A Monger Among Us
Steve Jones a giant in Portland’s cheese scene
When you consider the evolution of cheese in Portland in the last decade, you realize how it is intrinsically connected with Steve Jones, a longtime champion of cheese and cheesemakers.
His story mirrors the growth of local food artisans and directly influenced the development of both an educated and passionate consumer and the skilled mongers to care for and sell the cheese.
After stints working at cheese counters in the Midwest and in Portland, he reached a turning point.
“I was approaching 40 and thought, at some point, I have to do this for myself,” Jones said. It’s pretty hard to imagine that you’ll be a monger full time for someone else for the rest of your life, so Steve’s [Cheese] was my first jump into my own thing.”
Steve’s Cheese opened in Square Deal Wine in trendy Northwest Portland in 2006. The concept was genius in target marketing to his ideal customer. From this small space, only about 300 square feet, his renown grew.
His cheese-centric efforts were amplified through a popular wholesale restaurant program, which exposed more people to emerging cheeses from a cadre of now-lauded producers whom Jones championed early.
It’s not easy being cheesy. Owning your own cheese shop involves challenging variables, such as low volume, perishability and seasonality. In order for a business like Steve’s to succeed, a steady flow of talented suppliers must be creating consistently high quality products that are also available. Once supplier relationships have been developed and the cases are filled, it takes know-how and knowledge to sell the cheeses at their peak.
Finding people with a genuine interest in cheese who are also capable of steep learning curves and willing to earn service job wages is no small feat. But as the industry has grown, so has the number of skilled mongers; and luckily, Jones has hired many of the best.
In 2010, the opportunity to expand into yet another area of interest — craft beer — led to the creation of Cheese Bar (6031 S.E. Belmont St.), a neighborhood hot spot with a small, cheese-focused menu, rotating taps and a cheese and charcuterie case spanning the region and globe.
The name change was a risk, but the ever-humble Jones insisted that his mongers be front and center.
“I hired all these great mongers and everyone came in wanting to talk to Steve,” he said. “I got tired of saying, ‘Everyone is Steve,’ and thought it was an insult to my mongers, actually. Here, we have these talented people whom others didn’t want to work with because they wanted to work with this one person. You should be working with the cute young monger instead of the old cranky guy!”
Last year, he embarked on his most ambitious expansion to date, launching two significant projects at the same time: Chizu (1126 S.W. Alder St.) and Cheese Annex (630 S.E. Belmont St.).
Chizu (Japanese for cheese), a micro-restaurant with only 17 seats in the up-and-coming West End neighborhood of downtown Portland, is modeled after a sushi bar, in that you can design your own experience by choosing as many portion-sized cheese selections — served strictly at their prime — and accompaniments as you like. Or guests can opt for the omakase route, ceding a bit of control to the mongers for a special feast. On tap is a range of beer, wine and hard cider that Jones plans to explore in terms of cheese pairing.
The space, formerly a lingerie shop located in the exact building he’d envisioned when he began contemplating the concept two years earlier, is really small — only 450 square feet. Complicating matters, the lease was available at an inconvenient time, as Jones was also committed to launching Cheese Annex.
“We were saying yes to two things during the busiest month of the retail year,” he says. “It was the hardest, work-wise, four months of my life, without a doubt.”
The third venture, Cheese Annex features a menu of cheese and charcuterie boards, fondue and grilled cheese, and is located inside The Commons Brewery. The food is crafted with beer pairing in mind.
Now, several months in, the concepts are firing on all cylinders, and he’s a bit more relaxed. Management of three venues means better inventory and more refrigerated space, providing flexibility to bring in larger pallets of cheese and from farther abroad.
His creative approach to business is what’s keeping Jones’ cheese dream alive. Today, most shops incorporate dine-in menus, wholesale services or full restaurant concepts to achieve viability; he incorporates all three.
“The independent cheese shop is probably not something that is sustainable as a stand-alone,” he said. “Ten years ago you could do it, because there weren’t so many large chains with well-stocked cases and trained people,” Jones continued. “The entire availability of quality cheese has climbed dramatically.”
Thankfully, Jones has been innovative in his business approach, fueling what has become a serious cheese scene in Portland. He is major part of the artisan cheese movement that’s not about to sour any time soon.
If you want to meet the makers of your local and regional favorites, head on down to the Wedge Festival, Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Green Dragon Bistro (S.E. Ninth and Belmont streets) from noon to 5 p.m. Proceeds benefit the Oregon Cheese Guild.