Monthly Archives: July 2009

To keep you happy…

I am finishing up the final edits for my book this week (yes, March 2010 is still the tentative release date) and going to Austin for the annual American Cheese Society Conference on Monday, so it’s probably only links and short entries for the next couple of weeks. I don’t do the liveblogging thing…

Anyways, here is a video from the emergency dairy farmer protest last week in Wisconsin. Spending the 9 minutes watching this will be much more educational than reading my petty little cheese rants.


Depressing dairy links

It’s not good news for dairy farmers these days, whether they are organic or non-organic. In discussing cheese, the dairy farmers (if they are not also cheesemakers) often get left out of the discussion. Here are some links that will depress you:

3rd generation farmer on 150-year-old dairy farm forced to sell cows for slaughter

Organic family farms dump milk to protest consolidation by Big-Ag Organic dairies

Plunging prices wallop dairy farmers

Looks like Foster Farms will end up buying the Humboldt Creamery which had been 75% owned by farmers before the CEO embezzled the money away. Mind you, it’s good news that someone is buying it.
(We buy Rumiano cheese for our Jack, mild Cheddar, Pepper Jack and many other miscellaneous basic cheeses. We were lucky to have them be an early adopter of rBGH-free cheese and thus able to carry rBGH-free “people’s cheese” at a relatively low price. You can see in that last article that the Humboldt Creamery owes them over $1 million.)

I go to trade shows so you don’t have to

I went to a trade show yesterday at the Arco Arena.This was the kind of trade show that a lot of pretentious foodie folks would look down on – perhaps even going as far as questioning my credentials as a serious cheese person because I even went myself. I mean, let’s face it… if one is welcomed to a trade show (at the home of an NBA team!) by the (not) Foster Farms chickens, one can reasonably assume that the focus is not on small, family farm cheeses.

foster farms  chickens

Let me pause for a moment and mention that Sac was over 100 degrees yesterday. The Arco Arena — built for tens of thousands – has a large parking lot. So large, that they employ people to drive golf carts around the lot carrying cold water in case someone gets heat stroke on their way to and from the arena. I had a bag of ice in a cooler in the back of my car (as I almost always do) and I rubbed about half the bag on my head before I drove home.

For the simple reason that trade shows have to have a theme , this show (sponsored by one large distributor) had a pirate theme. I am bad at trade shows. I never play by the rules that are set up. I think I was supposed to collect dubloons at every table then turn them in to win prizes at the end, but no way was I going to go to schmooze at every Cowshwitz-supporting, cheap lunch meat booth just to get a chance to win a cruise to Disneyland. That is the definition of a lose-lose situation.

Luckily the fancy cheese was segregated to a little area on the basketball floor. Once I made my way down there I started to run into folks from our little cheese community. It really is a small world once you’ve been involved for a decade and a half. The people working the tables were mostly brokers and sales reps – I think that the only actual producers I talked to were Sadie Kendall and Franklin Peluso — but we had things to discuss and deals to make. And just life to catch up on. I do like seeing these folks every few months. I got to see new baby pics, discuss the health of a dear friend, and help connect job seekers and employers. As well as tasting cheese and setting up a few pre-orders and demos.

Check out the pageantry:
the pageantry

The economy sure has taken its toll on producers making new products it seems. Even though the event included the opportunity to pre-order and lock in prices through the holiday season, there was almost nothing I hadn’t already been offered. That’s certainly not necessarily a bad thing – the cheese god knows we don’t need anymore cheese-with-stuff-in-it – but it was noteworthy since companies usually use shows like this to launch their new products.

The only other thing of note was that the Beemster cow now seems to be an ubiquitous trade show presence. The cheese ad campaign still seems largely to be a Dutch thing but who knows where it will lead. I blame you Uniekaas! You had to market Parrano under the slogans: “The Dutch cheese that thinks it’s Italian”, “Sort of Italian”, and “Move over Parmesan”. Beemster one-upped you with an inflatable cow. Whatcha gonna do about it? I suggest a giant Parrano robot.

By the way, does the Beemster cow have a name? I keep thinking it should be “Babe” like Paul Bunyan’s buddy, the Big Blue Ox.
beemster cow

Co-op Development

I start a course in co-op development today: “From Workers to Owners: Steps to Start Worker Cooperatives”. It’s part the economy and part the recent press our store has gotten, but we are getting calls or emails multiple times a week from people wanting to start co-ops. In addition to the cheese buying, one of my jobs is to field those calls. It’s an online course – and not a free one — and I heard that 83 people are signed up.

I don’t want to out anyone before they are ready so I won’t name any places or details, but I talked to two incredibly different groups last week. One group of African Americans from an urban area in another state who want to do something – anything – that will help provide jobs and better health in their community. They were information gathering in general, without a specific plan of the type of model they wanted.

The other was an API ethnic group with a very specific idea of taking an existing, successful franchise model and converting it into a worker-owned version of the same thing. I don’t know that business model well, but they seemed pretty sure they could make it work.

It’s almost unfair to have people come for a tour and answer questions about our modes of operation since our blueprint for success is uncopyable. They see the result of nearly 35 years of work, starting in a totally different economy and era, with the good luck to be starting in an industry that – at that time – wasn’t an industry. I think there could be a blueprint. (The Cheeseboard/Arizmendi model is certainly a very good one) We just haven’t figured it out yet.

