Portland, Maine’s The Cheese Iron has successfully adapted to different business climates.
Since Vince Maniaci and his wife Jill Dutton became familiar with the specialty cheese world in the 90s, they knew that someday they would head out on their own journey as cheese shop owners.
“My wife Jill and I always knew this is where we wanted to go with our careers,” Maniaci says.
But it was at Formaggio Kitchen’s satellite store in Nantucket back in 1997 where the couple first met.
“We both knew we had to learn all we could and see what we’re worth before venturing off on our own,” Maniaci says.
Although Dutton did not have experience working with cheese prior to the couple opening The Cheese Iron in 2006, she brought her skills in marketing and media that were necessary to open the business.
“With a Masters in Fine Arts in photography and related media, Jill still runs all the content for the business. She’s amazing!” Maniaci says.
A Storied Beginning
The couple began looking for the perfect spot a year prior to opening their store and chose Scarborough, ME, outside of Portland, as it was an emerging city.
“There weren’t a lot of cheese shops in Portland then, which sometimes can be a double-edged sword, because it may be too soon for a cheese shop or someone hadn’t taken the plunge,” Maniaci says. “At the time, there were great little cheese stores in town but we wanted to do something different.”
After finding an amazing spot—a big barn with pine floors and walls and large windows—the couple knew they had found the perfect home for their business.
“We jumped on it,” Maniaci recalls. “It was 1,200 square feet and worked out perfectly.”
The shop is small enough that it can be run with minimal staff but provides enough space to accommodate a wide range of cheese varieties.
“We can bring in what we love,” Maniaci says. “We have just two cases—one for cheese and one for charcuterie—with extra space to grow,” Maniaci says. “That’s what 1,200 square feet gave us.”
The Cheese Iron and its owners have been embraced not just by their community, but also by the industry that they love.
“Within this industry you meet heartwarming, wonderful people, from cheesemakers to mongers to retailers, everyone is so supportive, even in neighboring cheese shops; it is such a community,” he says.
Since opening the store, the couple admits they are still learning, but have found their niche in their jobs and become more specialized.
“We opened up the store together, and Jill is really flourishing getting her cheese mongering skills down,” Maniaci says. “What’s great about working together is our duties are defined; Jill orders pantry items and wine and I do charcuterie and cheese. There is some overlap but for us that’s how our dynamic has worked for 16 years. Jill’s skills as a cheesemonger and knowledge were always good but when we opened the store, it got even better.”
Different Business Facets
When the couple wrote their business plan while still at Formaggio Kitchen, they knew that selling cheese alone wouldn’t cut it.
“We knew, going into the business, we had to have prepared foods and accoutrements like wine,” Maniaci says.
Over the course of the last decade and a half plus, The Cheese Iron’s floorplan and offerings have been embellished to where the store is “stuffed to the gills”.
“I was recently telling our store manager that I was so happy to get to the point where we can stuff the store and everything sells; that’s been great,” Maniaci says.
Also, after a few years, there came a rhythm where the flow of the business became more evident. Store manager Libby Shepard has been instrumental in helping run the business.
“For example, there are certain times of the year where cheese is 40% of our business, wine is another 40% and everything else is 20%,” Maniaci says. “When it slows down during our leaner times just after the holidays, prepared foods becomes 40-60% of the business. It took us awhile to get this rhythm down but we see it now, and we know what to expect.”
This allows preplanning to order up on bread and meats for sandwiches, which makes it easier than it was in the early years of the business.
Challenges Along the Way
With The Cheese Iron opening just prior to the Great Recession, there were some difficult times early on.
“After opening in 2006, the market crashed, and we hung on by our fingertips in 2009,” Maniaci recalls. “We scrambled, were super creative, did more prepared foods. Cheese was good but wasn’t great, and we knew we were a luxury store.”
To weather this storm, the couple stuck to their business plan until things began turning around in 2011.
“We realized this clearly worked, so let’s not change anything but instead add things we needed,” Maniaci says.
The Cheese Iron added freezers for ice cream, more refrigeration to expand its cheese offerings and focused on its cheese ripening program that was part of the business plan from day one.
