There are a lot of reasons to visit Salem, Massachusetts: the museums (both the delightfully kitschy and the soberly informational), the charming vintage homes, and my favorite, The Cheese Shop of Salem. The shop opened three years ago, in September 2015, and has been enchanting both tourists and locals ever since. From their incredibly well-curated and maintained selection of cheeses and accoutrements to their affable, knowledgeable mongers, I’m always ecstatic when I walk through the doors of this North Shore haunt.
I sat down with Brie Hurd, the shop’s cheese buyer and manager, to learn more about how they’re making the magic of cheese more accessible, approachable, and fun.
culture: What do you think makes your shop unique?
Brie Hurd: We always say that what we sell is the experience. Our goal was never to just have a series of products that can’t be found anywhere else. We do carry some pretty exclusive items, but what makes us special is the way that we treat the customer and how we welcome people into the store. We’re trying to take the intimidation out of cheese.
The owner, Peter Endicott, sets the example of customer service that I think our staff has followed beautifully. When you step up to the counter, he will welcome you as though you were stepping into his own home. He will offer you sample after sample of cheese, share his tasting notes, and tell you the story of the cheese. But he will also connect with you about your plans for the summer, the recipe you’ve been dying to try, or the latest episode of your favorite food show. These genuine exchanges are what we’re all about.
We love the cheese, but we’re even more obsessed with our relationship with the customer: the trust that you build, and the sense of friendship and community that can be fostered over food. It feels, some days, like the hardest thing, but it’s also ultimately so rewarding to make someone happy.
culture: What is something that you tell people who have never been to your shop before, or even any cheese shop?
BH: I would probably loop them in with the promise of free sampling, because that is a huge part of what we do. Like other small independent cheese shops with similar value systems, we know that it’s the offering of a taste the moment someone steps up to the counter that really opens the door to conversation, for dialogue, whether it’s around the cheesemaker and the milk type and the milk treatment, or just about what you’re doing that weekend and what delicious thing would be perfect for that activity.
Our shop is about the finer things in life: It doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a fun experience that’s not about being high and mighty. You don’t have to come through the door with an experienced palate, or any history of doing sensory analysis, or even the knowledge that goats make milk for cheese. If you don’t know that, that’s cool.
We try to use really accessible vocabulary and celebrate the fact that eating is really fun and that’s something that everybody can connect with. Whether you know cheese or not, it’s always fun to try something new in a setting where you feel safe and taken care of, and that’s what we strive to offer.
culture: Let’s go behind the counter, if you will. What cheese are you most excited about right now?
BH: Aussie Magic, which is our name for the Meredith Dairy Marinated Sheep and Goat Cheese. That cheese has become, by far, our number one seller. We have people come zooming through the front door,right up to the case like they are on a serious mission. The mongers offer to help them—“What can we do for you?”—and they’re just like, “We need Aussie Magic!” It’s truly like we’ve gotten the North Shore addicted to this cheese.
I’m thrilled to see a customer so happy and so locked in on a product that they can never get enough of. It’s like the more we order, the more excited we are, and we can’t sell enough of it. It is so great.
culture: Do you know what has people so excited about it? How did it get that buzz?
BH: The cheese is really versatile. Obviously it’s delicious just on its own. It has this oily, garlicky, peppery flavor. The cheese itself is fresh, really creamy, dense but still light. You can eat it plain, on crackers, or with bread so you can soak up all the oil. You can also toss it into hot noodles, let it melt, and boom—you’ve just made dinner. I’ve spread it on sourdough toast and put chorizo, arugula, a soft-boiled egg, and some hot sauce over it, and that makes for a killer tartine or open-faced sandwich. The possibilities are endless.
culture: So, do you guys do a lot of pairing behind the counter to make more of an engagement experience with the customer?
BH: We offer samples of all of our cheeses, we do wine tastings every single week, we have a lot of charcuterie out, and all the jams, sauces, and grocery items are also open and available for tasting. We have an open jar of pretty much everything we sell.
It also just so happens that Peter in particular is a condiment king. He just loves jams and spreads and sauces. A lot of the members of our staff are really excellent and passionate cooks, so we have a group of people who are so genuinely excited to go home and put every product to the test, or to concoct pairings at the shop when they have the free moment.
We actually have a giant spreadsheet now on the store computer of successful “bites,” we call them, which are generally somewhere between two and four components. And I would say that is a big part of the mongers’ job: experiencing the cheese and then figuring out which things go well with it.
culture: What is your go-to cheese snack? When you’re hungry at work and just want to grab something that’s behind the counter, what do you do?
culture: Just by itself?
BH: With crackers, I’m definitely a cracker girl.
BH: Yeah I know it’s so weird—I’m for sure in the minority. I’ve gotten some weird looks before for saying that. With a soft-ripened cheese like Harbison, I want the contrast of a good crunch with something really soft and smooth. I think that’s why I go for crackers.
I will say —and I’ve joked about this before with the team—I feel like Harbison is my friend. I smile when I think about Harbison, just in my life. It’s familiar, delicious, and easy-going, but also complex and interesting enough that it keeps me guessing. It’s so epically satisfying and divine that I’m never tired of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.