Broadway, the longest street in Manhattan, has almost everything a person could possibly want to buy, eat, drink, wear, or watch, although until now, it has never had a cheese-making plant as far as I know.
A man from Seattle, Kurt Beecher Dammeier, saw to that last month when he opened the second Beecher’s cheese store in, of all places, New York City. For some time he had contemplated growing the production capacity of his store in the Pike Place Market, where he opened the first Beecher’s in 2003 at Pine Street and Pike Place.
Expanding into the industrial blocks south of downtown Seattle would have made sense, as would a move to the outer suburbs like Duvall, where the Seattle plant gets its raw milk. But what Dammeier had in mind was less practical and more romantic and aspirational.
“We want to show people where their food comes from,” Dammeier said, explaining the broader philosophy of his cheese enterprise, which has grown considerably since 2003 and even includes a foundation devoted to the aforementioned mission. Beecher’s Seattle factory operates at capacity, 24 hours a day, producing a half-million pounds of cheese a year.
“We want to change the way people eat,” he said. “If you want to get people thinking about that, you should go where the most people are.”
And after all, “New York’s supposed to be the big apple, right?” he said this week in Beecher’s New York space, which is more than twice the size of the original. (New York first got under Dammeier’s skin in January 2008, when he visited the city to appear on a segment of the "Martha Stewart Show.")
“People are amazed at how open it is in here,” he said.
The holding tank for the milk, the piping, and the steel troughs used to make cheese are visible from in the store and the street through giant plate-glass windows, as they are in the original Beecher’s.
At noon, in the middle of the week, the operation is usually in high gear, with rivers of curd and whey flowing in the troughs, waiting to be drained and pressed, on their way to becoming cheese.
While the Seattle Beecher’s is located on the city’s tourist highway, the New York Beecher’s is located on the somewhat inconspicuous, southeast corner of Broadway and 20th Street, not exactly Times Square or Columbus Circle. It is three blocks south of the Flatiron Building, for which the neighborhood around it is named. The area is distinguished by a preponderance of stores that sell home furnishings. As it happens, Beecher’s is also three blocks north of the Union Square Greenmarket, the city’s largest open-air food market.
Dammeier’s own New York look is simple and understated, a modestly trimmed beard, white polo shirt and jeans, no different than what he might wear in Seattle. The store’s New York look is something else. Below the main floor of the store is a restaurant and lounge called The Cellar, a dimly lighted room deep with atmosphere.
Banquettes are upholstered in actual cowhide from real cows — not Beecher’s cows, Dammeier clarified. Some of the bench seating is built atop the original stone footings of the 125-year-old building. Leather club chairs and sconces impart the feel of a den or private library.Were not trying to bring Seattle here, nor are we trying to do the New York thing.
Dammeier, 52, who is the executive chef at Beecher’s, commissioned the artwork in The Cellar from the neighbor of his sister, who lives in Vermont (the store stocks plenty of Vermont cheese). The art on the walls has a Gary Larson bent, featuring anthropomorphized animals engaged in witty repartee.
The menu of The Cellar features, of course, cheese, cold cuts, soups, salads, and a handful of entrees like salmon, and braised pork — it also has a full bar and mixes fancy cocktails. To remind customers they are eating in a cheese factory, Dammeier installed a a working cheese cellar with a glass wall, so diners can see wheels of a washed rind cheese aging over a period of three months. The cheese, called Flatiron, is made only in the New York store, not in Seattle.
"We’re not trying to bring Seattle here, nor are we trying to do the New York thing,” said Dammeier, who opened the New York Beecher’s not just to sell more of his cheese but to offer a comprehensive selection of artisanal, American cheeses from all over the country.
The cheese counter stocks Beecher’s flagship cheese and what Dammeier called a “greatest hits” of American cheese from New York, New England, the Pacific Northwest, California, and Wisconsin, among other places. Beecher’s sells no imported varieties. American cheese might not possess the breadth that European cheeses do, but is “every bit as good,” Dammeier said, bringing to mind the earlier days of American winemaking.
There are three components to the New York store: the retail cheese counter, which also sells only American-made charcuterie, a novel concept; The Cellar, which aims to compete with high-end wine bars and lounges; and the café which sells casual, lunch food and comes with a coffee bar.
The ability to sell several kinds of foods in distinctly different formats is something he could not have done in the Pike Place Market, which enforces strict rules about “maintaining the small scale independent character of the market,” Dammeier wrote. “Not a bad thing. Just easier for us here in NYC.”
The Pike Place Market rule prohibits Beecher’s from selling much else besides cheese there. Items like coffee, wine, the charcuterie, would be off-limits in the market. Beecher’s cheese, and more to the point, the way it openly displays the cheese-making process, is how the new shop will stand out in New York.
There are other cheese shops in the city that sell fine, imported and local cheeses, Dammeier said, such as legendary Murray’s and the newer Lucy’s Whey, both located in downtown neighborhoods. Murray’s sells everything in stunning variety. Lucy’s specializes, like Beecher’s, in American cheese made in small batches. But neither makes or ages cheese in the store.
The cheese-making process is meant to be part of the show at Beecher’s, where you can watch from a dining mezzanine set above the factory floor, performance art of a sort.
Beecher’s commitment to New York is serious; Dammeier signed a 21-year lease on the Broadway storefront that will take him past retirement age.
He spent pretty much all of July and August in New York, although he did fly back to Seattle for a day this week to watch one of his three sons play in the state Little League championship. His sons are 17, 15, 10. He has coached all of them in youth football, basketball, and baseball. Once his youngest turns 12, he will be done coaching youth sports, a passion that equals his for cheese.
After this summer, he will travel to New York once or twice a month as needed. He currently sublets an apartment nearby, but will likely end up securing some kind of permanent dwelling in New York.
He said he is too old to take red-eye flights anymore. He flies during the day, taking his work aboard, and pays the $12 for in-flight internet so he can stay productive. His airline of choice, Alaska, “even serves Beecher’s on its flights.