Historically-speaking I also speak to about 25 groups for every one that actually starts a co-op. I hope that this course – and two other Rainbow workers are taking it as well — helps provide some groundwork to increase that ratio.

It’s hard to resist these deals

I don’t know how I got on this dairy email list but in the last couple of weeks I’ve been offered not only a chance to buy stainless steel, fully jacketed, silos, but also a full-on effluent plant.

Info below if you are interested:




Holiday work and the Brie/Camembert conundrum

Working on holidays is always weird. Before we started closing for Pride (what… a decade ago?), we had a policy that anyone who wanted to take the holiday could, and that departments were responsible to fill the shifts. But it didn’t matter much. The store was tumbleweed city because of both revelers and traffic jams filling the streets.

Pink Saturday is bad enough. Once the Dyke March starts there are only a few shoppers. In fact, the vibe in the store is a lonely one. Not only is it like our store feels like its been transported into a world without GLBTQ folks – both as workers and shoppers – but there’s also a feeling in the air. It’s like the one you get when there’s a really fun party going on next door, but your neighbors didn’t invite you.

The Fourth of July is a little different. First off, it’s not nearly as big a holiday in SF as Pride. And there are definitely shoppers proudly not celebrating the 4th of July as an act of political principle. A trip to the worker-owned grocery store is a perfect way to celebrate not celebrating!

It was slow this year, after a mid day rush, but many of the folks shopping were interestingly theoretical. With one customer I got into a nice long discussion about antibiotic use on dairy cows and how little interesting organic cheese is available. With another – a shopper since before I was a worker — we discussed the differences between the old store and the “new” one.”* With a third I discussed whether the world would end due to Incan Calendar Fail or merely as Nostradamus prophesized. The last one I didn’t actually discuss, mind you. I just stupidly asked a clarifying question about a button he was wearing and then had to wait out the word storm. It was like a summer shower except that I felt dirtier after it was over.

There was still a little holiday aggro though. One customer came up asking for a mini wheel of goat Brie they had bought before. We generally have three soft-ripened, small goat wheels at any given time: The Redwood Hill Camellia, the Sevre Et Belle Chevre du Poitou and the Woolwich Triple Cream Goat Brie. However, as long time readers here probably know, when customers ask for “Brie”, trouble can arise.

All over the internet people ask “What’s the difference between Brie and Camembert?” The problem is that there are different answers depending on where you are. In France, there are name-controlled versions with strict specifications and some differences between the two. In the US, just throw that out, especially if you are talking about a “goat brie” which has no name-control anywhere, anyway. Even if a few producers may cling to the use of a specific mold or culture as proof that their cheese should really get to use one of the names, it’s only a partial truth and most producers don’t even go that far. In the end, if they use “Brie” or “Camembert” it’s usually just about marketing.**

This is why such an innocent question from a customer can be a loaded question to a cheesemonger. With our July 4 customer, we determined that she was looking for the Woolwich which was out of stock. I suggested the Sevre et Belle which is a little less fatty and a touch stronger. She picked it up and seemed satisfied.

My co-worker and I went back to wrapping up some Beemster Graskaas and talking amongst ourselves. The customer just stood there. After a minute she said, “This is a Camembert, not a Brie!”

I started to try and give the explanation I just wrote above, but I only got as far as, “There is not really any difference…” before she stopped me.

“I DON’T HAVE TO BUY THIS!” she yelled and threw down the cheese. Before either of us behind the counter could think of anything to say, she stomped away to the produce section.

I have to say, this threw me. I asked my co-worker, “Was there something in my tone? Did I say something wrong?” but she was just as mystified. I’m sure the customer had a different perception, but neither of us could figure out what it was. “Should I go talk to her?”

“No, she’s steaming mad.”

But that’s what retail is like sometimes. You can never be sure what people are reacting to and what will set them off, and often it has nothing to do with you. Sometimes though it’s just a mistake that you don’t even hear yourself saying, like the time another worker had to go get a cheese from the walk-in, clear off some counter space (because it was a busy day of production), and then cut a large piece of cheese for a customer. He knew it would take a couple of minutes so he wanted to suggest they walk around the store and do some of their other shopping.

Instead, what he ended up saying was, “Why don’t you just take a walk?” Oops. At least I had a co-worker there to assure me that I hadn’t said something like that.

*Now more than 13 years old maybe we should stop calling it the “new store”. That’s longer than we spent in either of the two earlier locations. Nine years on 16th St. , Twelve years on Mission.
**The other exception to this is that, in this country, butterfat content is often the determining factor in the name. If the producer does not add extra cream (so it remains around 45% butterfat), they’ll call it a Camembert, if they do (a double or triple cream 60-75% butterfat) they’ll call it a Brie. I have not yet seen a “double cream Camembert” but I’m sure I will someday.

Nap time.

Since I was uploading old cheese pics, I couldn’t resist this one. I can’t remember who took it, but it’s me napping on a comfy pallet of 40 # cheddars in the walk-in cooler. This is why you never see me at the Eagle on Thursday nights anymore. I can’t do that Friday receiving shift with that little sleep in my old age.

This is from 2001 or so:

sleeping on pallet