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Saxelby Cheesemongers: An American Artisan Legend

The Cheese Grotto featuring Saxelby Cheeses, Photo cred Anne Saxelby

Head Shot by C Bay Millin

American Cheese Independence
Anne Saxelby on Handmade Cheese
Interview from March 2014

There is no direct subway path to Saxelby Cheesemongers’ warehouse gates.  One must venture through the side streets of Carroll Gardens and over a foot bridge to a neighborhood that can only be described as desolate and deserted. 

Red Hook lines the Hudson River.  The Statue of Liberty stands to the west while Manhattan looms to the north.   During Hurricane Sandy, numerous startup food and drink companies’ office spaces suffered from harsh winds and rising tides.

The wind chill is in full force on this wintry afternoon.  Hunching over, I pummel through frosty, stark streets.  Two men heft sacks of coffee beans into the neighboring Stumptown Coffee Roasters warehouse as I turn the corner on a dead end street, coming upon a black staircase.  A small, handsome plaque brandishes the wall of the compact building entrance.  A female silhouette riding a bicycle with the words SAXELBY CHEESEMONGERS is printed in gold capped lettering.

Saxelby, my opportunity for warmth, opens the door.  Her clear brown eyes receive me excitedly and her slender frame makes a gentle bowing gesture as she calmly motions me inside.

“Hello, Jessica.”

She holds a certain generosity of spirit that is both unnerving and inspiring.  A smile flickers on her face and then quickly dissipates in a reflective moment, “It’s cold out there.  Do you want to come into the office to get warm?”

The warehouse is compact; a walk-in cooler is straight ahead.  Anne leads me to the right into a small office space with three desks.  A man sits at one, looking up graciously as we enter the room. 

“Benoît, this is Jessica.  We are going to conduct an interview, do you need silence?” Saxelby emphasizes the word with a French accent.  Benoît is her business partner; for almost eight years together they have made Saxelby Cheesemongers one of the most coveted distributors of domestic, handmade, small batch cheeses in New York City.  Anne Saxelby has become a symbol of American cheese independence.  She is the counterculture to tubes of Velveeta and packaged slices of Kraft.  Saxelby and Benoit find their inspiration from the small and nuanced versus the large and heavily processed.  New York restaurateurs and gourmet food retailers have followed suit.

“No, no it’s fine.  I’m just finishing up actually,” Benoît says after shaking my hand firmly. It is fitting that her business partner is French.  Saxelby decided to become a cheese professional after traveling abroad in Paris.  Upon graduating with a fine art degree from NYU, Saxelby yearned to have her hands in a craft that was less esoteric, and more socially and environmentally active.  Parisian specialty cheese shops offer a narrow focused approach to food sales.  Contrary to the expansive supermarkets that dominate the American market, Saxelby saw American handmade cheese as an opportunity to fuse creative expression and business.

So Anne and I dive into a fast-paced conversation about the vision behind her cheese company. 

Their mission at Saxelby Cheesemongers is to be the bridge between the farmer and the consumer.  Saxelby carries the burden of choosing and consolidating fine American cheeses.  This has not proven easy.  American small cheese makers are fraught with inconsistencies.  Their production is not catered to the standardizing tactics of the agribusiness marketplace. Their cheese making equipment is minimal and their quantities are limited. 

“Chefs shouldn’t have to wait weeks to get butter from Pennsylvania, but what can you do?” Saxelby says, slightly exasperated.  Apparently, chefs can and do wait.  The taste and the texture of small batch American dairy has proven irresistible.

In 2006, Saxelby spearheaded her business in a 120 square foot space in the Essex Market in Manhattan. She frequently describes those beginning days as “a garage sale.” For the first nine months,  before meeting Benoît, she worked every day from open till close, strapping twenty to fifty pounds of cheese to her back, and then hopping on her faithful bicycle to make delivery runs to local restaurants.

 “In the beginning, it was like rolling a boulder up a hill.  Six days a week, eleven hours a day.”

Her timing in opening was critical to the shop’s success. Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, had just created a political upset in the American community.  Consumers began to demand to know more about where their food was coming from and how it was produced. Saxelby, the New York representative for the American artisan cheese community, was welcomed warmly into the food scene.

“In the early days, we did tastings and farm tours.  We used to rent a big old bus and cart everyone up there.  It was a lot of fun.”

She takes a certain amount of pride from the fact that high ranking French chefs throughout the city are smitten with the quality of American cheeses.  By 2011, the Saxelby wholesale market had grown exponentially.  She decided to begin to source a line of French cheeses from her mentor, Hervé Mons, based out of Pré Normand, France.  Saxelby mirrors Mons’ distribution system.  Their business values are similar. But Saxelby was surprised when she found that the French cheeses were a tough sell.  She had underestimated the power of her own American brand that she had established.

“It was as if everyone got my memo and was sticking to it,” she says incredulously. 

