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.