With just under two months until our fifth-annual Forum on November 6th & 7th in New York City, we are introducing some of the event’s speakers, along with their talk topics. An eclectic group whose common ground is passion, innovation, and a great story to tell, these men and women run the gamut from luxury brand CEO to digital DIY community founder–-to Steve Jenkins, profiled today. In this first installment, the award-winning author and master cheesemonger for Fairway Markets shares how he got into the cheese business almost 40 years ago, the innovations he’s witnessed in the industry over the years, and why his advice to young people starting out in the job market is to “get happy first.”
Cheesemonger is a pretty unique and specific profession–was this always what you wanted to do?
I became a cheesemonger only because I desperately needed a job back in 1975. I became a master cheesemonger not because I cared a whit about cheese, but because I was driven to find something at which I could become the very best of all time. I am a total auto-didact. There was no entity, no person that could have taught and trained me.
Does that also describe the type of person best suited to this line of work?
This line of work is, or was, for thirty years, the counter. Long hours, six days a week, constantly on one’s feet, often lugging back-breakingly heavy stuff, smelling like a barnyard, wearing soiled aprons over loose clothing, taking and responding to demands from customers and bosses throughout each and every day, working holidays, low pay. And despite all that, finding great joy and satisfaction in the very peasant-like quality of this arduous line of work.
How long have you been with Fairway?
Since 1980 with an eight-year sabbatical to do some consulting and write a book (Jenkins’s seminal book, Cheese Primer, won the James Beard Award in 1997). I came to work at Fairway because I had either been fired or quit every other counter in Manhattan. What I like most about my job now is that I got it done in a fashion never seen before, and I am reaping the benefits of that every single day. What I liked then was that at the end of the day, every day, knowing what an exemplary job I’d done. Peasant virtue. Just like the Parisians, I used to watch work from pre-dawn to post-dusk.
It’s easy to track innovation in certain fields, but how is it measured in the cheese business?
For us at Fairway, innovation is pioneering foodstuffs that have been around forever but have never been given the attention and respect they deserve, nor have they been imported, that is, made available to the North American consumer. Being the first to offer things is the raison d’être of a serious retailer. And then there is the innovation of new products. I have always been the first to offer new foodstuffs, new packaging (honey in a container with a hatch on the bottom, not the top; olive oil and gazpacho in a Tetra-Pack, etc.). All of this pioneering effort results in publicity in major newspapers and magazines replete with photography and dedicated copy, enormous exposure via exclusive attribution.
What would you say is the most important innovation in cheese in the last few years?
In the cheese industry, the emergence of the American cheesemonger as well as American artisanal cheese have definitely been the biggest innovations in decades.
Because it’s what we do at L2, I have to ask what role, if any, digital has played in your success?
Well, that’s a definitive answer! At the Forum on November 7th, the audience will be a pretty digitally-minded crowd. And luxury-focused, too. How will your talk (which focuses on how the customer doesn’t really know what he wants), resonate for them?
This notion holds true across the spectrum of any commodity, item or group of items about which there is a wealth of lore, history, information, fascination, buzz. Any thinking person who has a desire to partake in something being marketed, something at a retail venue, has a strong desire to know everything there is to know about it. That they don’t opens wide the door to salesmanship, the delivery of the rock ‘n roll that results in establishing one’s self as the authority, the arbiter, the repository, the source–all of which creates loyalty, repeat sales and attendant ancillary sales.
We spoke a little about how you came into this profession. For young people just starting out in the job market, how important, in your opinion, is following passion versus getting a return on an expensive education?
A return on education does not mean one should be bound to pursue a career in what one majored or minored. I constantly urge young people to separate their college years from the years that come directly after. I urge them to follow their heart. I don’t believe young people have any idea what it is that’s going to make them happy in their professional life, exactly as I fervently believe people, young or otherwise, have no idea what it is they want to serve for dinner, what they want to serve for a cocktail party, or what they want to give as a gift. They need to surrender to someone who is a near idiot-savant about food; they need to accept the fact that they are not qualified to make a cogent choice. The problem is finding that idiot-savant. At my counter the idiot was always on duty. This is the mission of the most successful retailer in any field. Be that idiot-savant, and be there. You may have gotten a degree in electrical engineering, and you may owe a lot of money as a result, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the best slicer of smoked salmon in town, a job for which you can make a lot of money and garner a great deal of satisfaction. Everyone can and should strive to do the same. Electrical engineering can wait. Get happy first. Get proud of yourself.
That’s an inspiring note to end on, but I can’t leave without getting your idiot savant recommendation on good cheese. What are your 3 favorites this Fall?
1. Torta Del Casar (Extremadura-Spain, pudding-soft, raw sheep’s milk)
2. Flor d’Esgueva (Castile Leon-Spain; hard like Manchego, sheep’s milk)
3. Le Chevrot (Charentes-France, like the classic A.O.C. Chabichou, an aged slightly firm goat’s milk cheese)
For more information on Steve Jenkins’ talk and how to attend L2’s Forum, please visit our event site or contact Sierra Schaller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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