Photographs courtesy Fairfield & Greenwich Cheese Co.
Laura Downey is a certified cheese expert, but she doesn’t make a big stink about it. She says she and other “cheese-mongers” at her Fairfield & Greenwich Cheese Co. stores share their knowledge and aim to make customers feel comfortable.
“Historically, cheese shops can be a little bit stuffy,” Downey says. “People don’t want to go in them if the people behind the counter aren’t approachable.”
She says her staff is knowledgeable — not snobby — about the stores’ nearly 100 artisanal cheeses, about half from Europe and half from the U.S., the latter coming mainly from the Northeast.
The purchasing experience at her Greenwich and Fairfield shops is completely different than at supermarkets where shoppers and employees have little interaction. Larger stores slice a wheel of cheese, package it in plastic wrap and put it out on display, she says.
At her shops, customers can talk to the staff about the cheese and taste samples. Cheese is cut to order from a wheel at the counter and wrapped in flavor-protecting French cheese paper.
“It’s the old-fashioned way of shopping that has sort of been lost,” she says.
Downey, who has a background in retail, saw a need for a cheese shop when she moved from Boston to Fairfield. She had a love of fine food and cheese but decided she needed to become an expert.
She attended cheese boot camp at Murray’s Cheese in Greenwich Village, tasted cheese at any opportunity and read every cheese book she could find. A few years ago, she was in the first group of people to take the American Cheese Society’s exam and become a certified cheese professional. It’s the equivalent of a sommelier, she says.
In 2009 Downey and a partner opened the Fairfield Cheese Company. Later, a different partner, Chris Palumbo, stepped in. The two opened the Cos Cob location in December to generate enough income for both owners. Greenwich hadn’t had a cheese shop for about 25 years, she says, and residents are excited about the new one.
Downey says the stores stock only one of each type of cheese, so she curates the best. The smaller the farm it’s produced on and the more traditionally made, the better. She sells a selection of farmstead cheese made on farms that both milk their own cows and goats and make the cheese on the property.
“It’s like the farm has 45 goats,” Downey says, compared to commercial farms with thousands. “You just get a really delicious handcrafted product from it.”
Cheese complements like crackers, jams, and pickles are also sourced from small, local producers.
Downey says she sees customers are picking up on the natural food trend, too. Early on, most people came in to the cheese shops for special occasions. In the past couple of years, customers have been buying cheese to eat regularly or for cooking, she says.
“They know if they use a really tasty, well-made cheese, their dish is going to be better,” she says.
Business often slows down in the summer, Downey says, so the shops introduced picnic baskets with cheese, sliced meat and fruits and nuts, along with biodegradable plates and silverware, around Memorial Day weekend. The big size serves four and the small size serves two.
Downey and Palumbo also run a cheese school in both shops. Classes like “Cheese 101” and “Perfect Pairings” are popular for couples and groups of girlfriends and almost always sell out, she says. The classes allow customers to get to know the owners and the cheeses they sell.
“I think a lot of people are really intimidated by artisan cheese,” she says. “It’s just cheese. It’s supposed to be enjoyed and not stressed out over.”
The Fairfield shop is at 2090 Post Road. The Greenwich shop is at 154 E. Putnam Ave. For more, visit fairfieldcheese.com.