Testing a Monger Model

Cheesemongers at Chicago’s Beautiful Rind provide customers full service and education.

Opening up his new Chicago cheese shop/foodservice operation, Beautiful Rind, during a pandemic obviously wasn’t ideal, but owner Randall Felts was still able to make a statement in the city’s trendy Logan Square neighborhood.

“We finally wrapped up all of our health department approvals the day before Illinois’ Stay at Home order went into effect, opening in April,” he says. “It was a little challenging, but cheese is comfort food, so we were able to get our message across.”

Born in West Virginia, Felts first moved to Birmingham, AL, then to the Windy City four years ago to serve as senior operations manager for Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine, an operation profiled in Cheese Connoisseur that closed late last year.

“In late October of 2018, I was looking at what to do next,” he says. “Chicago is such an amazing food town but doesn’t have the number of cheese shops that other cities contain; I can name more cheese retailers in Brooklyn than in Chicago.”

He wanted to gear his store toward a younger, food centric demographic and knew Logan Square, located on the city’s northwest side between blue collar Humboldt Park and tony Lincoln Park, would attract a diverse customer mix.

Because Felts knows the challenges of running a retail establishment are well documented, he decided to include two revenue streams—a cheese shop and a restaurant—and combine the space and business model.

“This allows us to do fun and interesting things with cheese and be more interactive,” he says. “Younger people are intimidated by cheese, and we wanted to demystify it and make it more accessible and comforting.”

Felts has a long history in the food business. In the 70s and 80s, he worked for a chef who trained and sourced from the Bay area at Tomales Food. It was at Birmingham restaurant Hot & Hot Fish Club where Felts began working with cheese.

He then served as a Whole Foods specialty team leader, a training ground for cheesemongers, where he worked for a decade. While Felts moved through the chain’s ranks, he took cheese vacations to Vermont, Neal’s Yard in England, Boston and New York City. Felts began attending American Cheese Society (ACS) conferences in 2014, then trained to become one of the first of American Cheese Society’s Certified Cheese Professionals (CCP).

Building the Business

When customers enter Beautiful Rind’s light, bright space, the atmosphere is immediately both warm and inviting. This was part of Felts’ goal in creating the least intimidating cheese shop possible.

“It’s more like a coffeehouse in Copenhagen than a traditional cheese store,” he says.

Beautiful Rind’s open concept includes an L-shaped bar surrounded by eight tables in the main room.

“The first thing anyone does is go up to the cheese counter and start with a conversation of what cheese and experience they’re looking for, then we go off of that,” Felts says. “If the customer is looking for retail cheese, we help them at the counter; if they’re planning on dining in, we seat them at the table. Either way, a cheesemonger will work with them.”

Beautiful Rind’s cheese bar is interactive, and the front of house is only staffed with cheesemongers; the same people working the retail counter are making elegant cheeseboards and waiting on tables.

“It’s a good company culture around cheese and puts us out there as experts and authorities,” says Felts. “This format also has enabled us to do away with gratuities and tip models and pay our cheesemongers a higher wage.”

Beautiful Rind also has a classroom area that is currently being used as private dining space for groups of up to 10 people in accordance with COVID-19 occupancy limitation regulations.

“The eventual goal is to have classes a couple times a week and private cheese events,” says Felts. “So far, we’ve been doing a monthly four-part series of virtual classes by dropping off cheeseboards at people’s homes and having them sign up online; it has been a great source of revenue for us.”

Its selection tends to lean more toward domestic cheeses, although there are a fair number from Europe. From the diverse lineup, it’s evident that there is no geographical bias here.

“The main thing we’re looking for is if the cheese is delicious,” he says. “We ask ourselves if customers will be into it and if the cheese is something we can hang our hat on with our values.”

Felts says farmer sensibility is a key focus and one of the attributes that drew him to highlight Thurman, NY-based Nettle Meadows’ cheese line, one of Beautiful Rind’s most popular. The farm is home to over 100 sanctuary animals as well as an artisan cheese company.

“Once we can tell the story of those cheeses, people can pick them up to try and get them again,” he says. “Nettle Meadows is such a great organization and makes delicious cheese. It personifies what we’re trying to do.”

The Pandemic Pivot

Up until the end of June, Beautiful Rind was prohibited from having anyone in its store other than staff members. Although at press time Chicago allowed up to 25% capacity in restaurants, it is still not feasible for Felts to seat guests.

