown prolifically around the Mediterranean coast, it is easy to understand why aestivum is the black truffle of choice for many products. The French company Agour refers to aestivum as a ‘White Summer Truffle,’ while most others describe it as a ‘Black Summer Truffle.’ To avoid confusion, check for the Latin name on the label. Aestivum are available May-August. Although the same species as the Winter uncinatum (Burgundy) truffle, they are different in appearance and taste.

Cheese:

Central Fromaggi’s (Italy) Moliterno al Tartufo. Aged a total of six months in a base of Sardinian Pecorino, the producer uses a unique technology to deliver genuine truffle into this cheese as well as the Smeraldo. The Moliterno flavor is full-bodied, more beefy-umami than the Smeraldo.

Agour’s (France) Fromage de Brebis a la Truffle, a younger Basque sheep’s milk cheese. The aroma is more vegetal than in the Moliterno.

Serving suggestions: The Moliterno and the Agour are my personal favorites to grate on any style of pasta al dente. Superb!

Cypress Grove’s (USA) Truffle Tremor.

While truffles often seem lost in soft and fresh cow’s milk, such as Brie-style cheeses and Burrata, Truffle Tremor strikes an impressive balance. Perhaps the reason Tremor succeeds is that it’s actually a goat cheese. Think Humboldt Fog without the ash. Truly elegant!

Serving suggestion: A starring role on any cheese board with fruit or vegetable crudités.

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s (USA) Toma Truffle, released in 2019, is aged 90 days. Point Reyes achieves a subtle balance of truffle and buttery toma base.

Serving suggestion: A harmonious companion for crunchy, whole grain breads. Or add panache as a last minute toss into scrambled eggs.

Tuber Albidum (Pico) aka Tuber Borchii (Vittadini) or White Bianchetto Truffle

Easily confused with white truffle, this is Albidum not Alba. These Bianchetto are small spring truffles available from mid-winter-April.

Cheese:

Il Forteto’s (Italy) Cacio di Bosco al Tartufo, is aged 150 days. The Bianchetto truffle has a pronounced garlicky flavor that plays well against the sweet caramel and nut notes of this semi-soft Pecorino. Serving suggestion: Try it with a baguette and a citrusy preserve or shave it onto polenta.

Pioneer of Artisan Goat Cheese: Cypress Grove’s Founder MARY KEEHN

Learn how a small time producer spearheaded America’s goat cheese segment.

Pictured: Mary Keehn

When Mary Keehn, a single mother of four and self-proclaimed serious hippie, adopted two of her neighbor’s goats back in the 70s, she didn’t have a business plan, or any plan, to start her own business.

“My start was serendipic and an offshoot of the land movement of the 60s and 70s,” she says. “Back then, I made my kids’ clothes, had a big garden and raised goats for milk with which I made cheeses.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Keehn created Cypress Grove with a $10,000 loan from her family.

“It was a different, simpler time back then,” she says.

Fast forward 37 years later and, although now retired, Keehn can be credited as helping propel the American goat cheese segment into what it is today.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Keehn about her foray into the cheese world, the evolution of Cypress Grove and the creation of the company’s award-winning cheeses.

CC:  Tell me about your journey into cheese.

M.K.:  I was a marine biology major at the University of California at Santa Barbara but I later became more interested in genetics. In the 70s and early 80s, I focused on production and showing goats nationally. I had national champions of Alpine for several years. My goats actually set national production records, which was unusual in the show circuit. We’d go into the ring to show our goats but this was about conformation, rather than production based. It takes quite a few animals to have a genetically-diverse herd, which translated to much more milk than we could consume. At the time, I had a lot of goats and so much milk that I started a 4H dairy group. With my four daughters and their friends, we learned to make goat milk cheese and soap at home. I didn’t have a big plan to start a business at the time, I just followed the path as it presented itself. At the time, it was about using up our milk and going with the flow, no pun intended!

CC:  Talk about how Cypress Grove pioneered the artisan goat cheese movement.

M.K.:  Really there was no plan of pioneering anything. I started a company as a single mom with four kids, necessity being the mother of invention. I had goats and friends with restaurants who needed cheese. This was a good way to use my milk and make a living with flexible hours. I liked the life cheese making affords. It keeps the mind occupied, and it was fun working from home.

CC:  What challenges did you face along the way?

M.K.:  There was no support for small cheesemakers. The American Cheese Society conference my first year consisted of labeled cheese on three little folding tables. It was a different situation back then; there was no way to market or sell it. At that time, Brie was not only the rage in specialty cheese; it was the one and only type. People would literally back up when I offered them goat cheese.

There was a lot of education necessary, not just for consumers, but also for cheesemakers. Our equipment was all used, and we started with a 50-gallon vat pasteurizer. In the beginning, our customers were mainly the more cutting edge restaurants. At my first Fancy Food Show, I didn’t even have a booth. I went into San Francisco with cheese in my purse and the idea that I’d meet someone there who would like my cheese. A girlfriend introduced me to Columbus Distributing. I handed them my cheese, which was wrapped in three layers of plastic wrap. I don’t know why they took it, but they did. When someone takes you under their wing at the beginning, it makes all the difference. I think every successful business has something like that happen. And when you have a business, you realize how important doing that one thing for someone really is; you can pay it forward.

CC:  Cypress Grove started its own dairy in 2010. How did that come about and why?

M.K.:  When I first started, I had my own herd, which is why I started making cheese. I realized I couldn’t do both well. Goats need milking twice a day and a lot of care, so I sold my herd and started outsourcing the milk. Getting goat milk is difficult, since it’s not the milk people typically use in this country. Plus, it takes between eight and nine goats to provide the same amount of milk as one cow. We struggled for years getting enough milk before making the decision to start our own dairy.

