But despite its small size, the shop is making a big impact on New York’s cheese lovers. Saxelby selects cheeses from small producers at some 40 local farms, offering products not available elsewhere in the city. In 2011, her shop was named Manhattan’s Small Business of the Year as part of the city’s Neighborhood Achievement Awards, and she has developed a bustling wholesale business supplying cheese to more than 150 New York area restaurants, including Michelin Star recipients Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, and Minetta Tavern.
As a student at NYU, the suburban Chicago native would never have called herself a foodie. “My mom cooked for us, but we were not adventurous eaters,” Saxelby says of her childhood. “We were more like the ‘chicken 1,000 ways’ family.” It was during a trip to Florence to visit a friend that she began broadening her horizons. “One trip to the central market and your food expectations are altered for the rest of your life,” she explains. “That’s where I fell in love with cheese.”
Her curiosity quickly developed into a full-fledged passion. Saxelby was amazed that despite so many varieties and flavors of cheese, all come from the same basic ingredients. She started frequenting Murray’s Cheese Shop, on Bleecker Street, and the Union Square Greenmarket, where she was especially impressed with the selection at the Cato Corner Farm stand. She became a regular, tasting her way through as many cheeses as possible, and ultimately lined up a cheesemaking internship at its farm in Connecticut for the fall after she graduated. Although she had focused on painting and drawing in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development’s studio art program, Saxelby decided not to pursue a career as an artist. “I tried working in all different aspects of the art world during college, but it was just a little bit rarefied, and some of it was downright pretentious,” she says. “I felt like I didn’t really fit in there.”
Saxelby did fit in, however, up on the farm. And more so, she found parallels between converting milk to cheese and creating a work of art. The multistep process requires a similar attention to detail, and both painting and cheesemaking are largely solitary activities. “Being in the cheese room for eight hours a day was a lot like spending time in my studio,” she explains. “It’s the same principles of rigor and discipline and craftsmanship, but with cheese, the results are edible, so anyone can judge it for themselves.”
She continued to hone her expertise by working at Murray’s Cheese Shop for the next year and a half, and visiting cheese farms in Vermont. Craving even more experience, Saxelby interned overseas with cheesemakers and affineurs (cheese agers) in France’s Loire Valley. “I was also spying on specialty shops and gourmet food businesses,” she admits. “I figured I’d use the trip as kind of R&D to see what was going on in Europe that might be missing over here.” She cites one specific shop in Paris, Laurent Dubois, as inspiration. “It was like a little jewel box,” she recalls. “There were no crackers, no olive oil, no vinegar, no chocolate, no nothing. I really liked that kind of simplicity, because I thought if cheese is what I really love and what I’ve been devoting my life to, why spread myself thin?”
After years of self-education, Saxelby felt ready to open a shop of her own back in New York. She modified a sample business plan that she found online and put together some rudimentary financial projections in January 2006. A friend suggested that she consider opening a little store within the city-operated Essex Street Market, and she recognized that running a tiny stand there would be much more manageable than attempting to rent an independent space. Her parents loaned her the money for the initial investment, and by May of that year, Saxelby Cheesemongers was open for business. “At the beginning, I worked six days a week by myself,” Saxelby says. “I was getting the cheese mostly via FedEx, because there aren’t many distribution networks in place for small farms.”
The shop has come a long way. Nine months after opening, Saxelby joined forces with a business partner, and now has two full-time employees and several part-timers working at both the shop and a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn. That space is the base for the company’s wholesale activity, which accounts for 75 percent of its income. Within the next five years, Saxelby plans to open a second store. “There’s something about cheese,” she gushes. “I love that it’s easy for everyone to understand, because you can just taste it, but also that it brings such pleasure and happiness. It’s kind of a trifecta.”
“Being in the cheese room for eight hours a day was like spending time in my studio,” former painter Saxelby says.