This blog post originally appeared on Denver Real Estate Watch.
Once considered a “meat-and-potatoes” city, Denver has carved out a reputation as a true foodie destination.
Food-oriented businesses have attracted a lot of attention, both locally and nationally.
National Public Radio even did a report on Denver’s food scene.
Explosive growth is underway in Denver from Stapleton to Sloan’s Lake, East Colfax to Tennyson Street, RiNo to Jefferson Park, Union Station to Cherry Creek.
My husband, Steve and I are part of this food boom.
Denver Real Estate Watch thought its readers might enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at our struggle to open a new retail business during this thrilling, but also scary and frustrating time.
This is the story of our cheese shop, Cheese+Provisions, set to open next month in the burgeoning Sunnyside neighborhood in North Denver. If all goes as planned, we will open our cheese shop at 2342 W. 44th Avenue, at 44th and Alcott Street, on Dec. 10. We will keep our doors open from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
But Cheese +Provisions really is the tale of how we went from raising sheep and making wine in Virginia to creating a cheese boutique in the city we’ve come to love.
This is a passion project to be sure.
No one gets rich by owning a cheese shop.
We want to bring to life the story of the artisans behind the amazing foods we’ll sell.
We want to make cheese accessible, with no cheese snobbery.
And, we want to create a neighborhood gathering spot.
It has been a long, circuitous path for us to not only find ourselves in Denver, but to become small business owners.
We moved to Denver almost eight years ago after a trip to Nepal convinced us that we needed to be closer to the mountains.
I brought my job with me, and my husband, Steve, went to work at Whole Foods running the “Specialty Department” (think cheese and charcuterie) in Capitol Hill.
He’s worked in food and beverage his whole life, but has always had a special affinity for cheese and wine (and now craft beer, since moving to Denver).
Prior to moving to Denver, we lived in Virginia for 20 years.
Steve was always a food and beverage guy.
He earned his degree from the Culinary Institute of America and spent many years working in restaurants and other hospitality jobs.
We started an artisan cheese program at the winery, bringing in farmstead cheeses from Virginia’s nascent cheesemaking industry.
In the process, we met many cheese makers and fell in love with what they were doing.
When the winemaking gig had run its course, we decided to open our own creamery.
Steve took cheesemaking classes in Vermont, New York and Washington state.
We toured cheese farms and stayed with cheese makers in those states and in Wisconsin.
He lived on the floor (and barn) of one cheese maker’s home for six weeks, learning how to birth lambs in the brutal Wisconsin winter.
He went back in the spring and spent another six weeks with an award-winning cheesemaker learning the trade.
We made amazing friends and confidently bought 25 acres in what was then called the “Sonoma of the East Coast,” Rappahannock County, Virginia.
The name of our dream? True Ewe Farm.e acquired a flock of sheep, learned to build fences, became experts on pasture composition to produce the best milk, started building a creamery to make sheep’s milk cheese, figured out how to use guinea hens to organically reduce the pest load on our pastures and a million other things we never thought we’d find ourselves researching, let alone doing.
That was our first entrepreneurial attempt.
It went awry when Virginia changed its farmstead creamery regulations, more than tripling our costs to complete the project.
We learned a lot of great lessons from the experience. Such as, buying 25 acres doesn’t actually mean buying a farm.
A farm already has fences and outbuildings and barns. Ours didn’t, although it had that and more by the time we sold it.
Most importantly, we learned that the next time we started a venture, we needed more structure.
In 2013, we started getting the itch to once again do our own thing.
Steve enrolled in the MBA program at Johnson & Wales, and once he completed that, we enrolled in the Leading Edge Denver Small Business Development Center, an affiliate of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Through the class, we had access to experts on everything from startup financials to site selection to market research and marketing.
It’s honestly the best kept secret in Denver entrepreneurism.
For instance, did you know that the Denver Public Library has an amazing resource librarian, Dixie Malone, who, for the price of a library card, will teach you how to access market demographic information that would otherwise cost you thousands of dollars?
And, SBDC has seasoned business veterans who will stress test your financials and give you tips for pitching your concept.
Graduated from the Chamber’s program with business plan in hand, we jumped into what we thought would be the easy part – finding a retail location.
We were naïve, to say the least.