Because certain diseases run through goats and affect them as they age, we bought vet-checked healthy baby goats and raised them for a year. Taking this route was more expensive but we knew we had healthy animals. Creating the dairy was about making a difference in the availability of milk but also the farmer’s ability to be profitable. When we started, there wasn’t any infrastructure. A lot of the challenge was about figuring out a good system that would work with the goats. We purchased equipment from several European countries. There were no medicines specifically tested or made for goats.

We sent our new herd manager to Europe to learn about dairies there before he started here. The dairy was established with 100 goats and now has over 1,400. Today, Cypress Grove is producing more than half of its milk through this dairy. Production is over a gallon a day per goat, compared to the state average of .6 gallons per goat.

We take care of them through every stage of life, since health always makes a difference. Because we focus on the details of raising babies, weighing their feed, paying attention to how they’re fed and raised, we have a steady supply of good milk. We grew the herd organically and brought in male goats for diversity. This keeps the herd healthy by breeding them. It made all the difference. We have goats milking through because we don’t need so many babies. Having babies annually is hard on animals, so letting goats milk through the full year is easier on the goats and gives us a steady supply of milk. We keep them in small groups their whole life, so they grow up with a family in their individual pens. Our farm is Certified Humane and has been since we started. There is a lot of attention to detail, from buying the right hay from the right farm to which mineral supplements to use. We even play soft jazz music in the milking parlor. Also, we’re able to pay our dairy people a living wage and provide health benefits like we do for the creamery. Now the company sends the surplus kids out to other producers to give them healthy starts.

CC:  How has the pandemic impacted Cypress Grove and the cheese industry as a whole?

M.K.:  It’s sad, because we know it has affected every person in some way. We’ve been operating with an ISO-certified management system FSCC 22000 for many years, focusing on food safety. It’s very comprehensive and detailed, even more so than HACCP. Because we operated under these standards for so long, it has allowed us to pivot when there is a heightened risk. This includes maintaining 6 feet of distance between employees and staggering breaks. COVID has brought home the idea of how connected everyone is. People talk about transmission of the virus, but you can’t help but think about transmission of caring. When one of us suffers, everyone does, and we’ve seen newcomers really struggling. As an established company, during the pandemic, we are fortunate to be able to give back to the community. We’ve donated a lot of cheese to food banks and other local businesses in our area.

CC:  What kept you in this business for so many years?

M.K.:  I love it; that’s the simple fact. There is the creativity of cheese design and production, the love of business, the cheesemaking community, animal husbandry, and the people. Creating jobs in our rural community is really appreciated. Cheese attracts very special, creative people who care about the process, from land to table to nutrition. It’s a special group. And my passion from the 60s resonates with me at these times. It’s important to take care of the land. Modern cheesemaking requires a good degree of precision. My dad used to say, ‘the world doesn’t need any mediocre thing’, so for me it’s about doing it well. And cheesemaking requires that; you can’t take any half steps. When I look at all the cheesemongers and all the detail required from beginning to end, it’s quite remarkable.

CC:  Discuss what was behind the creation of Humboldt Fog and some of your other well-known cheeses.

M.K.:  Humboldt Fog came to me in a dream, as many of my ideas do, and I try to listen to them. On my first trip to France, a cheese marketer took us on tours of tiny French family cheesemaking operations. I woke up on the plane heading home, and you know how things come to you in goofy ways through dreams? I saw a picture of Humboldt Fog, and it was a soft ripened cheese we had heard so much of on the tour. Then we were traveling to Humboldt County in California, which is where the name came from. It took me time to figure out how to actually make this cheese. I had brought home four cheese molds in my suitcase when I returned from France. That’s all we had, because in those days, we couldn’t easily get cheese molds. We came up with predraining the curds to put into molds, which made a really unique cheese. Typically, these would be ladled in. With necessity being the mother of invention, there was a lot of this for us who started artisan cheesemaking early on. We didn’t have anything as far as tools or the knowledge of how to do it. We certainly didn’t know the basics of French cheese production. One of the reasons Humboldt Fog became popular is it really tasted good, despite the fact that, at the time, people didn’t like fresh goat cheese much less soft ripened. It was one of the first made in this country. But I struggled with the marketing efforts. It was when New York Times food critic Florence Fabricant wrote an article about Humboldt Fog that shifted things for us. I think of the media and how much it can do for a startup company; it’s remarkable. All of a sudden, our cheese was something to pay attention to.

Truffle Tremor was, at first, going to be a fresh cheese. Going back to my first trip to France, I loved eating truffles and wanted to incorporate this ingredient into a cheese. I first mixed fresh goat cheese with truffles, but that bright acidity of the cheese and the earthy truffle flavor was a fight in my mouth; it didn’t work at all. I’m a little stubborn, so rather than throw it away, I patted the cheese into molds and put it into our aging room. I found this was the ticket to connect the flavor of truffles and texture of goat cheese. It really worked.

For our Purple Haze, a friend gave me fennel pollen, and I had begun growing lavender after my trip to France. The combination of the complex fennel pollen and sweet lavender worked. I was always thinking of unusual combinations to try, so we wouldn’t copy another cheese. It’s fun always trying to come up with something creative. (See sidebar for a comprehensive list of Cypress Grove’s awards.)

CC:  In addition to its cheese, Cypress Grove is known for being an employee-friendly company. Why is a company’s culture so important?

