“Gateway” cheesemongers can build an audience for future caseophiles

March 11, 2011

I have a theory. I’m sure many of you have heard of the term “gateway” as in a vehicle to introduce people to a certain product at a entry level and eventually they move up to the good stuff.  This term is commonly used in reference to drugs (cannabis is a gateway drug to the harder drugs, beer is a gateway drink to harder drinks, etc).  I think this term can be appropriated successfully in reference to a certain kind of cheese shop with the budget Bries, Camemberts at two for $5, cheese so cheap it’s too good to be true.  These shops exist in every city, and their main priority seems to be about moving units, sell as much as possible as fast as possible as it’s pretty well past it’s prime, so we’ve got to make a buck!  I refer to this type of shop and the cheese they sell as a “gateway” that despite appearances can actually help in building a future market for quality cheese.

I myself have been lured in by the bargains, particularly in the beginning of my journey with cheese.  A bargain is always hard to resist, and let’s face it; you can get some pretty good stuff for not too much sometimes.  Cheese is not cheap, so I can relate to how someone who wants a bit of luxury will go for the lower price point to get seduced by the oozy gooey goodness.  Not everyone has the means or the desire to make the investment that sometimes is the case with cheese.  This is especially true if you don’t take your cheese consumption so seriously. For this purpose, offering a taste of what good cheese can be at an affordable price is the positive side of bargain Brie shops.

The idea is that if you get a product cheap enough, you won’t complain. Since the purpose of these types of cheese shops is all about moving units of quickly expiring product, attention to detail goes out the window and quality suffers.  Yes I realize it’s a business, there to make money, but very often, you get what you pay for.

I remember early on in my cheese days, in efforts to get an impulsive sale from me, one cheesemonger told me I could freeze the extra Brie as it was on at such an impossibly low price, and I should take advantage and stock up.  If you don’t know better and are a sucker for a bargain, this advice makes sense. Now that I know better I know this is not the best advice.  Cheese generally does not benefit from freezing but in a pinch, some types of cheeses you plan to cook with can be frozen, but Brie is not one of them!

One recent example is a discount Camembert my friend recently bought at one of these popular gateway cheese stores.  Once you opened the wrapper, all you could smell was ammonia (not good), and some of the rind had pink bits on it. She was convinced that the cheese was merely overripe, therefore closer to what was actually available in France.  One major difference to note is that Camembert is available raw in France, aged less than 60 days so the flavour will be stronger and different, but not similar to overripe. Let’s just say that this description does not reflect what a good Camembert should smell like or resemble.  The aromas of melted butter, wet straw or mushrooms even are more in line with what you should expect along with a white bloomy rind – no pink!

Without question, all businesses depend on sales, moving product and making money, but good cheesemongers knows to develop and cultivate their client base resulting in loyal customers willing to spend a little more for a better shopping experience, better advice, and better quality.  When the focus is on the customer, the sales (should) take care of themselves.

It’s my theory that despite the state of cheeses on deep discount in those gateway cheese shops, that these shops actually do play a useful role in the cheese world.  They help to build and cultivate an audience of customers, some of which who will eventually become more interested and serious about their cheese in the future and seek out better.   This is good.  The more interested and knowledgeable people are about cheese, the more the industry can grow, local cheesemakers can survive and even thrive with more caseophiles ready to invest their hard earned dollars in quality cheese.   Eventually, some of these customers (like me) will become interested enough to learn more and seek out quality cheeses, and it has been my experience that once you’ve had quality, it’s quite difficult to go back.

I truly don’t mean to imply that all of the cheeses in these gateway stores are of substandard quality, I mean to say that these shops with their gateway bargain cheese offerings have their place in the cheese selling landscape – this is to get people to take chances on cheeses they would not necessarily try on their own if it weren’t for the price.  There is always good with bad in any environment, but really, when cheese (or anything really) is sold at a suspiciously cheap price, you should take a step back and ask yourself why.  If you are ok with the answer you come up with, by all means, take a chance, you may make a fabulous find, but if not, find yourself a reliable cheesemonger who cares for their cheese and cares about your experience as a customer so that you will come back to buy again another day. And another day. And another day…