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Joe Moskowitz: Import Innovator of Specialty Food

I peel out of an Uber at 6:45am in front of an unassuming brick building in Long Island City. It’s brisk and already too bright, with muffled sounds of the city awakening. A white sign with humble blue letters assures me I’m in the right spot: Larkin Cold Storage Co. Inc. Culture’s hosting an all-day event, and the place is already buzzing. I step inside and get to work. Between stacking literature for gift bags and ushering cheese plates onto tables, my publisher asks if I’ve heard of Joe Moskowitz. “He built this place,” he said. “He’s a legend.”

Before it became Tribeca, the Triangle Below Canal Street once housed a rambling one block market selling fare from strawberries to swordfish. NYC’s Washington market was built in 1813, and sometime during the mid-1920s Polish native Ben Moskowitz joined the bustle, pushing a cart of butter, eggs, and cheese as an after-school job. The modest business became Walker Butter and Eggs, and as time meandered, Ben’s interest in imported goods blossomed. During the 1950s, Ben’s associate took him on a trip to Europe just after World War II, and cheese took center stage as the primary driver for the import business.

It was around this time Ben’s son Joe joined the family business at just 16 years old. Precocious and determined, Joe set his sights on a broader vision. In 1978, Joe left his father’s company and founded Larkin Cold Storage. “There is a famous old New Yorker magazine cover that shows the United States ending at the Hudson River. I always liked that cover because it was something I didn’t believe in at all. So, I pushed the map as far west as I could—I took a local distribution system and made it national,” Joe stated in a 2010 article published by Forward.

Importing cheese to the US, as Joe discovered, was a challenging venture: regulations, paperwork—ensuring conditions are optimal for transport. Joe had a unique knack for navigating these obstacles and shared his industry know-how with colleagues. “Joe taught me early on that you could have the best cheese on the planet, but if you didn’t have the logistics to move it with care and on a regular basis, it wouldn’t matter. Joe unlocked the opportunity for the best cheese in Europe to reach the best retailers and restaurants in the best condition possible,” says Tyler Hawes, CEO of Forever Cheese. Chris Crocker, former SVP of Content and Media at the Specialty Food Association adds, “Joe had a knack for identifying products with potential and the logistical capabilities to get them here. His brash, gritty, and intuitive approach helped firmly establish several key European product lines in the US market.”

Throughout his career, Joe introduced US subsidiaries of Emmi, Champignon, Somerdale, and Redondo Iglesias. Most notably, Joe is credited as the first to import cave-aged Gruyere and Serrano ham to the United States. “[He was] not only a leader in the cheese and logistics industry, but also a dear friend who was not afraid to help others make their mark in our business. Joe worked so very hard for the companies he represented, while helping many other companies grow.  He had a special knack for introducing new products to the American market. He helped me introduce Champignon soft cheese and Gourmino Swiss, while also providing the most reliable service for importing European cheese to the US,” says Larry Lukas.

Joe also established partnerships with cheesemakers such as Jasper Hill Farm, and retailers such as Zingermans, further pushing his fervent agenda of bringing specialty food stateside. “In 1990, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans walked into our little shop and declared that he wanted to stock Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese. Little specialty [cheese] was present in the United States, but together with Sarah and Gerd Stern, Joe greased the wheels and made it happen. Pioneer, visionary, trailblazer—the list of epithets to describe Joe are endless as he was a wearer of many hats. To me he was a friend and mentor, a man from whom I learnt so much,” says Jason Hinds, Sales Director at Neals Yard Dairy.

Though sometimes assertive and coarse, Joe’s persistent verve to raise public awareness made him an influential and effective mentor to those who could take the heat. “I met Joe back in 2004 and it was clear he wasn’t taking mentees,” Tyler Hawes remembers. “I kept showing up asking questions, mostly about logistics and not cheese. He finally let me in—not only to his office covered in steel plates, but also his mind and heart. There have been many times in my career where I would be reminded of a lesson Joe once told, and it was always through a story or proverb.”

These lessons and proverbs are what shaped his son Adam Moskowitz, who now owns Larkin and Columbia Cheese’s Maker to Monger. Though, this transaction almost didn’t happen. After spending some time at Yahoo, Adam realized he’d rather pursue independent business ownership. He started his cheese career as a monger with Formaggio Essex, despite Joe incessantly reminding his son he’s selling the business. After the initial deal fell through, Joe offered the sale to Adam, and the rest is history. “My father, Joe Moskowitz, will forever be my greatest teacher. On any given moment of any given day, you loved him, loathed him, respected him, feared him, and felt compelled to thank him often, all at the same time. This man was a disruptor, a tastemaker, and an influencer before anybody knew what those terms meant,” Adam declares.

The day is wrapping up and I notice Adam holed up in an office at Larkin. He’s in deep conversation with a colleague, and I take note of the ordered chaos of the space while Adam passionately talks with his hands. The staff whips out a raclette machine and starts melting cheese onto veggies, and there’s a continual thud from the swinging door dividing the event space from the vast storage room as folks whisk in and out. The forklift beeps, the boxes shuffle, cold air blasts out from the walk-in as crates move in and out. And the business thrives, just as it always has.

Joe Moskowitz passed away Friday, March 1, 2024 at 81 years old. The Moskowitz family invites friends to participate in tzedakah, the act of giving to those in need. They recommend donating in Joe’s name to the Anne Saxelby Legacy Fund, which provides paid apprenticeships to young adults to work on sustainable farms.

Mallory Scyphers

Mallory Scyphers is culture's Executive Content Director and has been with the company since 2019. She lives on Mobile Bay with her husband, two young daughters, one old Shetland Sheepdog, one rambunctious golden retriever, and one calico cat. Her favorite cheeses are alpine styles and mineral-y blues.

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