“When we first opened, we carved out the core of our store to build a cheese ripening cave,” Maniaci says. “We wanted to bring in green cheeses from local producers and ripen them, and we’ve been doing that from the beginning. We want cheesemakers to know we’ll treat their cheeses as they should be treated.”
Because The Cheese Iron doesn’t have a ton of excess cooler space or even a walk-in cooler, cheese from the cave goes right out on the sales floor. This ensures high turns on its cheese. The cave, which has windows and is visible for customers to observe, creates theater and a connection for cheese lovers.
“If you’re not touching cheeses daily, and it goes into the cooler not to be seen, it’ll die,” Maniaci says. “So, we make sure customers can visibly see all the cheeses in our cheese case, which has windows and is out on the floor.”
This is where the staples, including Goudas, Comtes, Parmigiano Reggiano, local Maine cheeses and Spanish varieties, are on display.
“We worked with local dairies, carved out a spot for Maine cheeses and have big love for Manchego, with one of our restaurant clients buying five cases of Spanish cheeses at one time,” Maniaci says “We also sell a lot of raclette.”
Although The Cheese Iron’s offerings have stayed the same, the store has modified its business model following the pandemic.
“Like many stores, we were short staffed, which impacts our daily operations,” Maniaci says.
As a result, the store modified its prepared foods, even curtailing its catering menu during the summer of 2020 when its food offerings were temporarily stymied.
“Now, for catering, we only offer cheese and charcuterie platters, since we had to streamline our offerings,” Maniaci explains. “Now we have a menu we can do well, rather than a more extensive offering that stressed everyone out. Streamlining was a great opportunity for us to take a step back and realize what we can do and be as retailers.”
The Cheese Iron’s COVID silver lining was not to hyper focus on sales but do what it does best.
“We don’t have shareholders or pressure to show profit over last year, so let’s work for a living and have fun doing it, not drive ourselves crazy with numbers,” Mariaci says. “We decided to concentrate on cheese and product that was life changing.”
With less employees, the shop curtailed its hours to Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and won’t go back when the pandemic is history.
“COVID has given us the opportunity to love the retail environment rather than just loving the business model and making money,” Mariaci explains.
Today, The Cheese Iron’s streamlined offerings include 12 sandwiches as opposed to the 25-30 it initially offered.
“On a regular day, we sell as many as 200 sandwiches,” Mariaci says. “It’s amazing that these are such a draw, and we joke around that we’re the Sandwich Iron; it’s what brings customers in to buy everything else.”
In terms of what sells best, it’s the Cuban, along with a burrata, prosciutto and arugula sandwich. The Della Mortadella is popular, as well.
Meatballs are made with product from a local farm, bread is from an area baker and tomatoes also are grown in the region.
“Today, we made brisket and couscous with cardamom and honey-roasted carrots,” Mariaci says. “We have a flank steak salad, roasted onions and potatoes and offer frozen dinners to go.”
Although The Cheese Iron has no seating, there are bistro seats outside for the summer months.
“We decided that the grab-and-go model was better for us,” Mariaci explains. “We can bring in more product, deliver sandwiches and cater meals for companies. People are happy to come in and pick up.”
He admits adopting curbside service during COVID was a learning experience.
“It’s really hard to romance someone over the phone about the product when they want to come inside; every call was a 10-minute conversation, and we had to gather goods, so it was challenging,” Mariaci says. “It was nice to go back to walk-in service but good to know we could pivot back to curbside if need be.”
The couple currently has no plans to expand its stores or business, but there are always new ventures within its current operations.
“We will expand our basket program,” Mariaci says. “During the pandemic that was a great way for people to purchase our items online. We learned one thing and that was the power of online commerce, where we posted baskets and platters and gave customers a format to purchase online. It was easy to get into that rhythm.”
The couple also prides themselves on being employee-focused.
“For years, we have made employee health a core value,” Mariaci says. “It has been our responsibility as employers to give them 100% paid health/mental health insurance. We feel lucky that we have been in a position to do this for them.”
He said there is consideration to expand into more products moving forward. “I do know we need more cheesemongers in this world,” Mariaci says. “We want to make sure it is not a dying breed, because this is a noble profession. The more people we get into the business, the more we keep these mom-and-pop shops thriving.”