M.K.:  Listening to employees is so important and often overlooked. One of Cypress Grove’s practices is taking employees to lunch three to four times a year and asking them to tell us one thing we’re doing really well and one or more things we can improve on. We keep those lists over the years. I remember one thing someone said was they wish we had more than two tape guns, because someone always hid the good one. Giving our staff members the opportunity to tell us how to improve in a nonthreatening way, over food, is a great gift to everyone. At our lunches, we talk about what we did and what we couldn’t do and why. This proves everyone has equal value, even though they’re doing a different job than you. A staff member once told me that they could make more money working somewhere else, but they liked it here because she had a voice.

It’s especially important as a business grows to keep in touch with employees. Some of my favorite memories are our celebrations. I believe in celebrating a lot, so once a month everyone gets together for lunch. Our first one was a potluck but then we had it catered. We all sat together, and each department talked about what they were doing. It was a time to ask questions. We always started with a game and had silly noisemakers. It may seem dorky but it was educational. Sometimes we’d bring in cheese from different companies to see what others were doing. These gatherings gave us a sense of being on the same team.

We had a guy from the electric company doing service in our building, and he told me he could see how everyone had such a heightened sense of responsibility. It’s up to the bosses and owners to make your employees know they are appreciated. Excellence is on the margins, and that’s something not everyone gets. We would bring creamery employees to the Fancy Food Show. They didn’t need to go from a sales or marketing perspective but we’d take them so they could see how what we do fits in the world. At one show, someone came up to one of these employees and told them their role at the company was very important. It changed the way they felt about their job. Providing opportunity wherever you can is key. After 35 years in the business, I have a ton of these types of stories. It’s important to remember the sweet spots, not the rough spots. That hasn’t been truer than today.

CC:  What makes the cheese industry unique?

M.K.:  Specialty cheese attracts creative people, especially when you’re dealing with goats rather than cows. The process begins with the land and truly goes right to the table. That’s the special aspect of it and was my passion starting in the 60s. It still resonates with me today, especially during these times. You have to take care of the details and be careful of everything you do. Cheesemaking requires a good degree of precision. I also love the almost unlimited variety.

CC:  What do you love best about cheese and the industry?

M.K.:  I like everything about the cheese business. It gave me the opportunity to be very creative. With cheesemaking itself, every detail is critical. The most important person is the one who washes dishes, as they can really do damage. There are so many great people, from employees to customers, who have the ability to contribute to the economy here. We’re in a rural area, and we are one of the largest employers in the region. All my daughters were involved in the business while they were growing up. I now have seven grandkids, and we can travel anywhere and learn about cheese. In addition, there is unlimited variety. Innovation is still possible after hundreds of years. You start with a few ingredients and can come up with useful products, but you have to take care of the land, products and people. Just like you can’t have unhealthy goats and produce good milk and cheese. You have to take care of the animal and make her happy. At Cypress Grove, we play soft jazz music in the parlor when milking, and we don’t wear red in the goat barn. There are so many things you can implement to make a difference. If you’re going to do innovative things with cheese, it turns it from good to great. For me, it’s fun to think of all the innovative things we can do.

CC:  Why did you decide to step away from the business?

M.K.:  It was a gradual step away from the business My husband Roger became sick with cancer about eight years ago. When he passed away in 2013, that was the time I realized everything would be fine without me. It was bittersweet. I was barely involved in creating the Fresh Goat Cheese Cups line, and they did such a nice job with the fun flavors and package design. It’s lovely to see the company carry on with the same attention, focus and enthusiastic young people. I love how many jobs it provides. Seeing the staff’s families and their babies who are now adults is so rewarding.  Some employees have been there for the last 18+ years! I myself have seven grandkids and have fun with them. One of my granddaughters is currently living with me full time. It’s been great keeping in touch, going to lunch with folks and still giving feedback. Although I’m totally retired now, I’m still bound by heart to the business.

CC:  What future do you picture for the industry moving forward?

M.K.:  It’s hard to say even about tomorrow. There is movement toward vegetable- and plant-based cheese, which is growing. Russ Parsons from the Los Angeles Times used to have me send cheese to Julia Child for her birthday; that was really sweet. Just to have a link like that, it’s like the world becomes smaller. What really matters is how you treat people and the impression something you create with care has on someone else. Many people think there are benefits to being bigger. Cheese is a very natural food that is simple, varied and complex. I’m pretty confident it will be around to feed people physically and emotionally for a long time.

Italy’s Coveted PECORINO DI PIENZA

A cheese that reflects its impressive history.

Photo by Jesper Storgaard Jensen

Pienza is one of Tuscany’s most enchanting towns. Its only 2,000 inhabitants have the privilege of living in an ancient environment full of history that was admitted to the prestigious UNESCO list of world inheritance places in 1996.

But the wonder doesn’t stop here, because Pienza is also home to one of Italy’s most beloved cheeses.

In certain parts of this country, local food products deep-rooted in tradition enhance the image of cities. This is exactly the case in the central part of Tuscany, Val d’Orcia, which is well-known for its stunning natural scenery. Here, the sweetness of the hilltops and the multiple long rows of marching cypress trees give Tuscany a touch of softness, as though nature had decided not to offend anyone’s eyes. You are able to drive around for hours while indulging in one dazzling view after another.

This is, however, also an area famous for its abundance of flavors that can be found in local recipes, wines and the many varieties of cheeses. Smells and tastes abound in the area’s cozy towns, which here are called città d’arte, literally meaning ‘art cities’. Amongst these are Siena, Pienza, Montalcino, Montepulciano and Bagno Vignoni.

