Three cheesemongers talk about coming of age in the family business
As a primal distillation of milk, cheese is often linked with the farm, and its ancient patterns of milking and aging, transhumance, and terroir. But traditions aren’t restricted to the countryside—in America and elsewhere families have been involved in the other end of the cheese business for decades or more, selling to consumers and establishing their own traditions. But in the 21st century, the decision to put on an apron and follow in your father’s footsteps, in a country that seems value only to prodigals and mavericks, is daunting. Here are stories of three young men who’ve chosen to inherit very different sorts of shops and how they are carrying on their retail traditions.
Louis Coluccio is the third generation working at D. Coluccio & Sons. The store occupies a somewhat faceless block in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, but the modesty of the storefront, and Louis’s matching demeanor, belie the fact that several surrounding buildings are actually warehouses for the business. Besides a thriving retail trade, the Coluccio family is a major importer of Italian cheese and specialty food for wholesalers, shops, and restaurants. Coluccio’s was among the first to import the trendy Grana Padano, as well as to supply quality traditional cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Montegrappa, and Genuino, the black-labeled “macaroni cheese.”
Although his neighborhood had many families of Italian heritage, Louis is somewhat unusual in that he is first-generation American: his father had grew up in Calabria. “At school my lunch would be mortadella and imported provolone, while my classmates would have ham and American cheese or peanut butter and jelly. . . . I was sort of embarrassed by it.”
After graduating from Suffolk University in 2004, Louis made the decision to return to the store founded by his father and grandfather in 1962. Despite a degree in international business and marketing, the return wasn’t as smooth as he’d hoped. “I started in December: January was a crash and burn. Coming to our family business with the attitude that I know better, because I took a class and aced it, was my worst mistake.”
Finding mentors outside the family proved critical to Louis’s success. Two key figures were Michele and Charles Scicolone; Michele is the author of numerous Italian cookbooks, and Charles was the wine director at New York’s i Trulli. They helped expose Louis to regional Italian styles beyond his Calabrian roots and connect with the New York restaurants powering the current Italian renaissance. Despite all this his roots in the neighborhood remain strong: “The best thing is seeing the impact that our food has on families . . . so many people tell me stories about how their grandparents passed away, but every Christmas they came to Coluccio’s to buy that macaroni cheese, that pasta, to continue their tradition.”
In contrast to the storefront at D. Coluccio & Sons, Todaro Brothers looks like what it is: a small shop, albeit on the prosperous east side of Manhattan, a few blocks south of the United Nations. Peter Todaro, son of the current owner, joined a family business dating back to 1917. Although founded as an Italian market, the shop has adapted over the years to the tastes of a mixed clientele, from hospital workers (who have made the cheese plate a popular breakfast) to residents and passersby looking for a cup of deli coffee.
Peter’s decision to join the shop came after a stint for a somewhat larger company. With a Cornell degree and a flair for sales, Peter had found a job representing Nestlé, one of the biggest food companies in the world. But after receiving an invitation to work at Nestlé’s Los Angeles headquarters, a budding “foodie” consciousness and a desire for a more entrepreneurial challenge drew him back to his father’s store.
Expectations were high, and Peter found himself managing older employees who knew him when he was in grade school. Early mistakes were hard to get over: as the boss’s son Peter had to learn the nuts and bolts that he’d avoided while working weekends as a teenager. Eventually, he earned his cred through dedication and positivity. “When they saw that the employees were receptive to my ideas, that I was willing to get my hands dirty, that’s when my family recognized that I had the maturity to take this on.”
The ongoing battle has proved to be educational. Staying ahead of customers and rivals means talking with distributors, researching customer questions, and constantly reading up on new cheeses: “You have to be passionate about the subject. That’s how a small store stays competitive: you have to be able to explain to customers what this cheese is, what makes it special, how to justify the price, how to serve it . . . how to make the person who’s serving it look good in front of their friends.”
Kurt Gurdal’s father, Ihsan, is a Turkish immigrant, but his business, Formaggio Kitchen, never catered to an ethnic niche. Instead, it has been at the forefront of the artisanal cheese market since the 1980s, educating and challenging its Cambridge, Massachusetts, customers with sophisticated foods from the United States and abroad.
But the familial pattern holds in other ways: as a kid Kurt would stand behind the bakery counter and shout “Next!,” working elbow to elbow with his dad’s employees but clearly being “other” as the boss’s son.
Kurt went to school in California but came back to work summers at the shop and eventually decided that Formaggio was the place where he wanted to make his career. His training was both at home and abroad, through a well-connected family friend, Jason Hinds. “Why don’t you send Kurty over here for a little while?” Jason suggested; “over here” was Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, one of the most respected and exacting cheese retailers in the world, where Hinds is the sales director. Kurt spent six months apprenticing at Neal’s Yard, in a formal atmosphere with a strict hierarchy that was very different from Formaggio’s rough-and-tumble environment, which had been shaped by America’s tough restaurant culture. “My dad’s management style can be very direct. I came in and tried to do the same thing.” It didn’t go down very well. “That was one of the most embarrassing times for me. I had to be sat down in the office with my dad and the employee involved . . . I was pissed, but I learned from my mistake—not at that exact moment, because I’m stubborn like my dad, but a bit later on.”
With all eyes on him, Kurt had to find his own management style, which is at once meticulous and laid back. You can see this in his interactions with customers, as he patiently explains the differences between two similar wedges or comes from behind the counter to help select just the right cheese knife, pulling his own from his pocket for reference.
Though he’s earned the title of general manager, Kurt says his real “promotion” came when he began to feel a change in attitude toward him from the staff, his bosses, and his parents. “The feeling of them respecting you, you can sense it. It’s pretty clear. That was huge for me.”
Written by William Fertman
Photography by Jen Beauchesne
& Michael Harlan Turkell