- December 5, 2018
A few months ago, all you could find behind the doors of 550 Central Ave. was concrete, wood pallets and dusty gray sand. As of Oct. 16, it’s a sunny, animated shop and apprentice kitchen bustling with lovers of all things cheese and cheese-related.
In August 2017, after more than six years on Main Street, Artisan Cheese Co. owner Louise Kennedy Converse signed a lease on her new Rosemary District store. She wasn’t getting enough foot traffic on the western end of Main — there wasn’t enough parking and she had a feeling moving was the right decision.
But that decision didn’t come easily. As she recently told customers in her latest e-newsletter, in the three months between closing the Main Street shop and reopening on Central Avenue, there were many nights she would lie awake at 3 a.m. wondering what she’d gotten herself into.
“I was a little tentative about it — worried it wasn’t the right thing,” says Kennedy Converse. “But I decided I wanted to go to an area that was up and coming and had everything I was looking for. That’s when the Rosemary popped up on our radar.”
The new store is still dedicated to being a cheese shop first and foremost, but Kennedy Converse says there’s a fresh, good vibe in the new space, which happens to be twice the size of the old store.
Foot traffic has increased tremendously, she adds, and chef and store manager Kailene Quinn says while many loyal customers from the Main Street store have made the jump with them and continue to come in regularly, she’s noticing new faces from the neighborhood as well.
One way the cheesemongers are utilizing the additional space is by expanding their market section, offering not only cheese but wine, chocolate, preserves, crackers and a wide variety of other snacks and beverages. Quinn says the goal is to offer fresh produce and prepared meals.
“We want to eventually have everything you need for dinner in one spot,” she says.
“We want to highly curate our experience and our products and the things we do so it’s a whole different approach than in the little shop,” Kennedy Converse adds.
There’s also a great deal of seating, unlike the Main Street store, so customers interested in the weekday lunch offerings ranging from grilled cheese to tacos or the daily cheese boards and raclettes can take a seat at the wooden counter facing the window (with a view of the adjacent courtyard), the small dining room-style table in the back or the vast community table spanning nearly half the shop.
“We were really able to envision it from the dirt up, literally, so we’re just so happy to be here,” Kennedy Converse says, noting that the store has great neighbors with The Overton and Spice Station restaurants behind it and Sarasota Contemporary Dance and The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio in the building next door.
Quinn says the business district has a true community feel, and all the restaurants send customers to the cheese shop and Artisan Cheese Co. sends customers to the restaurants in return.
Artisan Cheese Co.’s move to its new building had to do with more than just location. It was about size — and the endless possibilities that come with a larger space.
One of those possibilities was a bigger kitchen that could house an apprenticeship program for young girls. That dream is now becoming a reality as Kennedy Converse works out the final details with partnering organization Girls Inc. of Sarasota County.
The idea is to create a program to teach young women with an interest in the culinary arts how to cook from scratch with well-sourced ingredients in a zero- waste kitchen. It will double as a manufacturing kitchen for the creation of housemade preserves and pickles along with a line of custom popcorn and toppings, all made by the paid apprentices.
By designing the program in a way that allows participants to create products to be sold to shop customers, Kennedy Converse hopes it will begin to help pay for itself.
Participants will learn from an original curriculum created by Kennedy Converse and Quinn that will teach them everything from how and where food is made to how it’s marketed. They’ll visit local farms to learn about natural ingredients and clean, sustainable food, and all the while they’ll be working on modules (focusing on topics such as food safety, knife skills, layering flavors, etc.) and can’t progress with the program until they complete each one.
“We want them to be successful and get hands-on learning,” Kennedy Converse says. “We understand that there aren’t a lot of opportunities out there when you’re young and you’ve got a passion for food, so this will hopefully be a great experience.”
It all started in November 2017 when Kennedy Converse launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for not only the move, but the new program. After about two months, the shop surpassed its fundraising goal of $45,000, eventually raising $48,624.
Now, with four high school-aged Girls Inc. participants confirmed for the program, Kennedy Converse is excited to see what will come out of the kitchen when they get started in the coming weeks.
Quinn shares her boss’s excitement. As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who was inspired to pursue a career in food from her high school culinary teacher — who also graduated from CIA — Quinn wants to help young women see that cooking is more than just a domestic skill.
“I’m passionate about this because I always loved to cook. It was a big part of my family (upbringing),” she says. “It’s important to show girls that this is something they can do as a career.”
Kennedy Converse agrees, adding she looks forward to watching the apprentices flourish in an inviting, creative environment that will help them determine if food and hospitality is an industry in which they could see a future.
“It’s just a job for some, but for many people it becomes a passion,” she says. “Food is community, so we’ve always thought of the apprentice kitchen as the heartbeat of the shop.”
Once things get cooking, Kennedy Converse and Quinn plan to engage the community by not only continuing their cheese classes for the public, but hosting the occasional apprentice dinner where participants will be able to invite their own guests for whom they’ll cook a full meal.
“We want them to be proud of this experience and exposure,” Kennedy Converse says.
She also plans to continue to prove all of her haters wrong. Several people in the cheese industry didn’t have faith in her business model when Kennedy Converse first made plans for the shop nearly seven years ago, she says. They thought an independent local cheese shop in a small Floridian city was sure to fail.
“People had been holding their breath to see if that happened, but since we got our foothold on the market I think people in our industry have been applauding and encouraging us,” she says.
“Now we have people coming to us because they want us to carry their cheese ... we’re getting recognition for being a really good cheese shop, and that’s who we are in our hearts.”