Abundance is, without a doubt, the appropriate key word when you speak about the flavors of this area, including the two famous wine towns—Montepulciano and Montalcino. The first is famous for its red wine Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and the latter has gained world fame due to the “King of wines”, the Brunello di Montalcino.

But, as we all know, a good wine becomes even better if it has the intriguing company of an outstanding cheese. That’s exactly why Pienza should have an important position on your Tuscany bucket list. A place that cannot be missed because of history, architecture and a cheese that many claim to be one of the best in Italy.

Historic Origins

When traveling from Montalcino towards Pienza, at a certain point along the motorway you’re likely to find a row of cars that have pulled over and parked on one side of the road. Many of the people leaving their cars have a camera around their neck. They are all heading towards the same spot from where you’ll find the best view to one of Italy’s most iconic natural spots—a green valley with a small group of cypress trees that seem to resemble the classical Tuscan dream of natural beauty.

This iconic view of nature and beauty is actually a sort of metaphor of what awaits you after just another quarter of an hour away, when you arrive at Pienza. Here, though, the beauty is also the taste of local pride, which, without doubt, is able to bring a smile to the lips of cheese lovers.

Pecorino di Pienza is a sheep cheese that has historic origins, just like many of Tuscany’s wines. Allegedly, it’s one of the oldest types of cheese in the world. The ancient Romans and, before them, the Etruscans, produced and consumed Pecorino. And, according to Italy’s gastronomic historic books, the Florentine nobleman Lorenzo de’ Medici was so fond of Pecorino that he actually went all the way from Florence to Pienza just to get his hands on the tasty cheese.

Over time, many tales and histories have been told about this cheese that has evolved over centuries. In modern times, this is also the story about how Sardinia and Tuscany are bound together through Pecorino.

Some 50-60 years ago, Val d’Orcia was not the fashionable, sought after area it is today. Most of all, it was a rural district where no one wanted to live, especially the young people who often preferred to move to nearby towns. At the same time, many Sardinian farmers decided to leave their farms and businesses. For that reason, the Italian government started offering the Sardinians an opportunity to buy huge areas of land in Tuscany at favorable prices. Many of them accepted this offer after which they moved to Tuscany, bringing hundreds and hundreds of sheep with them.

From Sardinia with Love

To be able to fully understand the history and quality of Pecorino di Pienza, I decided to visit the Fattoria Buca Nuova in the outskirts of Pienza. The company was founded in 1966, when Pietrino Cugusi and his wife, Mulas Maria Antonia, moved from Sardinia to Tuscany. Today, Pietrino’s son Emilio Cugusi is one of the heads of the company. He greets me as I arrive, and together we start our walk through the production unit.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, the production of Pecorino was carried out by the local farmers of this district who only had small breedings of sheep,” says Cugusi. “The sheep pastured in areas that otherwise would have been totally ignored. But, very slowly, these breedings started to be more substantial. The production became more and more important, and the markets—both the Italian and later on also some foreign markets—started to ask for higher volumes of a product that was characterized by a high quality.”

Today, the Sardinia imprint is still very present in the production of Pecorino. Sardinian sheep, which are a different breed compared to the Tuscan variety, are still used for the production of a cheese with very particular characteristics.

“The cheese is not spicy, although it’s full of character. I’d say that it has a decisive and rounded taste,” says Cugusi.

As we move further in the production unit, Cugusi stops and shows me some Pecorinos in the middle of a seasoning process.

“This orange Pecorino is being stored for 45 days. You obtain this color because of the external treatment that is used, i.e. the cheese is rubbed with a mix of tomatoes and olive oil,” he says. “This coating will naturally protect the cheese.”

Other types of Pecorinos are wrapped in a totally black coating or placed on a bed of leaves, which you are also able to see in Pienza’s numerous cheese shops. And one can also find Pecorino with a coating made on pomace from wine, which, of course, adds a very pleasant scent to the final product.

“As you can see, we have many different products and also sizes. Pecorino’s classical form weighs 1.5 kg, but we actually have cheese forms that weigh up to 6 kg. Although the standard seasoning is one and a half months, our Pecorino Gran Riserva, which is our top product, usually has a seasoning between 18 and 24 months,” Cugusi says.

In some Pecorinos sold in Pienza, you’ll even be able to see mold on the outside of the cheese. But there is actually no need to worry about that.

“The mold is actually a positive sign,” says Cugusi. “It occurs due to the fact that the cheese is not treated with chemical products in any way, and the seasoning is completely natural. The mold can easily be washed away.”

Not Protected

Pecorino is truly a unique cheese also when it comes to the quantity of the overall production, which is actually quite modest compared to a cheese produced commercially. While many of Italy’s other famous cheeses are protected by the EU-qualification DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), this is not the case with Pecorino of Pienza. Because it is not a protected brand, there is actually a risk of coming across fake products.

Around Pienza, only some 20 companies are producing the cheese made from the milk of just 3,000 sheep. As a matter of fact, if all the cheese sold under the brand Pecorino di Pienza were really the original, you would actually need 100,000 sheep.

Contributing to the problem are the sheep imported from France, which some local farmers have been using for milk in recent years. Instead of only 1 liter—the daily amount of milk coming from the traditional Sardinian sheep—the French sheep are able to produce 3 liters a day, which, of course, gives access to a larger production. However, the flavor of the final product is not like the original.