We quickly were almost burned by Denver’s red-hot real estate market.
Our first lesson: Your location chooses you as much as you choose your location.
When we couldn’t find space in our top choice neighborhoods, we expanded the search.
Maybe Golden would work. What about Louisville? Arvada?
Frustrated that the lack of rentable space might shatter our dream before it took shape, our commercial real estate broker, Melissa Nochlin with Broad Street, persisted and then delivered us the space of our dreams: A 940-square-foot shop in what will be called Cobbler’s Corner at West 44th Avenue and Zuni Street, in Denver’s rapidly-becoming-hip Sunnyside neighborhood.
When fully leased, Cobbler’s Corner will house two restaurants, five shops, two work-under-live-over units and a communal patio.
On top of that, our landlord is Paul Tamburello, someone deeply invested in building Sunnyside and someone who has turned out to be as much of a mentor as a landlord.
Then the fun started.
All of it was stressful.
But a lot of it was a fun adventure, too.
We went to the Fancy Food Show in New York City to source product for the store. We tasted our way through what felt like all 80,000 products offered. We literally ate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for three days straight. We raced to sample everything before the show ended, collected cards and took notes at each booth.
Next stop, the American Cheese Society’s annual meeting.
There, we rekindled many of the cheesemaker friendships we had from the winery days and plotted ways to bring their very special cheeses to Denver.
We also spent three days in Ann Arbor, Michigan, taking classes at the legendary Zingerman’s business training program, where we mastered the art of creating a culture that values both the customer, the employee and the food artisans.
We can’t wait to share what we learned.
And we traveled the country, visiting dozens of cheese shops in New York, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Sometimes we spent a couple hours picking the brains of the nation’s cheese elite and sometimes we spent a day or more with owners.
Finally, we went to Cheese Camp for three days at Jasper Hills Farm in Vermont, arguably the epicenter of the American artisan cheese movement.
But our journey, and our cheese-education, continued.
We spent 10 days touring the state and visiting with cheese makers who invited us into their homes, their make rooms and their milking parlors, eager to share their passion with us.
We made our first wholesale purchase – cheese for our booth at the Sunnyside music festival – on the side of the road in rural Vermont from one of the nation’s most respected cheesemakers, Peter Dixon at Parish Hill Creamery.
In between all these travels, in Denver we worked with incredibly talented architects, Shane Martin of Arrow B Architecture; graphic designers, Can of Creative; and web developers, New Media Denver, to bring our vision to life.
We’ve spent countless hours in various city buildings getting building permits, attending liquor license hearings and paying fees.
We’ve cried over craft beers when Denver’s real estate boom meant our building permit was delayed by two months, pushing our anticipated Oct. 1 opening to mid-December, causing us to miss the valuable holiday season.
We’ve made new friends with other new cheese entrepreneurs in the city, sharing vendor suggestions and commiserating about the stressful startup process.
And local food producers, who have done the start-up thing, such as Hellimaes and Modern Gingham Preserves, helped bolster us with their enthusiasm and encouragement.
We encountered more roadblocks than we ever could have imagined.
How do we get those great American cheeses, typically made on the two coasts, to Denver?
We decided to set up our own distribution system and learn what “cross docking” means, how to rent space at a cold storage warehouse in NYC and how to set up an account with a trucking company.
And, what do you mean we might be done with construction, but unable to open because the master building wasn’t able to get its fire alarm inspection?
How many calls will it take to get Xcel to install a box so we can not only work, but so we can also get our own alarm systems approved? (Not as many as we feared, but more than we hoped).
Also, how do we become masters of human resources policy, taxation, e-commerce, e-marketing, general construction, graphic design and the myriad other things that no one thinks about when they come into our shop to discover a new cheese or to enjoy a cheese plate and a glass of wine?
Well, one does that by giving up all other distractions that used to make life worth living, like sleeping and hiking.
But, once we saw the sheetrock go up and the cheese cases delivered, it was all worth it.
It’s been a long, exhausting, exciting, educational, emotional, inspiring two years to get to this point.
But somehow it seems right to have moved from trimming sheep hooves and learning how to birth lambs to curating an amazing collection of cheeses in a new shop in the foothills of mountains like the ones that inspired us in Nepal.