Startup Grant Contest update: The Cheese Traveler

The Cheese Traveler's Eric Paul was a runner up in the first Startup Contest.

There are just a few days left to enter a business idea in the All Over Albany Startup Grant Contest, sponsored by Staff Ciampino & Company P.C., Certified Public Accountants. One winner will receive $1,500 from Berkshire Bank to help start up a new business, or take an existing business to the next level. You should apply. Don't wait! The deadline is Friday.

The Cheese Traveler was a finalist in the second Startup Grant Contest in 2012. Back then cheesemonger Eric Paul was selling artisan and farm cheeses at farmers' markets, but he had a plan to team up with Tilldale Farms to open a storefront.

Today Eric operates The Cheese Traveler, selling artisan cheeses and specialty foods as well as meats from Tilldale, at a shop on Delaware Avenue.

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cheese traveler cheese in the finals
Eric with his wife Ali and Joanne Tilley of Tilldale Farms at the startup grant final in 2012.

It's been two years since you competed for the startup grant. Since then you've opened The Cheese Traveler storefront, obviously, but what else is new?

Certainly the store is new. But we've had a chance to be here and get established and start building and growing the customer base and to continue developing the product selection that we have. It's changed quite a bit and filled in quite a bit. We've added a lot of different services -- we've added the sandwiches and lunch service and we've continued to grow our restaurant program where we are supplying restaurants around the Capital District and teaming up with chefs. And the other thing that has changed around us is the marketplace -- even with our neighbors, All Good Bakers [closing], the coop moving, The Grocery [opening] and Whole Foods coming.

Is all that good or bad for The Cheese Traveler?

It's both. I think the biggest thing about that is it forces us to be clear about who we are and what we are doing. Other people might be doing whatever but we have a good idea about who we are and what we do and it's OK to have a good clear identity about that.

We primarily consider ourselves a cheese shop where we have 100 to 125 cheeses but we offer mostly small scale and traditional products and a high level of service. We are committed to searching for the products and providing the service.

While you didn't actually win the contest, how was it helpful?

Just having a team of judges who have been in business and have experienced what were were about to begin as a small business was helpful. After the contest we went back and double checked our plans and made sure that everything was working and that we were solid on what we were doing. We realized we had some work to do. But with the support we received in the first round public voting we realized that we had, over time, developed people that were interested in what we we were doing. We had developed some enthusiasm.

What has been your greatest challenge as a business owner?

To be perfectly honest, the most challenging thing are people who didn't feel I should open this shop because other places that already existed . I believe that what I do is different, but it forces us to keep working and I think it's good.

What I am probably first and foremost is a buyer, but my job is also to connect with each customer that comes through the door. We take our customer service seriously. We're trying to offer classes now designed to train customers on how to be equipped to walk into the store so we can connect with them over good food and give people info so they can go home and connect with their families and friends over good food.

We also plan to get a liquor license to do beer and cider. We are talking about doing grilled or pit dinners a couple of times a month in the warmer weather -- things like that. What we try to do is to create occasions. We have cheese maker tastings coming up -- talking with other producers about tastings. We want as many people as possible to meet the producers that make cheeses for us. We'll also expand our menu on the prepared foods side.

What advice do you have for folks entering this year?

I think the thing that helped me most is that I got help and I tried not to be discouraged about people who questioned why we were going into retail. I got help from Community Loan Fund but also the UAlbany Small Business Development Center. I had each one look at what the other said and surround myself with as much help as possible -- trying to facilitate a conversation that ultimately was there to support me as a business. I think that helped and if nothing else it was a conversation that helped me to move forward.

The Cheese Traveler advertises on AOA.

Comments

"We're trying to offer classes now designed to train customers on how to be equipped to walk into the store so we can connect with them over good food and give people info so they can go home and connect with their families and friends over good food."

I've been in Cheese Traveller several times. I like the store, but I must admit I felt a bit awkward becuse of my inability to speak fluently about cheese. Maybe with one of those training classes I would be better equipped to shop there.

@Rob, We're excited to start Cheese School to give people information, so the shop is a more comfortable experience. Cheese School starts on 4/23/2014 with a session of Cheese 101, which will cover the basics of cheesemaking, milk types, styles of cheese, affinage (the art of aging cheese), and more. You can find ticket and general information here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/588240

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