In the center of this Tuscan city, you’ll find the long Corso Rossellini, which cuts the town in two. The center of Pienza was designed in the Middle Ages by architect Bernardo Rossellino, who also worked for Pope Pio II, and it is dominated by the impressive Cathedral of Pienza, erected in 1462. From here, it is as though spirituality flows out to reach all corners of this small town, which is also known under its nickname “la città ideale”. This because Pienza was considered the Renaissance utopia incarnation of an ideal city, which, from an architectural point of view, is characterized by a rational organization of the open spaces and perspectives of squares and palaces.

Along the Corso, many small grocery and specialty stores can be found. And when you stop in front of them, you are automatically bound to be dragged inside by the inviting Pecorinos. Samples are on display to taste, and you’ll be able to try many before making your choice.

And, to complete the picture of Pienza, if you happen to visit the town on the first Sunday of September, do not miss the annual precision game ”il Gioco del Cacio al fuso”, where the participants try to role Pecorino cheese as close as possible to a pole. It takes place right in the center of town on Piazza Pio II and is an important folkloristic event of Pienza. On that day, a touch of fun and madness mixed with history and taste, will give you the perfect dimension of what Pienza is all about.

A Pandemic’s Impact on Imports

Coming to terms with the effect of COVID-19
on cheese imports to the U.S.

It’s difficult to find a historical parallel for the COVID-19 outbreak and its dramatic, wide-ranging impact on the cheese import industry.

Adam Moskowitz, owner of Larkin Cold Storage in Long Island, NY, offers the possibilities of World War I, World War II and the Spanish Flu because of their comparable global ramifications, but it takes returning to the first half of the 20th century to find episodes worthy of discussion—a time when the cheese importing industry looked much different.

Philip Marfuggi, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Cheese Importers Association of America, says the pandemic simply represents unchartered territory.

“There have been segments of business, impacted by strikes, value of the dollar, tariffs, oil prices, supply issues and bacteria outbreaks that we have faced, but this COVID-19 outbreak totally encompasses all aspects of business and life as we know it,” Marfuggi says.

He adds that the pandemic’s emergence began to be felt on cheese imports in the United States as early as February 2020. By March, the entire U.S. economy had been thrown into turmoil—cheese imports right along with it. Marfuggi says the initial impact of the pandemic included canceled orders and the loss of sales related to the closing of restaurants and lodging facilities. And cheese that was more perishable became “a liability at the retail level.”

Compensating & Adapting

Many retailers shut down their cut-and-wrap programs, increasing the demand for prepackaged, exact weight and random weight cheeses, while reducing the demand in bulk orders, as consumers and stores practiced social distancing. Importers couldn’t sell some perishable cheeses even at reduced prices and were forced to destroy some product.

“COVID-19 has certainly made its mark,” says Lassa Skinner, who oversees a new branch of Switzerland Cheese Marketing in the U.S. “It is too early to really understand the monetary impact, but because all tastings, cutting to order and even customer handling of pre-packed cheeses has been stopped at the retail level, sales have certainly slowed.”

Moskowitz says cut-to-order cheese is “in dire jeopardy now,” and he worries the short-term problems in that area will lead to long-term challenges.

“The labor shortage coupled with there being a concern about COVID-19 has made everything around cut to order just tighten up,” Moskowitz says. “Everything’s being wrapped right now; the demand is for pre-packs or nothing. And I wonder how that will play out long-term. Are we not going to see cut-to-order cheese shops anymore? Are we going to see it in a modified form? What is that going to look like?”

The supply chain’s abrupt unpredictability also immediately created a host of issues for importers. Moskowitz says freight costs increased on April 1 because of an equipment imbalance surcharge tied to reduced freight moving from Asia and a subsequent decline in available empty containers to ship goods.

“So not only is there an increased cost per container, but you have to work rather diligently to actually even be able to get the containers that you want to put cheese in,” Moskowitz says.

He also has seen freight delays related to a slowdown at the ports ranging from a few days up to a week.

“Freight delays have been a very big deal,” he says.

Moskowitz adds the disappearance of catering to offices and parties has been a blow to both independent and chain retailers who depend on that revenue source for their business models. Food distributors who worked with restaurants are among those most directly and hardest hit by the crisis.

“They lost 90 percent of their business overnight,” Moskowitz says. “These are companies that have been around for years, if not decades, and they have built up this business and then in a matter of a couple of weeks, they’ve literally lost all their business.”

Because the distributors ceased to buy cheese, among other products, for their restaurant clients, importers instantly felt the blow as orders stopped and distributors struggled to pay the bills they owed.

“A lot of cheese is bought weeks in advance based on what we’ll call advance orders or just general buying patterns,” Moskowitz says. “And so a bunch of importers were buying under the impression that they would be selling what they normally sell. Now their customers just disappeared. Yet that product is still coming in, and they still own that product. So there’s a scramble in terms of, ‘what do I do with all this product that I have now?’”

Meanwhile, Marfuggi says one of the most important tasks importers face is attempting to keep employees on the payroll in the face of “lost sales, lost customers, bad debts and lost profit.” And they have been attempting to accomplish that while ensuring the safety of employees and transitioning some in office staff to remote working.

But there is a bright spot. Moskowitz says cheese professionals were already following strict hygiene practices that have made them prepared to manage food safety efforts tied to the pandemic.

“Many of us in the industry have already been practicing deep cleaning, sanitation, using gloves, etc.,” Moskowitz says. “I think we were ready for this in terms of how to conduct ourselves in the workplace.”

Searching for a Recovery

According to Marfuggi, the unpredictability of the outbreak and its eventual resolution makes forecasting and planning for the future particularly difficult and complicates decision-making. Purchasing is a challenge, as it becomes more difficult to maintain inventory with lead times ranging from five to eight weeks to bring in product from overseas, he says.