“The mandate limits our indoor seating to 12 people, but the reality is many of our customers are waiting things out and ordering our cheese plates to go,” he says. “Hopefully, virus numbers stay low and people get more comfortable dining out safely but now we have a great option that people are taking advantage of.”

Despite the limitations, Beautiful Rind’s retail and foodservice business has experienced growth.

Its cheese boards are far and away the most popular item on its menu. Felts equates the build-your-own concept to ordering sushi a la carte. Customers pick out the cheeses with help from the cheese­mongers, who take their preferences into consideration.

“About 90% of what we do in the shop involves cheeseboards, which we put together on site,” says Felts. “We also offer both an all cheese and all charcuterie board, in addition to one with just Midwest cheeses and another with a European selection.”

Board accompaniments range from pimento cheese to Peppadews and pickles to Marcona almonds.

Entrées are all cheese centric and include a bologna and brick sandwich with fried mortadella paired with Widmer’s brick cheese; grilled cheese and mac and cheese dishes featuring Midwest cheeses; a prosciutto and Taleggio sandwich; and raclette.

There have been challenges to contend with. For example, the pandemic did result in supply issues early on.

“In the first month or two of the pandemic, we ran into some issues getting the exact cheeses we wanted, but usually we were able to substitute with a similar cheese,” says Felts.

He ran into an issue with one virtual tasting class during American cheese month. The American series highlighted cheeses from the Midwest, East Coast, West Coast and South.

“We struggled to find great East Coast cheeses,” says Felts. “We ordered a couple but they didn’t show in time because the truck was delayed.”

After calling his Illinois-based distributor, C.E. Zuercher & Co., Felts found a flavored cheese as an option.

“I wasn’t really looking for a flavored variety, but I drove to a nearby suburb to pick it up so we could include it in the tasting,” he says. “It turned out that the cheese, Nettle Meadow’s Fig & Honey Fromage Frais, was everyone’s favorite. Now it’s a best seller and has a lot of devotees.”

Felts’ preferences lean towards the washed rinds and younger, softer cheeses.

“Stilton is one of my all-time favorites as well as Montgomery’s cheddar, which is a classic,” he says. “We just got in Ameribella from Indiana’s Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese, which is amazing.”

Felts echoes the view of many in the industry, which is that cheese professionals are undervalued and not properly compensated.

“Let’s look at how many CMI (Cheesemonger Invitational) competitors and winners are still in the cheese industry four or five years after competing,” he says. “These are the best mongers of our industry, and it’s hard to see them leave in the peak of their careers. The challenge of a living wage is real for everyone.”

Changing with the Times

In addition to changing up the cheesemonger model, Felts says another very conscious decision he made was deciding on Beautiful Rind’s main focus, which is to give people joy and knowledge centered around cheese.

To achieve this, he plans to continue the virtual classes and may keep this format after adding live audiences when the pandemic subsides.

“Our job as cheesemongers and shop owners is not to turn our nose up to those just discovering cheese or people who are newly visiting cheese shops,” he says. “We have a great story to tell, but we tend to make it intimidating. It’s just as great to be a Dr. Seuss as a Tolstoy, and we need more Dr. Seuss’.”

What he’s most looking forward to post COVID-19 is sampling cheese at his counter and having more customers dining in so they can experience Beautiful Rind’s culinary perspective up close and personal.

It’s the memories made from cheese that have a big impact. Rather than romantic versions of eating cheese on the banks of the Sienne in France, Felts fondly recalls more humble experiences, like blocks of cheddar and mac and cheese.

“I think it’s important that us cheese shop owners remember that these types of memories are the first cheese experience for many,” he says.

Another favorite personal memory was when he first started making cheese more of a career. Felts went to San Francisco’s Ferry Market to pick up food for a picnic at Muir Woods.

“While sitting there eating, I thought, what a great way to interface with customers and cheese, and that’s when everything started getting serious,” he says.

A more recent favorite memory occurred just a couple of weeks after Beautiful Rind opened its doors.

“A customer called us saying one of their friends lost their jobs due to COVID, and they wanted to send them a cheese board,” he says. “We put a great one together, included a nice note. A day later, the customer called us back saying the gift brought their friend to tears. They thought it was such a sweet gesture and a comfort.”

He says the focus in the industry is often on the customers and producers, but looking ahead, it’s important to take care of the cheesemongers. “We need to reconcile the amount of skill it takes to be a monger and the compensation to adjust to a model that works,” he says. “Right now, it’s not an economically sustainable option for them. I’m not sure if I have the answer, but I’m putting my model out there to see if it works and is sustainable.”

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