Perhaps this is because Anne had carved herself not only a business, but a voice.  Four years ago, Heritage Radio, a project started by Patrick Martins- the founder of Heritage Foods USA and Slow Food USA- offered Saxelby her own show.  She had been invited as a guest speaker on Chef Zak Pelaccio’s show Urban Foragers, in a feature called “The Ladies of Essex Street Market.”

Heritage Radio is located in a shipping container attached to the Brooklyn pizzeria, Roberta’s.  Roberta’s has been known for its independent entrepreneurial spirit, what with its exposure in the press for its urban rooftop edible garden, its raging summer outdoor parties ambushed by Manhattanites, and its former waitress serving her last round of pizza wearing only a pair of black transparent tights.  The community could be described as leftist and radical, making it a perfect home for a radio station inspired by Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food International.  Martins had the idea to start a political station about food that would have some likeness to Petrini’s Italian counterpart Radio Bra Red Waves.  The New Yorker calls Petrini’s radio project a “communist pirate show” that’s sole purpose was “to break the monopoly.”

It is hard to view Saxelby as a radical.  Perhaps it is because of her Mid-Western sense of humor and her ability to soften and charm both chefs in the restaurant industry and a long line of customers at her store. Perhaps it is because she speaks of her journey with an honest amazement that she has gotten as far as she has.  But Patrick Martins was taken with the idea of a cheese show, and once Anne got started on “Cutting the Curd,” she realized she couldn’t stop talking about cheese.

“I thought I was going to run out of material, but then I kept discovering more and more.  And now here I am, married to Patrick and we have a son….You never know how things will turn out.”  Martins and Saxelby have been married for two years, and their partnership reflects an ideal fusion of iconic food value systems.  They are a powerhouse team fighting for food transparency and quality in their daily life, solidifying their business purpose. 

It is at this moment in our conversation, that I start to fixate on the paradox of good quality food.  The larger goal of her industry is to build a stronger food system, but the foods themselves are only accessible to the more affluent, since the price point is always higher.  Saxelby addresses this inquiry in a matter of fact way.

“There are no efficiencies at scale.  Farmers take all of the risk and costs of labor.  The small cheese maker is doing all of the handling from start to finish.  Large scale producers of cheeses in Europe and America are less expensive because there is not as much labor involved from milking to final product.  The exchange rate is actually starting to even out the prices of small scale cheeses in both the US and Europe.” Saxelby emphasizes that both the small and medium scale cheese making production is charging as much as it takes to cover the costs of production.

Saxelby’s job is to find the market for the cheeses that deserve to be sold at a higher price point, and to help build a distribution infrastructure that does not fully exist.  Nonetheless, even in Wisconsin, a state that has the dairy history and infrastructure necessary to provide milk to cheese makers, is also finding the artisan cheese industry more appealing.  The price point for artisan cheese is much higher than agribusiness cheese.  The diversified distribution model is attractive for both small and medium scale productions. 

I decide to prod her a bit deeper on her opinion on American processed cheese, a dominant agribusiness operation.

“Not really cheese. Americans invented that shit.” It’s standardized science at its best, rather than a handcrafted expression of milk. “Sometimes Patrick buys that Organic Valley Cheddar and feeds it to our son, I think just to spite me.  I’m like, what are you doing to me?”

The phone then rings. Not once, but twice.  It’s 4:33pm.  We have covered the span of her eight year journey in a matter of thirty minutes.  She looks at me, chuckles shortly, and says, “The chefs are all waking up,” as she grabs the phone.  I didn’t even notice when Benoît left the office.

She tells whomever it is that now is not a good time and settles back into her chair, looking at me, alert.  Saxelby has simple yet growing ambitions for her business.  Honing and expanding the selection, increasing warehouse space and optimum storage conditions for cheeses, including aging projects in a regulated cave environment walk-in space, building the community, providing jobs and strengthening that symbiotic relationship with cheese makers.

In her mind, competition is not a concern, alluding to the fact that New York is a market place that is far from being oversaturated, “At root, everyone in the industry is dedicated.  I always say, ‘a rising tide floats all boats.’”

On that note, she invites me into her walk-in cooler space.  It is clean, with ample room for more cheeses to pass through the gates.  Scents of musk, earth and fruit foment the lactic air.  The cheeses are almost breathing with life on their shelves and in their boxes, despite being held consistently at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. It is at this moment that Saxelby tells me she is pregnant with her second child.  By the looks of her, one couldn’t tell.

She sends me on my way with a hand painted Marie Belle chocolate that I choose from an enormous box given to her by a client.  I pick one decorated with two adult cats dressed like cosmopolitans and one small child cat.  Each individual chocolate comes with a poem written in an accompanying brochure.  My chocolate, called Child’s Dream, states, “She peeked as her mother dressed.  She dreamed of someday when she could fit in her mother’s clothes.”

Anne shrugs and smiles at the poem, “Whatever it takes to sell their chocolate.”

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