“The impact will be felt for some time,” Marfuggi says. “I do not think the restaurant, hotel and foodservice sector will respond favorably when this outbreak subsides. I feel that companies in whatever business they are in will cut back on travel and entertainment as well as the general public, and that does not bode well for the hospitality trade. The retail sector I feel will bounce back much quicker, but I do think the trend will be towards more pre-packaged product.”

Marfuggi says it is too early to project when a recovery could even begin for the imported cheese industry, as this depends on a range of factors tied to COVID-19, including the availability of a vaccine.

“At the present time, with what little we know about this virus, along with the cancellation and postponement of all trade shows, sporting events, concerts, live broadcasts, no travel, etc., the world is shut down. Some parts are just opening up but with face masks, restrictions, etc.—it is very difficult to be optimistic for the near future,” Marfuggi says. “But I do feel when we actually are 100 percent certain of the cause and start by eliminating how and where this started, find a suitable treatment and develop a vaccine, we will as a world or nation come back strong. But it will be a while.”

Part of the challenge in envisioning a pandemic recovery is the many players around the world in cheese importing and the ways they are closely linked. The fate of one company can send ripples around the world.

“This is global, right?” Moskowitz says. “This is having an effect not just on us but on the producers and exporters in foreign countries. Everyone is going through something similar.”

In general, Moskowitz says, it’s difficult to anticipate what the new normal in the imported cheese industry will be.

Marfuggi similarly wonders what a recovery will look like. Will customers continue to buy specialty cheeses? Will there be fewer consumers with the funds to buy imported cheeses?

Skinner says importers will need to be innovative in the challenging climate.

“We are looking toward creative ways to introduce our cheeses to buyers at all levels, both digitally and through partnerships,” Skinner says.

According to Marfuggi, it will be crucial for cheese importers to stick together through the difficulties.

“It is a time where all cheese importers can help make a difference by keeping your employees safe and working wherever possible to ensure a safe product for the consumer,” Marfuggi says “And even though we are all competitors, sometimes even customers of each other, we should try and help each other where we can.”

Skinner says the appeal of specialty cheeses will not dim, even as these obstacles emerge.

“COVID-19 will leave its mark on the consumer in ways we don’t even understand yet, but it doesn’t stop people from wanting to eat well and indulge in specialty cheeses,” Skinner says.

And, in fact, if there’s a glimmer of optimism to be found amdist the chaos; Moskowitz says it has been clear that people continue to find comfort in food, even in the toughest of times. “Those in the cheese business are a resilient and positive community,” Moskowitz says. “And cheese has been a staple food for humanity for thousands of years. Cheese brings pleasure. With cheese, your meal feels better. So, if there’s a silver lining, hopefully this will inspire people to slow down and spend more time with family and enjoy their meals a bit more. I’m hoping that we all learn what’s most important in our lives and look to spend more time on that. And a great, great way for that to happen is over some cheese.”

The Intricacies of Prosciutto di San Daniele

The Intricacies of Prosciutto di San Daniele

This specialty from northern Italy has characteristics all its own.

Where prosciutto is concerned, region plays a big part in the dry cured ham’s characteristics and flavor. Prosciutto di San Daniele, which comes from the northern Italian region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, has a melt-in-your-mouth texture, rich flavor, just the right level of saltiness and versatility that make it a wonderful addition to a variety of dishes—or perfect paired with a slice of cheese and nothing else.

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Vermont Creamery Icons: Bob Reese and Allison Hooper

Vermont Creamery Icons: Bob Reese and Allison Hooper

Vermont Creamery founders discuss their journey and the next chapter.

It has been about three years since Vermont Creamery co-founders Allison Hooper and Bob Reese sold their business to Land O’Lakes. Now both are giving back, providing other businesses with the benefits of their experiences, while also enjoying the more relaxed pace of semi-retirement.

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Mary Quicke: Upholding 14 Generations on the Farm

Continuing her family’s tradition of making clothbound cheeses on and off for 14 generations, Mary Quicke reveals the history of her family’s namesake company, the traditions it adheres to and her dedication to the cheese industry.

Mary Quicke: Upholding 14 Generations on the Farm

The Brits take their cheddar seriously, and this is definitely the case at UK clothbound cheesemaker Quicke’s.

“Our philosophy is to see farming as a great responsibility,” says Mary Quicke, who runs her family-owned company. “Not only are we committed to doing right by the land, but we take great pride in creating things for the enjoyment of others. Our cheese is the perfect expression of this; it is our crown.”

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Stephanie Ciano’s Cheese Destiny

Coming into cheese through her family’s business, world’s best cheese’s, stephanie ciano has made a name for herself in the industry.

Stephanie Ciano’s Cheese Destiny

Coordinating the shipment of containers full of cheese from France, introducing new cheeses from Australia to the U.S. market, and forecasting future cheese trends—it’s all in a day’s work for Stephanie Ciano. As the vice president of international purchasing for Armonk, NY-based World’s Best Cheese, one of the United States’ leading cheese distributors, Ciano is responsible for bringing quality and cutting-edge cheeses into the United States. It’s quite possible that you can thank her for the selection at your local cheese shop.

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The Evolution Of Laura Chenel

How a love of goats led to a cheese empire

The Evolution Of Laura Chenel

Laura Chenel’s was founded by its namesake in 1979, though starting a cheese company was not her initial goal. As a young woman, Chenel was someone who traveled a great deal and was an early adaptor of the belief that one should provide their own food. She grew and made what she could, and acquired some goats, too, in the process.

