A couple of weeks ago I found myself, following several strong espresso shots, at Antonelli’s Cheese Sho p in Austin, Texas, number eight in a line of about 15 people neatly assembled for some Sunday afternoon cheese communion.
By KIMBERLY WINTER STERN
Whenever I’m in slow-moving traffic, I stop to smell the roses and study my surroundings, sizing up the situation.
The mood is at-once friendly and intense, with people staring into Antonelli’s shiny cheese case, studying the well-curated display of blues, semi-soft, washed rinds and soft-ripened/bloomy types from cheesemakers around the country.
For obvious reasons — aside from the fact that there are lots of cows in Texas — Antonelli’s carries myriad Lone Star State cheeses from Waco, Flower Mound, Plano, Granbury, Austin and Dallas, among other burgs.
The shop’s warm red brick walls are lined with neatly arranged shelves of beer, wine, crackers and preserves and logoed Antonelli’s caps and tote bags and cookbooks, cheese knives and boards.
There’s a jar of Rare Hawaiian Organic White Honey that has me intrigued and Austin’s Confituras small batch, locally sourced jams and jellies, shine like jewels from their position in front of a window.
Overhead is the signature hip music that seems to be Austin’s good juju soundtrack — in the land of the trendsetting South by Southwest annual music festival, everywhere you go unfamiliar tunes create a pleasing backdrop for dining, shopping, recreating.
Today at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, I’m doing all three.
Three efficient and engaging Antonelli cheesemongers — Brad, Dan and Traci — glide back and forth from the service counter, obliging customers wanting to taste this cheese or that. They patiently and enthusiastically respond to questions, offer information and diligently work to find the perfect match for each and every palate.
Behind me on line is a couple with their young child; they tell me this is a regular 40-minute-each-way trek from the other side of Austin. It was word-of-mouth that alerted them to the cheese scene at Antonelli’s teeny-tiny shop in the city’s historic Hyde Park district.
“What’s that?” The toddler balanced in her father’s arms points at a large apothecary jar filled with marcona almonds.
“And that?” She doesn’t wait for a reply, instead moving her finger to another jar packed with fat, dried apricots that glisten under the hooded lamps suspended from Antonelli’s ceiling.
“Stuff to eat with cheese,” the father answered his inquisitive kid. “Good stuff.”
In front of me is a 20-something who lives in the neighborhood. Antonelli’s is a weekly — and sometimes biweekly — stop where she samples cheeses, purchasing carefully wrapped chunks for entertaining or to accompany a meal.
This afternoon she is preparing her favorite cold-weather dish, slow-cooked beef bourguignon, and wants a bit of cheese to nibble on.
“Really, being at Antonelli’s today is all about me,” she says. “I won’t serve cheese with the stew. It’ll be gone before then.”
At the front of the queue are chatty out-of-towners from Houston, at Antonelli’s because an informed Austinite told them about the must-have experience.
Cheesemonger Traci is focused entirely on the conversant couple, guiding them through the tasting process, educating them with snippets about this or that cheese, slicing off slivers of Iowa’s Le Quercia artisan-cured salumi from the well-stocked charcuterie selection, throwing in an olive or almond.
Somewhere in the middle of the line is a professorial-looking man, hand on his chin and glasses perched at the end of his nose, peering into the cheese case.
He motions to a small round.
“Let me try that,” he said, closing his eyes as the sample of cheese Traci hands him seems to melt in his mouth.
“This,” explained Traci, whose Houston customers are now gone, exiting the shop with a sack bulging with Antonelli’s treasures, “is Woolly Rind, from Green Dirt Farm in Weston, Mo. It’s a farmstead sheep’s milk cheese, Camembert-style.”
My ears perked up.
“Excellent,” said the man. “I’ll take some.”
My pride in Kansas City’s artisan food scene is visible only to me that Sunday in Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, but I can’t resist connecting the dot with the customer.
“I know the cheesemakers and have been on their farm,” I offered. “I’ve even seen the sheep, and have met the dogs who herd them.”
The Woolly Rind customer and Traci, Brad and Dan, along with the cheese lovers on line, turn to smile at me, united in a common bond.
