A few months ago, a friend told me that I should check out Cheese & Crackers, a new cheese store in town. When I learned that it was in the strip mall by Kirby and Mattis, I shrugged it off, as that's not an area I typically frequent (except for Panera).
A week or two ago, though, I thought, "What the hell," and stopped in to grab some Gruyere. I figured that since they're a specialty cheese store, they'd have to have it. After trying four cheeses, two meats, and a sample of the chocolate, I left the store with seven different cheese selections and a much lower bill than I was expecting.
The next day, I met owner Bart Basi for an interview, and learned that this store, which has been around for approximately five months, came about from what he describes as, "a variety of conspiring events."
Having lived with his family in this town for so much of his life, Basi and his wife watched the changing of Euromart to the Bombay Indian Bazaar, and mourned for the loss of the specialty cheeses and meats that they had always gotten at Euromart. While Basi enjoys the new store, his family had been frequent shoppers at Euromart, and weren't able to get the same selection due to the new direction that Bombay Indian Bazaar had taken. While talking to Ty Southerd (one of Euromart's workers) as it transitioned, Basi began considering starting a business of his own.
They looked for a location, and eventually his wife, Mindy Basi, found the area in which they now reside. Bart Basi could not say enough about his fantastic landlord, Dan Hamelberg, who "does things right," and helped get a great space for his store.
He and his wife knew that the most important asset in whatever food-related endeavor they began would be finding the right people, and when he discovered that Southerd — someone with knowledge about specialty cheeses and meats — would be available, Basi's ideas for a store began to come together.
All of the full time workers at the store are invested in the company, as Basi encourages all full time workers to be part owners. He feels, "When it's yours, you care more about it." Having direct ownership, he feels, helps the employees get involved in something that they love and care about.
Basi's take on hiring practices are similar. He explains, "I can teach things. I can teach you about cheese, meat, chocolate. But what I need, the most important thing, is to have a happy person. There's nothing I can do to fix a constantly bad attitude."
When I walked into the store to buy Gruyere, I was immediately greeted by Ty Southerd, the general manager of the store. He asked what I was looking for, got me samples of cheese without having to be asked, constantly suggested things I might be interested in, and offered an unsolicited, brief history on how Gruyere is made — which was great, because it was incredibly interesting.
Basi explains that it is a specialty international food store; they get local products when they can, but there are selections that must be purchased internationally. Citing various cheeses and meats, he explained that some always have to come from certain areas, because he won't sacrifice quality-specific types of meat and cheese just to be local. That being said, he goes local with purchases as much as possible, because there is such a variety of quality goods produced in our town and nearby areas. He gets local honey from Campbell's, as well as everyone's favorite Prairie Fruit Farm Chevre, bread from Pekara, and Audra's Toffee. I mentioned Tiesta, and some other local treats, and he (and Southerd) wrote down the information, excited to have more ideas.
They almost seem to have too many ideas, with a case full of cheese (more than 250 types of cheese):
A case full of meat (from places all over the world):
And a case full of artisan chocolates (from four different artists with commercial home kitchens: Julie, Patricia, Norm, and Chris).
Beyond that, there's a row of crackers and assorted jars of jams and butters:
Empty coffee containers sit behind the cases, waiting to be filled with coffee beans. When asked about them, both Basi and Southerd talked about how they definitely want coffee beans to be available at some point in the near future, but they're waiting to get finalized with a local coffee distributor, if possible, though they do carry Intelligentsia Coffee.
I might think they have too many ideas, but Southerd and Basi appear to have a handle on their products so far. When asked about anything in the store, they both seem to have tried them, as well as have a story to tell about them. Basi refers to various chocolates, such as the “sea salt, olive oil,
and basil chocolate,“ which is made in New York, as “the most incredible thing, just stunning.“ They make sure to be aware of all their products (and man, do they have a lot of products) because they want customers to know that they're confident that whatever is bought is the best it can be.
Basi can't go on enough about the personal relationships that he wants his customers to have with his employees. If you go in, don't be unsettled when they ask for your name as you checkout. You don't have to tell them if you don't want to, but they aren't trying to invade your privacy; they just want to be able to remember your name the next time you come in. Basi refers to a customer from a week ago: coming in, flustered, saying that she needs him to quickly put together something for twelve sudden visitors. He nodded, put together everything that he knew she'd like, though she didn't even give any particular details, and she left happy. He thinks that's how it should be-a store with a neighborhood deli-type feel, and I have to say, I was sold on the place from the start.
Cheese & Crackers is fantastic, and I can't compliment it enough. If you care about the quality of your food, and like to hear about where it's come from, this is the place for you. The employees are knowledgeable, and the prices are reasonable for a specialty store. In fact — and I haven't done the comparison shopping, but I'll stand by it the same — I felt the prices were better than most specialty stores here in town. You'll still need to go other places for your liquor, but check this store out. If you like good service, local products as well as international specialty foods, and an amazing selection, it's definitely the place to go.
They're easily found online, and I encourage you to check out the "About Us" section, which sums up the feeling I got during the interview very well.