As many of you know, last week Seattle was invaded by over 1,000 cheese freaks for the annual American Cheese Society conference, loving dubbed Cheese-a-topia. It was a whirlwind, to say the least, and I'll do my best to give a thorough recap of events.
The first thing I realized is that while it's an amazing thing to have the conference in my town, it means a lot of extra work as I bustled between sessions and keeping an eye on the shop. It was really an opportunity that I don't know I'll ever have again in that cheese professionals from far and wide were just blocks from my new baby. I was so happy every time someone walked in ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the space, and I got many compliments from people I've looked up to for years. My ego was stroked as much as a puppy in a park on a sunny day.
The conference: I only got to attend about half of the sessions I signed up for due to demands of the shop, which I expected, but here's a rundown of those I did make it to.
Health Benefits and the Psychology of Cheese
I was really jazzed for this session, however it was a tad disappointing. I expected to walk away with a pocketful of information to relay to customers about the virtues of good cheese in our diets. However the speakers, while all knowledgeable and fun to listen to, generally couldn't come up with much conclusive evidence via studies et. al. as to the benefits of dairy. There was some very interesting talk about changing the overall view of diet and nutrition in the U.S. from outdated perceptions of food as "bad" or "good", to a more cohesive and comprehensive view of all food we eat as a continuum. Myself often being the one to justify copious amounts of cheese by filling my gob with salad and fresh veg, this hit a note for me, but otherwise, I didn't walk away with much.
Last Stop: Cheese Shop
This session was focused on the details of retailing cheese, from deciding what to order and why, to caring for it in the shop, displaying it in the case, pricing, and of course, mongering it to customers. This was the highlight of the conference for me because we got to get down and dirty with some amazing cheesemongers from across the country. We basically dissected the deli cases that were on display from the previous day's merchandising competition, where teams of two were each given one deli case, a box of cheese, and their own tools and ingenuity to create an impressive display. I took away many details that I will incorporate into my deli cases, and the panel was a great little hotbed of lively discussion for all.
Getting Inside the Mind of the Retail Buyer
I misunderstood the brief description of this session (as many others did), in that I thought they would be speaking about getting inside the minds of my customers. Turns out it was more about getting inside my head, and those of other buyers, distributors, etc. This was a surprisingly interesting session as most of the attendees were cheese makers, and we got to hear them ask the panel about the issues they face. I am still a bit shocked at the lack of open discourse we have with cheese makers, and I was biting my tongue to bark out my own voice whenever a cheese maker asked how they should contact us, what's the best way to get their cheese to us, etc. I think what was great to me about this session was not so much what happened in the 90 minutes we sat there, but the internal 'oopmh' I got to keep up communication with my beloved cheese purveyors. They work so hard to make these amazing products for us, and the connection between us (retailers) and them should never be lost, but rather strengthened by consistent contact.
There is more, much more, but this is enough for one post. Photos uploading as we speak...