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.
Ciano started her career in cheese at her family’s business, Massachusetts-based Crystal Food Import, after she graduated from college in 1995. World’s Best Cheese eventually purchased Crystal Food Import in 2010. “World’s Best had started as more of a local purveyor of cheese for New York, Connecticut and New Jersey,” explains Ciano. “Crystal Food Import brought the more specialty range to the table. We elevated the product range to do higher-end, more specialty-type cheeses and really expanded the lines.”
Today, Ciano oversees approximately $35 million of cheese imports and is a leader in the industry, serving as a judge at the American Cheese Society, Eastern States Exposition (“The Big E”) and World Cheese Awards.
Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Ciano about the complex logistics of importing cheese, her passion for education and what she wishes more people knew about cheese.
CC: How did you get started in the cheese industry?
SC: My father was actually a cheese importer with Crystal Food Import, which he started in 1969. I started in cheese as a child working in the warehouse for my dad, folding boxes and putting stickers on cheese for a couple dollars per hour to buy penny candy down the street in East Boston.
I was exposed to many cheeses as a child, as well as cheese makers and suppliers, and I visited Europe. It gave me a thirst for travel and experiencing cultures through food, cheese in particular. When I graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans with a degree in French and economics, I surprised my dad by telling him I wanted to join the cheese business.
CC: What was your first role at the company?
SC: I started off at the bottom, basically, being a gopher, kind of everything and anything. I did everything that needed to be done—cleaning, picking orders, delivering orders, sales.
I really dove in with both feet, taking it almost like another class at a university. I was reading every cheese book I could get my hands on, trying to learn more about the products. I got very much into sales and trying to do education on cheese. I would organize trips to Europe with some of our customers to learn more about the products on an in-depth level.
CC: Traveling straight to the source sounds like a great way to learn more about the cheeses you import.
SC: Since 1998, I’ve taken roughly 50 people, mostly customers and colleagues, to Europe on cheese tours covering England, Italy and France. I just returned last weekend with a new group of 10 people from France. We covered a vast territory—Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine, Champagne, Bourgogne, Ile de France and Roquefort. We were focused on AOP cheeses, new innovations and AOP butters. I feel that every time I go on a trip like that I learn something new, and I like being able to share that with other people. To me, that’s a big deal.
I was nominated into Les Degusteaux de Chieuv’ d’ Selles, a brotherhood for the Selles-sur-Cher AOP cheese in the Loire Valley, in 2000 on one of the cheese tours around France. They were thanking me for promoting French cheese throughout the United States.
CC: What are your responsibilities in your current role as vice president of international purchasing?
SC: My role has evolved over time. For the past 10 years, I’ve been in purchasing, a different side of the business [than sales], working with the vendors. My current responsibilities include handling all of the imports. So I’m doing a lot of travel internationally; typically I go to France and Italy multiple times per year, and sometimes other countries like Spain. I do artisan domestic purchasing, as well. I also work with key accounts, like Wegmans and Whole Foods, nationally. I oversee our Foreign Supplier Verification Program to make sure we have all the documents from every vendor. We basically have a database of thousands of documents.
CC: Wow, that’s lot of paperwork!
SC: There’s a lot of documentation that’s needed. The Foreign Supplier Verification Program, called FSVP, has many steps that are involved. We need to be looking at the dairies’ critical control points and their safety plans so that we’re working with trusted sources as an importer—all of that becomes our responsibility, and we have to take that very seriously.
We work with big producers, and we also work with tiny producers, and while there’s a little bit of leeway on the smaller producers as far as timelines to get the information in, we still have to require all of the same paperwork for the Foreign Supplier Verification Program. It’s really a challenge sometimes to get that information. It can be expensive to have the dairies translating their programs into English and have the audits done. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get all of the producers in line, and chasing them down for the information can really get to be a challenge.
CC: What are some of the main countries you import cheese from?
