Why Manhattan Doesn’t Get It

Why Manhattan Doesn’t Get It?

Last Thursday night I taught a cheese and wine class pairing class at the 92nd St. Y, and it was wonderful in all the usual ways. The room was packed full with more than 30 people from a diverse range of ages. My collaborator, Beau Rapier, one of the managers at Uva Wines & Spirits, brought exceptional wines to match with the cheeses (the list is here), and the discussion was lively with thoughtful questions right from the outset. These classes typically run 90-105 minutes long but ours ran nearly two hours and fifteen minutes without anyone looking impatient or edgy. Afterward I was approached by a nice couple and asked, “so when will you open a store in this neighborhood.”

The question was cute and flattering. During my presentation. I had mentioned that my cheese background included managing the cheese departments in several Upper East Side shops that no longer exist (Petak’s, Canard and Company, and Neumann and Bogdonoff, most prominently); I now work weekends at Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn. The couple noticed on their program notes that the recommended retailers were almost entirely either in downtown Manhattan or in Brooklyn. Their neighborhood is one of the richest in the world, and yet there were no retailers selling the cheeses that found such a receptive audience that evening. To them, it spelled opportunity.

I fended off their questions politely citing my desire to keep freelance writing at the forefront of my career and by pointing the sheer amount of effort and money it would take to open such a shop. They persisted, and I kept smiling. I was spared telling them the real answer: a boutique specializing in hand crafted cheese on either the Upper East or Upper West Side would fail and fail miserably. It’s because that part of Manhattan doesn’t grasp the new dynamic of the culinary world at least not at the retail level.

On face value, that seems like a ludicrous statement. Manhattan in general– and let’s face it when people say Manhattan they don’t typically mean the East Village or Harlem, they mean The Financial District, Midtown, the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, essentially the city circa 1985—is by reputation on the cutting edge of all things that have an edge to cut. Yet go shopping for Rogue River Blue, a stunning, award-winning blue cheese from Oregon that is wrapped in leaves that have been macerated in a pear brandy, and you may come up empty. It isn’t carried at Zabar’s, Fairway, Citerella or Gourmet Garage. You will likely have the same experience with Red Hawk, the extraordinary washed rind cheese from Cowgirl Creamery in California, or Fricalin, the malty alpine cheese from Switzerland. It isn’t as if these cheeses are hard to come by at a distributor level, it’s that the key retailers don’t think they can sell them to their customers. And they are probably right.

What’s surprising to me about this is that 25 years ago, the Upper West Side was the capital of new and exciting cheese. My cheesemonger pals and I made special trips to Fairway just to see what new goodies Steve Jenkins, the legendary cheese manager and author of The Cheese Primer, had found and how he merchandised them. What has happened since then isn’t an unusual phenomenon. Fairway and the neighborhood around it didn’t change; the rest of the food world did. Although high end cheese is still very much a luxury product, it has become part of the farm-to-table movement embracing issues of sustainability (and small production cheesemaking is most of the most elegant and efficient ecosystems imaginable). Contemporary hand crafted cheese has found a comfortable niche within this movement and the new growth in this rapidly expanding field has come from that alliance. Selling food as a luxury item entails that highlighting that’s its cool and its better than what you grew up on. You don’t need Red Hawk and Rogue River Blue for that, Blue Castello and St. Andre will accomplish the same task, and at a lower price than the newer market entries, retailers can persuade their shoppers that they are getting value.

The issue is that it’s not just cheese that has bypassed the main of Manhattan for points downtown and in Brooklyn. The new world of coffee, and to a lesser extent, beer have also skipped these areas, and for similar reasons. Check out the NY Times map of the city’s top coffee outlets; there are four spots north of Grand Central; there are half-mile stretches south of 14th St. and in Brooklyn with more outlets than the city’s toniest areas.