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Margaret Cicogna: The Cheese Lady of Italy


America’s Long-Time Ambassador Of All Things Italian

Margaret Cicogna: The Cheese Lady of Italy

Margaret Cicogna is one of the United States’ leading authorities on Italian cheese. “People call me the Cheese Lady,” she told Cheese Connoisseur over coffee in New York City. “But I do a lot more than cheese. I went to school. I have a family.” Still, Cicogna’s deep knowledge and passion for cheese, and close relationships with the producers she’s worked with over many decades, have more than earned her the title.

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Fig-ure It Out

Successfully pairing cheese and figs for a sweet, savory masterpiece

Fig-ure It Out

Some would say that biting into a sweet, sticky, squishy fig has been a gastronomic pleasure since the beginning of time. Fig trees purportedly shaded Adam and Eve and provided them with their first hint of clothing. Archaeologists have found fig branches next to human remains that date from more than 7,000 years ago. Some scientists believe the fruit trees may have been among the first domesticated crops.

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A Domestic Cheese Mecca

For almost a decade, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines has cultivated its offerings of mainly regional and domestic artisanal cheese.

Owners C.J. and Kari Bienert with daughter Coral Blue and son Solomon.

The impetus for C.J. Bienert opening The Cheese Shop of Des Moines was simple; after years of working in the cheese industry for different retailers, he was tired of being told no.

“I had worked at various cheese counters, markets and a wine shop that went out of business, and was sick of being told ‘no, you cannot have a closed case for American artisan cheeses,” says owner C.J. Bienert. “I knew the demand was there, and there was nothing like it in the area, so I decided to go on my own path.”

When Bienert started selling cheese back in 2001, there wasn’t the influx of American artisan cheeses as there is today.

He had one particular inspiration from the get-go. “The lack of delicious, dynamic cheeses being produced in the U.S. is what led me to my love of Cellar of Jasper Hill’s Winnimere,” says Bienert. “I thought to myself, there is no way this cheese was made in the U.S.”

He then sent co-founder and CEO of the Greensboro Bend, VT company, Mateo Kehler, an e-mail saying the cheese had inspired him, and Kehler responded with an internship offer.

“It was perfect timing for me, so I left Des Moines and did a four-month-long internship on Jasper Hill’s farm,” says Bienert. “The eight- to 10-hour days were intense and taught me all about cheesemaking. Yet, I primarily washed dishes and flipped cheese.”

He also found amazing cheese producers by working on other farms on his days off. While he started his journey as a European-centric foodie, Bienert was blown away by the passion of the U.S. cheesemakers he served alongside and the impressive quality of their product.

An Epiphany

Despite these life-changing experiences, it was early on in his journey that Bienert realized he didn’t want to be a cheesemaker.

“The alchemy and everything is cool, but I didn’t like the day to day monotony; I like interacting with people,” he says. “Plus, Mateo starts his creameries at 4 a.m.”

It was wise words from Kehler and his brother Andy, Jasper Hill’s co-founder and managing member, that set Bienert on his path to retailing.

“After I was asked to sit on a tasting analysis, Mateo and Andy wheeled their office chairs over to me with such an intensity that I felt instantly interrogated,” says Bienert. “They then asked me what I was going to do; out of nowhere, I immediately replied that I’d be opening a cheese shop in Des Moines that focused on American producers.”

It was after his internship in 2009 that Bienert went on what he calls his year-long cheese sabbatical.

“It was my walk about to find my calling in cheese,” he says.

With Mateo Kehler’s blessing, Bienert spent a holiday season at Cowgirl Creamery’s San Francisco store assisting with orders that totaled upwards of $20,000 a day while helping with endless deliveries.

“I knew if I was going to have a cheese shop and be a monger, I had to prove myself,” he says. “I also made great connections during a stint in Wisconsin.”

Bienert met a number of mentors along the way, including John and Kendall Antonelli, owners of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin and Cheese Connoisseur cover subjects this past winter.

“I did a lot of traveling, everyone gave me their time, and I listened to whoever I could,” says Bienert. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it without connections from that sabbatical, so I picked the best people to talk to.”

When he returned to Des Moines, Bienert sold Wisconsin cheeses at a local farmers market to see if Iowans would be supportive of his venture. It was during this time that he queried his customers, asking which location would be best for his store. A year after coming back to Iowa, in November 2011, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines became a reality. Its location is in a historic area of the city as a result of the farmers market poll.

“Although I knew Des Moines well, I needed to confirm the best site for the store,” he says. “It was fun working on the business side of things and gathering information during my travels. It also gave me time to write a business plan and do the necessary research.”

It is serendipitous that the location happens to be the same strip mall where Bienert’s father had his coffee shop when he was growing up.

“There’s also one of only a handful of bakeries in the city in our strip mall, La Mie Bakery, and we carry their bread.” he says. “That type of partnership works well for us, and any independent cheese shop needs to co-merchant.”

Expanding the Business

In homage to Jasper Hill, The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ rustic décor includes live edge and recycled wood. Bienert also piggy backed on Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick Café concept when he added a café to his store.

Bienert knew it was time to diversify after he began offering sandwiches in his shop, which garnered lines of 30- to 60-minutes, with people sitting on the floor eating grilled cheese sandwiches.

He opened the 75-seat Cheese bar in June 2017.

“I came into the industry with a culinary background but told my wife if I ever said I wanted to open a restaurant to please kick me,” Bienert says. “But we got into the business purely accidentally, due to people asking for it. This cheese-centric restaurant was a big twist for us.”

Initially, creator of Portland, OR’s Cheese Bar, Steve Jones, was not on board with the name.

