Chatting Cheese: LittleJohn Interview with Cheese Importers

Originally published Wednesday, October 7th 2020

Tired of the grocery store’s boring cheese options? Ready to have your cheese horizons broadened?

Well, now’s your chance!

LittleJohn Produce Box Project collaborated with Cheese Importers in Longmont to provide you with the option to add cheese boxes to your weekly subscription. The cheese selections rotate monthly, and you can add a cheese box for just $20! Additionally, Cheese Importers is a new subscription box pick-up location, in addition to our Boulder and Denver locations.

Cheese Importers is a specialty store and French bistro located in Longmont, and has been family-owned and operated since 1976. While they do specialize in cheese, the retail store also offers a variety of cured meats, spices, oils, wines, and other unique products. Their French bistro — though temporarily closed now — is an excellent place to grab a panini sandwich or a fresh salad for lunch.

We sat down to chat with Samm White, current owner of Cheese Importers and the son of its original founders.

LittleJohn: I just wanted to start off by asking a little bit about the business, Cheese Importers...so why cheese? What was it about this particular business model that excited your parents so much?

Samm: Because it kind of fell into my lap as a direction being the second-generation family owner[...]I think that [my parents] came from a time when people didn’t really know their food and they were introduced to cheeses and fine foods and a different way of eating than they had maybe grown up with in their younger years. That was through my Uncle Ben, who was an East Coast importer and distributor. We recognized that cheese came from a pretty raw, basic source of production[...]that became available to my dad, and he tried to make a life importing them and sharing them with everyone in the Boulder Valley.

Your parents, were they originally from Colorado?

No, my dad grew up in San Diego[...]and met my mom when they were traveling to Europe. They met on a boat when he was dodging the draft and my mother was going to the Sorbonne academy in France. They kind of had a connection on the boat, but then went their separate ways. And then a week and a half or two weeks later, they met each other on the streets of Paris, and my mom dropped out of the Sorbonne and left with my dad. They enjoyed Paris and all of the new foods and new thought processes[...]they got their big taste of how cultures were built on cheeses, essentially.

Yeah, I feel like cheese is one of those foods that really taps into why we eat in the first place, beyond just to get nutrients. You know, we have cheese plates for social events, it’s a very social thing too.

It is, it brings people together at the same plate, essentially. It’s a whole other level of connection with each other, and the person who makes it puts a lot of time and effort into their presentation[...]It can be a big production, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

So, that’s what intrigued [my father] and my parents built their love around that, I’m seeing now as I’ve taken over the business.

So what excites you the most about LittleJohn Produce Box Project? What got you interested in being a pickup location?

I offered to be a drop zone because I had a lot of refrigerated shelf space that had storage at the top, and could help promote the LittleJohn situation and extend their reach hopefully. Sometimes you just have to keep giving, which I think is synonymous with Cheese Importers and what we pour into what we try to present to our customers[...]Everybody’s super excited.

We’re super happy to have you as a part of it! Moving on to that thing that’s looming over all of our heads...the pandemic. COVID-19 was the catalyst for LittleJohn, but I wanted to know a little bit about your experience with the pandemic as far as Cheese Importers goes. What’s changed for your business?

Oh man..well, there’s been a lot of cheeses gone bad, I’ll start with that. But, we donated a lot of cheese before it went bad. We closed our doors, but then were allowed to be open because we were considered “essential.” We switched gears really quick, we had a lot of people talking on the phone and doing custom shopping[...]curbside pickups.

The bistro right now is still shut and it’s probably going to stay shut until they loosen restrictions[...]it’s been kind of nice, because it’s awfully calm in that building. When we were seating there [pre-pandemic], there was a line past the bathrooms.

That’s good you’ve found ways to adapt, I know that’s a challenge every business has had to navigate.

We’ve been utilizing employees in every way we can. We started with eighty-two employees and now we’re at just over 50 for the team.

In the midst of all this chaos, is there something in particular that you’re super excited about moving forward with Cheese Importers? What do you have on the horizon?

We’ve really been helping out other businesses, lots of restaurants, that are coming back alive. And coming back to our business as it was, working as we always have and keeping the joy.

We’re also working on our retail packaging, since we’ve seen a lot of retail sales increase and have found the need for a differentiation in labeling. So we’re really re-focusing on the retail and that’s a great thing that I’ve wanted. Then there’s LittleJohn, which is going to put Cheese Importers out to people, then people are going to see it in a store and go “Oh, Cheese Importers! I know that, I’ll buy that.”

That’s great to hear, it’s wonderful that you have a vision for where you want the business to go and that you’re making it happen. Now I was curious, do you have a favorite type of cheese?

What I’m thinking about right now[...]is an Italian cheese called la tur. It’s a three-milk cheese - cow, goat, and sheep. It tastes kind of like a brie, and the inside of it is just amazing. I think that one would be my favorite today, because it’s nice and cool. There’s a description[...]that says it’s cheese’s closest approximation to ice cream, if you can imagine that.

You just taught me something new, I’d never heard of that cheese! I feel like people are so used to the cheese at the grocery store, that’s in the blocks or shredded.

Yeah, people get inspired when they come into the Cheese Importers. There has to be something with cheese[...]“Do I need some cheese?” That’s what people think, which is amazing[...]It makes my eyes water thinking about it.

It’s exciting. When you’re buying cheese in that capacity, you’re buying it for some special occasion, you’re buying it for a treat, you’re buying it for something beyond just the everyday. Especially in a place like [Cheese Importers] surrounded by all these types you can’t get in the grocery store.

It is a special occasion, it’s celebratory, and that’s where the energy comes from. It’s amazing that people bring that energy when they come in.

I feel totally fortunate. I’m super lucky to have people identify with what we love and to share that with them. I have to give credit to my mom and my sister.

Before you go, I have to ask you this question and it’s a weird one. If you could be any fruit or vegetable, what would you be and why?

I would be an apricot, because you always want to look for the apricots that are blushing. That’s when they’re ready to eat, and that’s me. When I’m blushing, I’m having the most fun.

I love that, that’s much more poetic than anything I’d think of. Thank you so much for talking to me, it was a pleasure!

Thank you for talking about Cheese Importers and sharing our story and taking part in it.

Someone once told me, and I hadn’t ever verified anything, but in your brain you have receptors, and the receptor that’s there that fires when you do heroin is also the same receptor that fires when you eat cheese. I don’t know if there’s certain cheeses or certain molds, but I think that’s a little bit why people like it so much[...] this could be totally unreliable, but it’s something that’s stuck with me all these years.


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