Workin’ the World: An importer reflects on the job of finding great cheese
So I was asked to write about what I do as a cheese importer, how I find my cheese gems. There isn’t one specific way. Often, it’s about recognizing when an opportunity presents itself—“having the eye,” as a colleague once described to me.
Take the goat cheese Leonora, for example, that I bring in from León, Spain. I stumbled on that one at a trade show when I went to say hello to Tomas, the producer of Valdeón cheese. It was a cool-looking white brick tucked away in a refrigerated case at a trade booth, unattended. I helped myself to a taste and loved it, so I found the person who knew the producer, and within minutes I was on the phone with Oscar, the cheesemaker, asking him how he felt about selling to the United States. The cheese didn’t even have a name; I gave it one.
Finding PaŠki Sir, a cheese from Croatia, also happened serendipitously. I first tasted it at Restaurant Starac i More in Novalja on the island of Pag, where I’d been vacationing. I didn’t have cheese business on my mind at all . . . until I took a bite. At first I just toyed with the idea of bringing in a cheese from Croatia. What would it mean—taking on a new country, expanding our company’s focus. It was a curiosity. I made gentle inquiries, but the more I thought about the cheese’s unique Adriatic character (and the Adriatic as well—let’s be honest), the more I became convinced that I wanted to make it happen. Even so, it was five years later that PaŠki Sir finally arrived at my warehouse in New Jersey.
At times I don’t even realize the persistence and patience that it takes to get some of these products to the United States. I am so singularly focused on the goal that it’s not until I look back that I realize what was entailed. It also took me five years, for instance, to secure the privilege of representing the Dehesa Cordobesa brand of Iberico dry-cured pork products in the United States. Likewise, the first almond I ever fell in love with—Marcona (now I can add the Pizzuta almond)—required faith and persistence. I asked questions for ten years, trying to find out about these almonds and how best to bring them into the States.
As much as I love my work, it’s not all pleasure and fun discoveries. There’s plenty of frustration, and often there are unexpected challenges. For example, Spain used to require that all exporters to the States have a veterinary certificate and a special export certificate. When I inquired about this with the Spanish government, they insisted that the United States required it. This regulation meant extra delays and costs for my Spanish producers. I even lost some artisans that I had courted for years, because of the bureaucratic hassle. In response, ICEX (Spain’s agency for commerce), and one of my producers, helped me compile information that I took to the Spanish embassy in the United States to make a case for lifting the certificate requirements. Ultimately, we were successful in getting the requirements revoked! This not only benefited my company and my producers, it benefited the entire cheese industry in Spain and all importers and exporters of cheese.
So my business isn’t just about importing food finds. It’s also about relationships—sometimes political ones but more often those between suppliers and customers. If you don’t get a good feeling between companies, the likelihood that the business relationship will last is slim. Forging personal relationships is integral to good business. Many producers have become my friends. They have stayed in my home; their grown kids have come to the United States to stay with me or with some of my customers. And I am a guest in their homes. I am always made to feel welcome when I visit, and I don’t think it’s just because I am a customer. It goes beyond business. It’s a way of life.
Written by Michele Buster
Illustration by Richard Mia