“I told him it’s like a wine bar, and every city should have one,” says Bienert. “Steve agreed, but wanted me to change the name; it didn’t happen.”

The full-service restaurant, which is in a separate location from the shop, allowed Bienert to further support local farmers and producers. It also offers 30 beers on tap and a cocktail program.

“We’re providing a service to the community, with wholesome, delicious and glutenous food,” he says. “My rule in business is once you provide something, you can’t take it away. Stopping would be a disservice. You have to build upon it, and make it work.”

The menu is simple—grilled cheese, fondue and raclette.

“We put cheese on anything, including our raclette hot dog,” says Bienert. “We also offer other classic dishes with a twist, like Alpine Macaroni, a Tart Raclette and aligot potatoes. We’re in the Midwest, which is meat and potatoes territory.”

The emphasis is on clean product sourcing from local producers, no matter what the cost. The Cheese Bar uses local Gouda from the Pella Dutch community and cheeses from Milton Creamery in Milton and Frisian Farms in Leighton blended in a grilled cheese sandwich. Its cast iron mac and cheese, inspired by Mission Cheese’s presentation, uses Hook’s Cheddar from Hook’s Cheese Co. in Mineral Point, WI, and is baked in a 500-degree oven for a caramely finish.

An American Focus

Bienert estimates that 70 percent of The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ cheeses would be classified as American artisan.

“We’re the number one by square feet seller of La Quercia prosciutto, produced in Norwalk nearby,” he says. “We hang our hat on local producers and want there to be more.”

That’s not to say he shuns imported cheeses. The Cheese Shop of Des Moines works with producers overseas, including the UK’s Neal’s Yard.

Yet, his most popular cheese, and what he’s best known for, is Dodgeville, WI-based Uplands Cheese’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve selection.

Bienert said it took some convincing before Uplands Cheese co-owner Andy Hatch would provide a full batch of cheese.

“He said the first year he couldn’t do it,” says Bienert. “Then, in our second year in business, Andy had me come out and do a selection. Since then, we’ve been offering varieties of full cheese batches, 90 to 100 wheels, and we’ve stuck with that model.”

Bienert says there is always aging out of certain cheeses as well as dialing in to pick special batches of versatile types that can be sold younger and older.

“It’s fun when a cheese reaches its peak at holiday time and is hitting its stride,” he says. “We’re able to give people the world’s best cheeses, and they can taste the difference. They come here for cheese like Pleasant Ridge because they know we’ll take care of it.”

When asked his favorite cheese, Bienert doesn’t hesitate.

“It’s Comté, and will be forever,” he says. “It’s a cheese that’s so versatile; a young Comté for breakfast is delicious with grainy bread, while a 14-month Comté on a ham and cheese sandwich is perfect for lunch and Comté after dinner makes an ideal dessert.”

Bienert’s newest find is Cultivo cheeses from Madrid’s Queseria Cultivo.

“I’ve been excited with their Mahon and Frida, a funky washed rind sheep cheese,” he says. “Finding new cheeses from the Old World is exciting to me.”

He also says Columbia Cheese’s expert Bavarian cheese selector Norbert Sieghart is doing cool stuff. Another favorite is Calderwood, a collaboration between Jasper Hill and New York City’s Saxelby cheesemongers.

“And everyone is in love with Tulip Tree Creamery in Indianapolis and Shadowbrook Farm in Lincoln, NE, which has outstanding Gouda-style cheeses,” Bienert says. “We finally have a cold chain to get these cheeses through C.E. Zuercher out of Chicago, since we don’t have the infrastructure here.”

Diversifying Pays Off

The Cheese Shop of Des Moines’ e-commerce site provides regional shipping through its Cheese Club.

“We have many customers who are no longer local, but still want our cheese,” says Bienert. “We do three-, six- and 12-month length cheese clubs that ship a pound of cheese to members.”

These feature exciting, hot, seasonal selections, with one of the recent ones being Winnimere and Jasper Blue.

Because Bienert put in many years educating customers at a wine store prior to opening his cheese shop, he gained a big following. This transcended in The Cheese Shop of Des Moines holding weekly wine and cheese classes.

“When I began my wine education, I was 19, not even old enough to drink wine legally,” he says. “Many of the people from my classes way back when come to my classes now. It’s a big part of our business, and we would get about 25 paying customers who participate.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bienert was in the process of retrofitting an old taco cart into a raclette cart, with plans to sell his food at local summer festivals.

“I thought this will let us get out to be seen more and mobilize,” he says. “A big part of our success is off premise events. I’ll go anywhere there are people who will pay for cheese, including churches, libraries and people’s dining rooms.”

The cart was to serve as a gorilla marketing tool, along with the e-commerce offerings, to evolve with the times.

During the pandemic, the shop was ‘telemongering’, while the restaurant offered curbside and carryout menu items.

The twist in his story is now Bienert says he is balder and fatter and has two children—five-year-old son Solomon and three-year-old daughter Coral Blue. But his wife and the operation’s co-owner, Kari, still puts up with him.

“I want people to know if you build it, they will come, but you have to keep working at it and be flexible,” he says about cheese shop ownership. “There will be constant challenges, but you can usually overcome them. Every person questioned me about opening a cheese shop in Des Moines.” It was Zingerman’s founder Ari Weinzweig, one of Bienert’s mentors, who gave him sound advice. “He said ‘of course you can do it in Des Moines, look at what we’re doing in Ann Arbor!’” recalls Bienert. “He was right. Now, we get people from Minneapolis and Chicago visiting our Iowa store.”