I don’t know if I impacted the sale of Woolly Rind at Antonelli’s on that Sunday, but I do know this: flying the flag of award-winning cheese from my home turf felt mighty good.
As I left Antonelli’s clutching a bag filled with goodies for a picnic back in my Austin hotel room, suddenly I’m homesick for my KC cheese shop of choice, The Better Cheddar.
A childhood memory that has absolutely nothing to do with cheese but everything to do with the customer service culture Antonelli’s dispenses pops into mind as I move forward in the line.
I’m with my mother, in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, being fitted for Stride Rite shoes by Hy, one of the shoe salesmen at J.C. Penney.
It was a long process, I recall, from the moment Hy greeted us to the time we abandoned the messy pile of shoes I had tried on and left with a sack containing a box.
Inside that box was a pair of shoes guaranteed to be exactly what my tiny but growing feet required for maximum comfort and support.
Every time I needed new shoes, we paid Hy a visit. My mom liked him, the authentic customer care he gave us, along with his knowledge and confident expertise.
Eventually my younger sister, Molli, joined our shoe-buying expeditions. My aunts took my cousins.
Hy was our family shoe guy, no doubt about it.
Kendall and John Antonelli are the vivacious entrepreneurial couple that established their eponymous cheese shop in Austin’s Hyde Park.
Since opening the doors in 2010, two years following John’s declaration during their 2008 honeymoon that he intended to quit his job as a CPA and ‘do something in cheese,’ Antonelli’s has turned Austin’s cheese scene on its wedge.
Not producers but collectors of very good artisan cheeses, the Antonelli’s have — in between starting a family and opening Antonelli’s Cheese House across the street from the shop — cultivated a cheese culture that draws crowds.
Cheese aficionados eager to buy some of the best cheese around flock to Antonelli’s to purchase and also sign up for classes at the Cheese House, whose hip interior is scattered with signs bearing pithy cheese sayings such as, “Let it Brie.”
“Every decision we make for our business is intentional,” says Kendall, eight months pregnant with the couple’s second child. “There’s a big difference in being a mom-and-pop operation, building from the ground up, to looking like a mom-and-pop operation.”
Painstaking attention to detail has served Kendall and John well. Antonelli’s has more than 50 regular wholesale clients, delivering cheeses to some of Austin’s top restaurants and stores. They conduct sold-out classes and private events at the charming Cheese House, and have a robust to-go service with beautifully styled, custom-ordered cheeseboards.
Clients are always in the dedicated retail store, sampling and smacking their lips in delight.
Kendall, who worked in a nonprofit helping victims of human trafficking, and John started out by throwing cheese parties in their home, about a block from their Hyde Park location in Austin’s Rosedale neighborhood.
“We did cheese and beer pairings, cheese and wine pairings and it resonated with our friends and family,” said Kendall. “It grew into a bona fide cheese club.”
“We weren’t cheese connoisseurs at that point,” added John. “But we did these gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches for the parties and enjoyed the communal aspect of gathering friends. We read a lot, did research, started sourcing local cheeses, went to cheese boot camps and conferences, interned for French affineur Herve Mons, and traveled throughout Europe eating cheese.”
The Antonelli’s envisioned a business whose trademark was cut-to-order style of service in a warm and relaxed atmosphere with a taste-before-you-buy philosophy.
Fast-forward to 2013, a sunny Sunday October afternoon in Austin. Since opening precisely at noon on Feb.11, Antonelli’s has weathered an economic downturn to become a small-but-mighty cheese presence in a food-centric town.
John, the youngest member to sit on the distinguished American Cheese Society board, and Kendall, who carries her passionate gospel of cheese wherever she goes, are humbled by their success.
“We have great people — the producers, the farmers — behind us,” said John. “It’s our responsibility to tell their stories to our customers and retail partners.”
Duly noted — the Antonelli’s and their nine cheesemongers are consummate matchmakers, of the cheese variety.
If you’re in Austin, drop into Antonelli’s for a little cheese love.
And if you want the Kansas City version of the Antonelli’s experience, hurry on over to one of The Better Cheddar locations. Like the shoes Hy so meticulously fitted me with back at J.C. Penney in Sioux City, they have the just-right cheese for you, guaranteed.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.