It was a calculated risk opening up a gourmet cheese shop in Uptown New Orleans soon after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, but it was one that Danielle Sutton and her husband Richard were willing to take.
The couple fell in love with the city and each other while attending Tulane University. So it’s no coincidence that their flagship St. James Cheese location opened in the same Uptown neighborhood as the pair’s alma mater.
“We accidentally got into cheese, but we were always interested in it,” says Danielle.
Still, the path to becoming cheese shop/restaurant owners was not cut and dried.
Danielle, who’s initially from northern Florida, graduated with a degree in political science and worked in public relations out of college; Richard, who grew up in Wilmington, DE, was an economics major and began a banking career after graduation. The couple married in 1998.
While living in Philadelphia for three years, and becoming enamored of the local cheese shops, the Suttons took a trip to France, which Danielle says, “Opened the world of cheese to us. We became interested and starting trying new things.”
The Road to Discovery
But it wasn’t until 2001, when Danielle became a British citizen (her father is British), that the couple moved to London and their lives took a prophetic turn.
“During the post 9/11 recession, we couldn’t find jobs in our professions, so to fill in the gap, we worked at Paxton & Whitfield (a centuries-old cheese-centric specialty foods retailer) in London and fell in love with it,” says Danielle. “That’s when we decided this is what we want to do.”
The Suttons then went about learning as much about the business as they could by visiting cheesemakers and importers, totally immersing themselves into their new world.
Their plan was to move back to New Orleans, a city they knew didn’t have any cheese shops and one that welcomes small, independent businesses. The plan was to open their first location in the Uptown neighborhood, but then Katrina hit.
“I was pregnant with my son, and we were planning on moving back here from London, then the massive hurricane hit, and it looked like the city was destroyed,” says Danielle.
They briefly considered a move back to Philly, but the cost of real estate and potential competition from the slew of cheese shops in that city quickly dissuaded them.
“We decided to check out New Orleans. We ended up staying with friends, and it turned out they lived right across the street from what became our first location in Uptown,” says Danielle. “We saw the empty store front, I ended up randomly running into the space’s owner on the street, and then it all fell into place. It was really serendipity that we stumbled upon it.”
Some might say it was fate not only that Sutton was in the right place at the right time, but also that Uptown came back relatively quickly from Katrina without significant damage or flooding.
Fortunately for the Suttons, the city’s residents were literally hungry for new businesses to open at that time. It also helped that this is a city resistant to the encroachment of big box stores. In fact, walking around town, one would be hard-pressed to find a Target or Starbucks, staples in most urban areas.
“Here, people like small, local businesses, and they don’t mind going to three different stores for three things,” says Danielle. “New Orleans has got a bit of old fashioned sensibility for shopping. People here like to browse and talk to those working the counters for 20 minutes; it’s just a slower, more leisurely pace.”
Louisiana folks also appreciate great food, which is evident to anyone who visits New Orleans.
“The city’s appreciation for well-crafted food seemed like a great fit for us,” says Danielle. “And it also didn’t hurt that there wasn’t a dedicated cheese shop here at the time we were looking to open.”
The residential area soon provided St. James Cheese with a steady following that encouraged the couple to open a second location in the city.
“We had been thinking of opening a second St. James location for a while, but just opened a little over three years ago,” she says. “We wanted the location to be downtown to draw from business clientele and, at the same time, not compete with our first store location.”
Because downtown New Orleans was experiencing a boom in development, the second site took a bit longer to find.
“We were actually approached by the landlord about a spot we were interested in that is very quintessential New Orleans with beautiful brick walls,” says Danielle. “And it was in an area of downtown that doesn’t have many eateries.
Uptown vs. Downtown
The two locations definitely have different vibes. St. James Cheese’s Uptown shop is 1,600 square feet with seating for 24. The patio and balcony seat an additional 24. The 2,300-square-foot downtown site seats 30 inside and eight outside.
“The Uptown location has a larger cheese selection than downtown,” says Danielle. “That’s where we run our wholesale business, while downtown has a more curated cheese selection.”
The initial plan when its first location opened was to have a cheese shop that offered a cheese board and a couple of sandwiches. But as the demand for restaurant items grew, so did St. James Cheese’s menu.
“We soon had to buy more foodservice equipment as the lunch demand increased, and now meals are a big part of our business,” says Danielle.
While she describes the Uptown kitchen as more cobbled together and something that would’ve been planned differently had their needs been anticipated, the downtown space was completely renovated to contain a full commercial kitchen.
“We learned what we needed through our Uptown shop,” she says.
