Meet the Cheese LadyBy Jane Whitttington on July 17th, 2015 /
Kathleen Fagan Riegler spent some 20 years on the road selling for a large Chicago food seller and distributor. Then she went to Provence. She says now, “We just sort of haunted the local markets throughout that area of France. Each was a little different with distinctive specialties and local favorites, and they were all just wonderful. With a background in the food industry, I was used to selling large quantities, but in the local markets, the goods were fresh, local and specific to the area. When we came home, I said to my husband, ‘I think I want to quit my job and start selling cheese in local farmers’markets.’”
It wasn’t quite that simple, but Riegler and her husband took a chance and started selling cheese at the Farmers’ Market in their hometown of Muskegon. With her contacts in the food industry standing her in good stead, her product selection and knowledge of what she was selling, she was able to garner considerable interest from customers at their local market. Without competition at the market, her reputation and customer base grew.
Riegler says, “During the winter, we sold our products at a deli in Muskegon and eventually built a little shop at the back of my house called the Cheese Snug. Our business kept growing, and we finally bought a property and opened The Cheese Lady in May of 2007. Within a year, we had outgrown it, and we moved into a larger property on Terrace Street in downtown Muskegon. It’s a building with two spaces, and we rented the other side to a bakery. When the bakery left in 2010, we started selling olive oils and vinegars in that space.”
Happily for their bottom line, the Muskegon Farmers’ Market has moved very close to the store, and this has increased the traffic through The Cheese Lady.
About four years ago, a young woman from Kalamazoo approached the Rieglers and asked about opening up her own store in the Kalamazoo area. The Rieglers were open to franchising their idea but insisted that she work for a time with them in their store and also spend a summer selling at the Muskegon Farmers’ Market. Upon consideration of the difficulty of starting a small business and making it a success, they also decided that they would only franchise to those who could buy outright and not have to borrow money for the start-up. The Kalamazoo store opened in 2010 and has proven successful.
At this point, there are also franchises in Traverse City, Grand Rapids and Farmington. Another one is planned in Rochester for 2016.
Once The Cheese Lady is franchised, the collaboration doesn’t end there. The Rieglers visit each of the other stores at least once a month, and the leadership of the stores meets together three times a year to share their collective wisdom.
Riegler says, “We sell about 80 percent imported cheese and 20 percent domestic, artisan cheeses. We have about 150 different kinds of cheese in our store; our biggest seller is Irish Cheddar, followed by French Brie and Gouda. Most of our Gouda comes from Holland, and with the Dutch heritage in West Michigan, Gouda is always popular. Of course, there are about 20 different kinds of Gouda, and we sell them all.”
She continues, “Along with our cheeses, we sell all the things that accompany cheese–items like crackers, nuts, jams and the like. We also sell beer and wine in the store. “
At the beginning, the Rieglers had some assistance from SCORE, a free service that matches entrepreneurs with experienced mentors. However, Kathleen’s husband worked for a long time in the corporate world and, says Kathleen, “is the person who takes care of the books, the finances and the business end of things. I’m happier working directly with people and being the ‘face’ of the business.”
Beginning a new enterprise in 2007 was perhaps not the optimal time to go into business. But, despite the recession, the business grew steadily. Last year was their best yet. With Muskegon as a vacation destination, summer is the busiest season. Riegler says, “Muskegon Community College will be moving into the old newspaper building, and the Culinary School which opened downtown are also pluses to build our business.”
She continues, “We love Muskegon and are committed to the community. We live and work downtown, and we’re excited about Muskegon’s future.”
Food writer Anthony Bourdain says, “You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.”
Count Kathleen Fagan Riegler among those romantics!