SC: We do a lot of business with France, two to three container loads per week by ocean freight, and 52 weeks a year, flying products in from France. We also do quite a lot with Italy, probably six or seven containers per month, both refrigerated and dry ocean freight containers. And again, 52 weeks a year on the air freight program.
We also do quite a bit with Spain, probably three or four containers per month by ocean freight and monthly air shipments. We also do products from Belgium via ocean freight, and we have an air program from England, Ireland, Portugal, Switzerland—let me think if I’m missing anybody! I’m doing airfreight from Australia, also.
When we do air freight, that allows us to bring the more perishable cheeses in that are more fragile, and we’re able to get them to the customers with the maximum amount of shelf life.
CC: What’s an example of a more perishable cheese that would have to be brought in by air?
SC: We fly in Epoisse, the AOP cheese from France. We do that so that we can maximize the shelf life on the product.
CC: What are some of the aspects of importing cheese that the customer might not have an appreciation for?
SC: Everyone always thinks about the cheese knowledge, knowing the product. But it’s actually equally important from the cheese importer’s perspective to really have your logistics down. So we really are specialists in logistics, getting products from all over the various countries to consolidation points within those countries, making sure things are packaged correctly so that they can travel safely. And there’s a lot of documentation that’s needed with the Foreign Supplier Verification Program.
CC: Besides handling imports, what are some of the other aspects of your job?
SC: I help create products with key producer partners. For example, a special wash cheese like the gose beer-washed Willoughby from the Cellars at Jasper Hill; the Coeur aux Fleurs from Fromagerie Jacquin [a goat cheese with edible flowers] or the Knipschildt Chocolatier cheese and chocolate truffles—chocolate truffles made with Nettle Meadow Honey Lavender Fromage Blanc; Bayley Hazen Blue Cheese; and Vermont Creamery Creamy Goat Cheese.
CC: What’s the most challenging part of your job?
SC: It’s always the logistics that end up being the challenging parts, both the paperwork and the moving of the products. We have logistics issues where things are happening all over the world. For example, there was flooding in the Loire Valley last year, so we were having trouble getting the goat cheeses out. There ends up being trucking issues, or strikes, in France, all of their strikes! So we’re constantly having to do workarounds for those kind of things.
We’ll also have weather issues. After Hurricane Sandy, we had containers backed up for about a month. We had product that was already on the water that had to be rerouted down to different states, like Virginia. We were going without stock for a few weeks, and then we got a month’s worth of stock all at once.
That’s always a challenge—trying to keep the steady streams. Our goal is to have the right amount of stock so that the product is sold quickly and in good condition. It’s kind of finding a sweet spot, basically, with your inventory.
CC: In addition to your job with World’s Best Cheese, you’re also involved with the American Cheese Society.
SC: Yes, I’ve been working with the American Cheese Society Certification Committee for the last six years. I had just started when the CCP [Certified Cheese Professional] exam was rolled out. [The Certified Cheese Professional exam measures candidates’ mastery of cheese knowledge and best practices, and evaluates candidates’ understanding of core competencies common to the majority of cheese industry jobs].
Right from the beginning of my career, I’ve been very interested in education and trying to raise the bar on what people’s knowledge is on the products and how to handle the products safely. I feel that it elevates the entire industry when you have everybody on the same page as far as education in the safe handling and safe practices on the product. I feel like we’ve come such a long way with the American Cheese Society getting information out there to the mongers and the cheesemakers about safe practices—the CCP exam has been a huge deal.
CC: What would you say to a cheese industry professional who is considering taking the CCP exam?
SC: I’ve talked to people about whether they should take it or not, and is it worth it. To me it absolutely is worth it because it’s part of the journey—the amount of effort you put in to learn all of the different domains. It’s a broad-based exam, so it might focus on things that you may or may not be familiar with in your own personal experience. Just studying for the exam you’ll have elevated your own game in the cheese industry.
Pass or fail, I feel like you win just by tak-
I think it means something when you have the CCP designation next to your name. It’s a sign that you’ve studied on a broad-based level and really understand the cheese business in depth.
CC: What professional achievement are you most proud of?