Of course, the menu is built around the shop’s cheeses. One of the most popular staples is the Hook’s Sandwich, which includes white Wisconsin Cheddar with house-smoked turkey, fresh basil, tomato, mayo and avocado on ciabatta bread. Its versions of grilled cheese incorporate a choice of Gruyère, Hook’s Cheddar or Mozzarella. St. James Cheese’s salads include Parmesan Reggiano salad with mixed greens, American salami, black olives, grilled artichoke hearts, walnuts, Parmigiano Reggiano and Dijon vinaigrette dressing as well as Manchego salad with Manchego cheese, arugula, sliced pears and almonds with house-made quince vinaigrette. There also are a variety of specials each day.
“We encourage our chefs to be creative with our great cheeses, charcuterie and other elements,” says Danielle. “We give them a lot of creative license to try new things, which our customers love.”
St. James Cheese also just relaunched its catering menu, which, like its store menus, has expanded over the years. In addition to cheese and charcuterie platters and sandwich platters, it features cheese wedding cakes.
“People can come in and buy cheese and decorate it, or we’ll go out and decorate the cake of cheese at their wedding site with a cheesemonger on hand to talk to guests about the cheese,” she says.
Like the sizes, the ambiance in both shops also is completely different. While Uptown is smaller, more intimate and feels like a cheese shop with the large cheese cases taking up a big amount of space, what Danielle likens to a NOLA cottage, the downtown location is more akin to a big, open and modern restaurant typical of any big city.
What adds to St. James Cheese’s allure is its enthusiastic cheesemongers, who are excited to learn and sell their wares.
“Our staff tries to make the customer experience as interactive as possible,” says Danielle. “They’re always trying something new to make it not intimidating for newbies to learn and try new things. It’s a fun environment!”
With Americans’ and Louisianan’s obvious obsession with specialty cheese, the Suttons definitely feel like they came to the table at the right time.
“The American cheese industry has exploded since we moved back from England,” says Danielle. “I couldn’t believe how many great U.S. cheeses there were even 13 years ago. Now we’re hearing about new ones every week.”
She adds that St. James Cheese works hard to feature as many great American cheesemakers as possible, in particular cheesemakers from the southern U.S., and describes the process as organic.
“There are a few big shows, like ACS’ (American Cheese Society) in the summer, which is a great place to meet cheesemakers and try new things,” says Danielle.
They also work with a variety of distributors to bring in cheeses from Europe. St. James Cheese even has a partner in Paris that works with French cheesemakers.
“We also work with importers for alpine cheeses, including Swiss and German cheese varieties, and a good number of people visit us with their products,” she says. “We’re lucky there are a big variety of places to get what we want or help us discover new things.”
Currently, its cheesemongers have noted that Wabash Cannonball has been a big hit. Both of the shops also sell a lot of triple crème cheeses.
“Garrotxa from Spain and Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery have been big sellers, and we’ve been getting fantastic American goat cheeses like Capriole from Indiana and those from Vermont Creamery,” says Danielle. “We also have some Swiss cheeses you don’t see a lot, like Chällerhocker and Alp Blossom. Then Cheddars are always popular, like Montgomery’s English Cheddar, as are aged Goudas, which fly off the shelves.”
To provide its customers with tasting and pairing opportunities, St. James Cheese holds monthly classes with different themes. For example, it recently held a beer and cheese pairing class. There also are weekly happy hours at the downtown shop. Called Friday Night Flights, this event pairs three of the shop’s cheeses with a local microbrew, which changes monthly.
A Learning Experience
Danielle admits she and Richard have definitely been schooled in opening and running a cheese shop, especially contending with the challenging conditions in their beloved NOLA.
“We’ve learned the hard way how to prepare a cheese shop for a hurricane when we had to evacuate during Ida in 2009,” she says. “It was our first time, and we lost a lot of product. Thankfully, there wasn’t a lot of damage, but we lost power and had to close for two weeks. We found out a lot about insurance and the backup systems that we needed.”
And although the initial plan didn’t include running a full-scale restaurant, Danielle admits this aspect of the business has been beneficial in cultivating her cheese shops’ selections.
The Sutton’s cheese offerings aren’t the only aspect of the business that has grown; St. James Cheese’s wholesale business has increased substantially throughout the years, as more and more restaurants continue opening in the city.
“We work with a lot of local New Orleans chefs as well as big restaurant groups and independent restaurants,” she says. “In the process, we try not to cater to a one-size-fits-all scenario, as some people are looking for a couple pounds of cheese a week, while others may purchase a wheel of Parmesan a week.”
Danielle says her 17 years in the cheese business has been a fun journey and one where she learns new things every day.
“We’re always tasting new things, meeting new people and getting a new generation of people working here to learn about cheese,” she says. “The industry has grown so much in the U.S. since we opened, and it has been a fun evolution to see more people getting excited about great cheese.”