There is an artisanal economy resurfacing.
Many entrepreneurs are eschewing big business and mass production in an exchange for a more focused, purposeful return to their craft. More importantly, consumers — millennials, especially — are demanding this shift. They want high-quality products that have integrity and offer full disclosure. And they are willing to pay more for them.
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After years of pushing automation, we are once again craving that emotional connection to the things we buy. So, from clothes to wine to food (and I’m not talking about Wendy’s Artisan Egg Sandwich), people want to hear the story behind the product: Where did it come from? Who got their hands dirty in the process?
Companies like Etsy and its 40 million unique monthly visitors are proof that handmade and heartfelt products can also make money. Retail behemoth Amazon would not have launched Handmade, its new online store that sells products from invite-only crafts people, if that weren’t true.
Artisanal Premium Cheese is hoping to not only capitalize on this movement but take it a step further. Artisanal’s management wants to take the products from its online business and offer them in eponymous cheese and wine cafés so that there is a face-to-face connection with their cheeses and their stories.
Artisans are passionate — maybe even obsessed.
Much like wine, well-made cheese is a labor of love. It has a story. It is made from artisans who pass on their tradition and dedication to the next generations.
“And it’s sensual and sexy on a plate,” says Terrance Brennan, renowned chef and restaurateur who is credited with bring the cheese course to family meals across America.
That’s what attracted Brennan to the cheese world. He spent years sharpening his culinary skills in Europe only to realize that every meal had a cheese course.
“When I had my first great Epoisse [a soft cow’s milk cheese], I realized what have I been missing all my life,” says Brennan, who grew up eating Kraft and Cheez Whiz.
So in 1993, when he opened Picholine, an award-winning restaurant in New York City, he offered a French-style cheese car so guests could select cheeses as part of their meal. It revolutionized fine dining and played a role in this restaurant having two Michelin stars for almost five years, which unfortunately is now closed.
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But Brennan wanted to do more to highlight the food he loved so much. In 2001, he opened Artisanal, a bistro-cheese-wine bar, and then in 2003, he launched the Artisanal Premium Cheese Center — a 10,000 square-foot facility dedicated to the selection and distribution of the world's finest artisanal cheeses.
“But my passion had become an obsession,” says Brennan who realized he wanted to focus more on his restaurants.
So in 2007, he sold the Cheese Center, along with its website, artisanalcheese.com, to current CEO Daniel Dowe. But even back then, Brennan and Dowe knew their customers would demand a face-to-face connection with their products.
So they are joining forces. Together, they plan to open wine and cheese cafés around the country to do just that.
And for even more validity, they brought in one of the foremost authorities on cheese, Steven Jenkins. He authored the book Cheese Primer which won him a James Beard Award, and he was nominated for the Julia Child Award of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Jenkins was most recently a senior vice president of Fairway Markets, and his mission there was to give small businesses representation in the marketplace.
“There are so many artisans in Europe that for generations have specialized in making products that are indigenous to their region,” says Jenkins, who now hopes to bring those products to the Artisanal cafés.
Tell your story — and tell it well.
Cheese has gotten a bad wrap recently, but good cheese — cheese that has been properly ripened and aged — actually has little to no lactose and less fat than you think.
Many will argue that it’s almost a complete protein, and there are plenty of scientific reasons to support it. But all that has to be part of the narrative. Customers want to know that the products they purchase are good for them, their families and our Earth.
Artisanal’s new management team realizes this — and that’s why they are opening these cafés. They want to tell their story in person.
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Maybe that’s the next step in this whole artisanal movement. Maybe emails and websites aren’t enough anymore. Maybe its time to bring back some human contact.
And what a better way to do that then at a café over some cheese and a glass of wine.
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