The new cutting edge of the food movement is premised on sustainability and farm-to-table relationships. To many people these are still Birkenstock issues. How do you make that fashionable to a Jimmy Choo crowd?

If I knew the answer, I would have asked my nice couple on Thursday night if they knew of some investors.

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About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at thejoyofcheese.blogspot.com. In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and www.theroot.com. I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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3 Responses to Why Manhattan Doesn’t Get It

  1. Gordon Edgar says:

    Interesting piece. I don’t know NY well enough to really comment, but it’s interesting that new American cheese hasn’t achieved status symbol level amongst those Upper West Side folks. I can definitely say that — while I absolutely agree with your analysis about the sustainability issue crowd — here, having the most obscure new American cheese has its followers well outside the farm-to-table movement.

    The pricing of cheese in NY is very different from the rest of the US though. Partly it’s the proximity to Europe, but in general NY markets seem to work on much lower margins. That Rogue River Blue is going to seem extra high in comparison when you can buy Roquefort for $15/lb

  2. Charles Passy says:

    Fascinating dissection of how the NYC culinary world has changed over the last 25 years. It is particularly interesting for me since I left the city in 1992 and returned in 2010 — so in my mind Brooklyn as a food Mecca didn’t really exist. But with each passing week, it’s so obvious to see what others have said — it is now one of the great citadels of Slow Food, locavore-ism, artisanal food, whatever you want to call it. I suppose the Lower East Side and Chelsea (where I live) also have elements of that — or at least of quality on a small-shop/producer scale. (And the LES does seem to be the mixology capital of the world.)

    Which is all well and good except that it’s also so, well, precious. There’s a great scene in an episode from Bored to Death where a Brooklyn chef is opening her restaurant and brining out a suckling pig (hand-raised on a meadow in upstate NY, no doubt) and extolling the virtues of this and that when a couple of local ruffians come by and throw a rock through the window. Sometimes, I wish I had a rock in hand, too.

    On the other hand, a few weeks ago I hit Zabar’s on a Saturday and it was just so damn infectious. Yup, there wasn’t probably the same cheese selection, but there was still plenty of cheese (and hey, the prices on some sale items were incredible). And the guys at the smoked fish counter still can slice lox thinner than just about any deli man I’ve ever seen. Say what you will, but the Brooklyn food movement is more like the twee-food movement at time. I want a New York with a honest-to-goodness appetite. But maybe I’m just being nostalgic.

    That said, I can’t believe some of these old NYC haunts won’t stock certain artisan products over time. Just as you can know get a good selection of craft beer at even your neighborhood bodega. Give it time, I say.

  3. jmartin437 says:

    Thanks Gordon and Charles,
    Gordon, it’s more a marketing and priority issue when it comes to food in the main of Manhattan. The interesting constrast is L.A. As I understand it, the two major cheese shops are in Silverlake, a neighborhood somewhat similar to Bedford Cheese Shop’s Williamsburg, and in Beverly Hills, the UES of L.A.
    I’ve often told people that you make more $$ longterm selling pre-wrapped pieces of middlebrow cheese than cut to order pieces of high end cheese, and Manhattan real estate values dictate that direction.
    Charles,
    It’s happened at times. Hoch Ybrig was carried at Zabar’s. Guffanti Fontina Val D’Aosta at Fairway. But it’s a dalliance, not a commitment. The original question was could a Bedford Cheese Shop survive on the UES. Right now it can’t.
    You can find craft beer widely distributed but most of it is as undrinkable as Bud. When will Local One be widely available?
    What I think will happen is that there will be a trickle up/trickle down effect. The Good Beer/Stumptown/Bedford Cheese Shop and their ilk will find niches in places like Harlem and Hell’s Kitchen and from there infiltrate the UWS. And once they’re on the West Side, the East Side will follow.
    I understand that some of this movement can be precious, but I’d love to hear what you found so objectionable about Bedford Cheese, Stinky, Meat Hook, or Marlowe and Daughters.

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