SC: I really am proud of being a judge for the World Cheese awards in San Sebastian, Spain in 2016, London in 2017 and Bergen, Norway in 2018. I think that says something, that I’m recognized on a global level.
I like the global sharing of information, and not just trying the cheeses, but meeting the judges themselves really was an honor—getting to know what they do in their respective countries, learning about some of the cheeses they have over there, and being able to translate that and bring it back here. I’ve been really pleased with that. It exposes me to new opportunities on finding new products from other parts of the world.
CC: What’s your favorite part of your job?
SC: I think there are several parts of my job that really make me tick. I really love finding new products, getting new products into the United States and introducing them for the first time.
We actually had a dairy recently where I’d made friends with the cheesemaker from Australia, Kris Lloyd, at the World Cheese Awards judging in San Sebastian two years ago. She has a dairy called Woodside Dairy, and I just introduced her cheeses this year—we’re flying them in from Australia. She’s very exciting. She had a cheese with green ants on it that were edible.
It’s pretty out there and cutting edge, but that’s really what excites me, doing something new and different that no one’s ever seen before. Kind of pushing the envelope on cheese, to expand peoples’ minds on what they know about cheese and their love of it and their appreciation.
CC: That does sound very rewarding.
SC: When I introduce new product that’s never been in the U.S. before, it makes me very happy seeing it have success. Being able to launch a new line like that really makes a difference to these smaller producers. When you’re working with an artisan producer, you end up helping them to grow their businesses. It makes me feel very proud of the work that we’ve done, that we’re really helping farmstead-type products to succeed.
CC: What do you wish people knew about cheese?
SC: You learn when you get deeper into the cheese business, a mold is not always a bad thing with cheese—it’s a living, breathing thing and it could be very desirable even though it might look a little bit funky. I’d like to see more of an understanding on that aspect of it.
I like thinking of cheese as something that’s not black and white; it’s more of a spectrum. You go uphill, towards the peak of perfection of what the cheese should be. The French say à point, when it’s perfectly ready. Then it will start to go downhill again, and get too old or whatever. But I like thinking of it that way, as a spectrum, and not as a “now it’s perfectly good and tomorrow the expiration date hits, and we throw it away.” Cheese is a living thing that has a continuum.
CC: You mentioned that you do a lot of traveling. Do you have a favorite cheese region?
SC: It’s hard to say—I like all different kinds of cheeses! But I’d say one of my favorites is the Loire Valley of France. I really love the different goat cheeses, Selles-sur-Cher is one of my favorites.
CC: Are there any underrated cheeses you wish were more popular?
SC: I love the Beeler Gruyère, I think it’s really a sleeper cheese that not a lot of people know about. I think it’s very well balanced, and it has great crystallization. People really don’t know it—Rolf Beeler is an affineur in Switzerland, and I think it’s a fantastic cheese.
CC: Do you have any other favorite cheeses that you’d like to mention?
SC: Zimbro is one of my favorites—it’s a raw sheep’s milk cheese with a thistle rennet. It’s a torta-style cheese from Portugal, about 500 grams, a little over a pound. It’s one of the ones you cut the top off, and it gets very runny on the inside and is spoonable. It has big fruity notes to it, wine-like notes.
CC: What are your interests outside of the cheese industry?
SC: I keep myself busy! I’m a single parent with two children, and I enjoy time with my daughters Olivia (12) and Charlotte (16), and my Goldendoodle, Molly.
I also run pretty frequently, I do half marathons and am planning to run the Boston Marathon in 2019 if my bib is confirmed. I love cooking and eating, skiing and yoga.
CC: What does cheese mean to you?
SC: Cheese for me is a way of life; it’s appreciating different cultures, terroirs, hard work, authentic people, having a global perspective of a simple pleasure and having a respect for everything that it took to create the cheese—animals, land and people.
I strive to be a pioneer in the business like my father, following in his footsteps while blazing my own trail and giving it my own flair. For me, the taste and the quality of the cheese is everything.