Situated about 75 miles south of Washington, D.C., Culpeper Cheese Company is owned by Jeffrey Mitchell, known by some locals as the “stinky cheese man.” However, Mitchell didn’t begin his career in the curd world: He enjoyed a 20-year photography career at Eastman Kodak before the film industry declined. After he was let go from the company, Mitchell pursued his passion for wine and opened The Frenchman’s Cellar in 2007.
Since then, the shop has grown from a 700-square-foot wine market to the 2,800-square-foot Culpeper Cheese Company, featuring over 70 cheeses, a wine bar, eight beer taps, and a small café complete with a cheese-centric menu. The store also offers cheese pairing classes and wine tastings, with plans to add more in the future.
His career arc makes sense, Mitchell says, because there are parallels between cheese and photography: “I liked the tactile nature of film . . . the aromas, the chemistry, how you interact with and manipulate it. And to some extent—strange though it may sound—cheese offers that.”
culture: Have you had any customer experiences that speak to Culpeper’s local culture?
Jeffrey Mitchell: We’ve had cheese drive-bys: people call from their cars, describe the cheese they want, and say literally, “Put your hand out in front of you and move your middle finger and index finger apart, that’s the size wedge I want. Call me back when you know the amount with tax.” They drive up, they don’t have a credit card, they have exact change. I don’t know what possesses someone to say, “I need a hunk of Saint-André right now and I can’t even get out of the car,” but it’s happened more than once. So cheese emergencies, those have definitely been unique.
culture: When did you fall for cheese?
JM: As a child, I had three cheese counters within walking distance from my house—one was this French market on Wisconsin Avenue in D.C. It’s now gone, but that was a wonderful discovery; the cheesemonger there introduced us to things other than vacuum-packed Swiss. She loved to watch our faces as kids as we turned away from the washed rinds.
culture: Why did you start selling cheese?
JM: I was opening a small wine shop and needed cheese for a tasting—you can’t sample wine without having cheese. We bought our first [display] case from a neighbor [and stocked it] with five or six cheeses. We learned about them on the fly, and I discovered I was a cheese liberal—I feared no cheese.
culture: What was the cheese scene like in Culpeper before you opened your shop?
JM: We’re pioneers. There’s a plethora of dairy farms here, but [a lack of] creameries . . . some are selling their milk for cheesemaking, and some are just going into dairy co-ops. So there’s a dairy culture here, but definitely no cheese shops [besides us].
Mon.–Wed. 11 a.m.–6 p.m.
Thurs. 11 a.m.–7 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Sun. 11:30 a.m.–5 p.m.