In the bizarre and expensive world of New York real estate, it seems counter-intuitive to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan in search of a bigger spot, but that's exactly what the Bedford Cheese Shop did. In July 2012, they opened a second—larger—location on Irving Place, in Gramercy.
This February, the original, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, will celebrate ten years in business. "We started in the Mini Mall [on Bedford Avenue], in a little nook next to Verve Coffee" explained General Manager Chris Hanawalt. "In 2005, it moved to its current location across the street, and then around 2011, we started focusing on opening a second store." The way Chris—who's been with the Bedford Cheese Shop since 2009—tells it, the move to Manhattan made sense.
"We did start by looking at places in Brooklyn, but then we found this spot on Irving. Irving Place is so neighborhood-y and pretty and people have been here forever. We wanted to carry over the neighborhood feel we have in Brooklyn, and we found that here."
The Bedford Cheese Shop, named for its first location on Bedford Avenue, was founded in 2003 by "two guys who were invested in the neighborhood. They just wanted to open up a little store, and it just grew and grew and grew. They don't have a background in cheese, but it was something they were into. And Williamsburg was like the Wild West then. You could do whatever you wanted."
Irving Place is a far cry from the Wild West days of early-aughts Williamsburg, but the Bedford Cheese Shop has found a good second home there. The larger location has allowed the shop to expand considerably. For starters, they have three aging caves on site ("It lets us do cool stuff and experiment!") and a back room, which they call the Homestead, where they host events and teach classes. "We're working on getting more visiting teachers from Belgium and France and other places," noted Chris. (One of their most popular classes? "Whiskey and cheese.")
More floor space means more cheese, of course. "Our cheese case [in Manhattan] is about fifteen feet long [the one in Williamsburg is a bit less than ten], and as you can see, most of the cheese is in the case. We rotate and reorganize twice a week, and that way you can see what's going on, and things don't get lost," explained Chris.
Taking care that things don't get lost is part of their expert cheese care, as is the way in which they stock said case. "Cheese is super seasonal," Chris gestured to the rounds of hard cheese sitting neatly on shelves behind the cheese case. "You have to take into consideration what the animals are eating, and how long it takes for the cheese to be ready. Now is that in between time when you'll get cheddars, alpines, the hard stuff. Then come February, all the goats and sheep have babies, so their milk becomes super rich, fatty, and creamy, and you'll get beautiful soft cheeses by the end of March."*
* This interview was conducted several weeks ago.
The thing that really sets the Bedford Cheese Shop apart, however, isn't just its selection—it's the relationships that lead to the selection. "We have really great relationships with producers and sources both domestically and in Europe, and thus we have a lot of cheeses you can't find other places," Chris noted. "We work with domestic partners directly as much as possible, because you can have more of a dialogue about the cheese and how it's doing, which is important.
"We do the same internationally as much as we can, too. For example, we have an awesome blue cheese from the Netherlands called 'Lady's Blue.' It's literally one person who makes it, and their goats. We have a good relationship with this cheese shop in the Netherlands, and we're the only people who carry in New York." (At present writing they're out of stock in Manhattan, but word on the street is you can pick some up on Bedford Avenue.)
"You know, a lot of people focus on local, which is super important, but you have to realize that there is a much broader food community that people don't always pay attention to, and we try to. A smaller farmer in the Alps is as important as someone in Red Hook." Chris smiled, somewhat apologetically. That's not to say they've abandoned the local obsession that grips some Brooklynites these days. The shop works with lots of local people, especially in its home neighborhood of Williamsburg. They obtain most of their mozzarella from Pecoraro on Leonard Street ("It's just a guy and his son in this factory behind the library") and carry bread from Napoli on Metropolitan.
"The main thing for us is that we focus on smaller producers, not just in cheese, but also meats and grocery products. We like to focus on people that need a chance." And if it's all too much, what with fifteen feet of cheese and another stretch of dried meats, there are about ten cheese mongers on staff at each location to walk you through their offerings.
I asked Chris which other of their many grocery offerings are his favorites. He paused, thoughtfully surveying the impressive range of goods. "If I had to choose three, right now...well Ritual Chocolate for one. And Sour Puss pickles—their produce is very high quality and they make awesome heirloom pickled peppers. And this pasta—Sfoglini. The malloreddus is my personal favorite. It's a Sardinian pasta colored with saffron, and they're like little dumplings, almost like gnocchi."
Some of the more interesting items you'll find tucked away on the neatly arranged shelves: Italian nutella and Italian Fanta, Brooklyn Butterscotch from Spoonable, Steen's 100% pure cane syrup, cheese bags, a large selection of European cookies, and cans of Gini, a lemony soft drink from France.
Chris laughed: "everyone is so into packaging now, that it's like being in an art space, almost!"