The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts – Small Biz Stories, Episode 2

In this episode, we visit The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts to meet Peter Lovis.

Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.

You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Find us on Stitcher

You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Peter: He says, “Why? How much are you . . . ” He’s looking around a small little store and said, “How much you gonna buy?” I’m like, “15, 20 wheels.” His eyes popped in the back of his head. He says, “Well, you know they make a 400-pounder.” I’m like, “Well, I’ll buy a 400-pound wheel.” I know I’m gonna sell it. Right? I know I’m gonna sell that many pounds of this one cheese. I’ll buy a 400-pound wheel of cheese.

Dave: How many people do you know with that kind of confidence? I can surely think of one — his name is Peter Lovis, owner of The Cheese Shop in Concord, Massachusetts. But even with Peter’s confidence, that doesn’t mean there haven’t been moments of doubt. Today, you’ll hear from Peter as we explore how he got started in the cheese business, the day he thought he made his biggest mistake, and how he pushed through to continue to grow his business.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Dave: When you first meet Peter, you can see you’re meeting a man in his element. Half cheesemonger, half magician — he is the Willy Wonka of cheese. Standing behind the counter, handing out generous samples, those of us waiting in line, hold on to our numbers tightly as if we’re clutching our very own golden tickets.

Watching him in action, I wanted to know how he first got started. With almost 40 years in the cheese business, he remembers his first day like it was yesterday.

Peter: Well, I wanted a job. So I went downtown to the Green Grocer in New Jersey, Green Grocer and hardware store and deli and cheese shop and asking people if they’d give me a job. I was 15 years old. My first day was October 16, 1976. I just loved it. I’m still in touch with Mr. Knowles. He’s a great guy. He’s 90 this year.

Dave: Mr. Knowles was Peter’s first boss, and is still the inspiration for a lot of Peter’s own management style. Throughout our interview, Peter brought up a few lessons he learned from Mr. Knowles early on.

Peter: So, I started in October, October ’76. February of vacation week, 1977, February ’77, I hadn’t even worked there for six months. I was not even 16 years old yet. He said to me, “My wife and I are going to St. Bart’s for a week. Will you take care of the store?” So I was 15 years old. I had the keys to the store. I ran the store all by myself, all week.

Peter: Because of that investment that he put into me, that really drives that inspiration to continue to invest in young people and frame them. So many things that I do, so many things that I like about what I do,. . . so many things I like about the way I do things, I learned at the cheese shop when I was 15, 16 years old. Can you imagine giving a 15-year-old kid keys to a store?

Dave: Crazy. Yeah.

Peter: I’d ride my bike down. It’s three miles to work. Undo the alarm, set up the counter, take care of the customers, put it to bed at night, ride my bike home.

One of the things that’s real important to me as a businessperson and as a member of the community is young people. Young people . . . The more we invest in the younger people, the more we’re gonna get a return on that. Right? So I spend a lot of time and energy with young kids.

So a high school kid here will be probably six or eight years younger than the next youngest person, but we work with them. We give them great work habits. Like Cory… just had his 10th Christmas with me. He just graduated from college. He’s already been working for me for ten Christmases.

Dave: After Peter’s initial job at the cheese shop in New Jersey, he spent some time working with cheese importers and distributors. But it wasn’t long before he started thinking about what it would be like to get back into selling cheese directly to consumers.

Peter: Then in ’98, 1998, a good friend of mine, who I went to college with, was a general manager at this store. So when I’d go to buy cheese, I’d come here and pick up a few things. I got my wedding cheeses here. If I needed stuff shipped, she would take care of it. She wouldn’t just send me the stuff because she knew me. She knew I wanted the good stuff.

Dave: Yeah, yeah.

Peter: So in 1998, I was here, buying some cheese. She said, “You know, Peter, you should put an apron on and get back to the retail business.” I’m like, “I’ve been out of retail for a long time. I don’t know. It’s a special thing. I don’t know if I still got it.” “No, you should try it.”

So the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so not the day before Thanksgiving but the prior Wednesday, I knew it would be busy, but not crazy yet. I’d just kind of see if I still got it. I took a day off of work and came in here and put a cheese plate in my hand, and it was just great. Selling cheese is a gas. Selling cheese is a blast. It really is a lot of fun.

Dave: What makes it so fun?

Peter: Well, when you give somebody a taste, and you tell them a story, you get to watch their expression. They have a great time.

You watch their faces, and they’re loving it. You can tell a story, and you’re connecting people with product, and it’s passion. It’s very intimate. It’s just a lot of fun.

Dave: Soon Peter began taking more and more days off from work to help out at the Cheese Shop. Then, one night, the shop’s previous owners shared some news that pushed Peter to take a big leap.

Peter: It was Christmas Eve night, which is the big day. You know? I’m saying, “So long. I got to go home and take care of my baby. I’ll see you next year.” Bill’s wife, Louise, said, “We may not be here next year. The store is for sale.” So I raced home. I live just about an hour west of here. Raced home, got two speeding tickets that night on my way home, and signed a nondisclosure, made an offer, was accepted, and signed the purchase of sale in August ’01.

Dave: The Cheese Shop in Concord has been in business since 1967. As the store’s third owner, Peter works hard to deliver an experience that makes a lasting impression on its shoppers.

Dave: What makes your cheese shop different from other cheese shops out there?

Peter: Well, we’re one of the few that are still cut-to-order. So many are now what I call cut-and-dump. Cut it, price it, and let people pick it up. You can’t buy anything in my store without talking to a human being.

Dave: Okay.

Peter: Without talking to an intelligent human being who knows what they’re talking about, can tell the story. You don’t see . . . I have very low employee turnover. I spend a lot of time and energy thinking about employee turnover and how to avoid it. Kim is still new. She’s been here three years. You know? Arma has been with me for . . . I think she’s celebrating her 11th or 12th year with me, end of this month. Justin has been with me over ten years. Mary has been with me over ten years. Dave has been with me over ten years. Jen has been with me for four or five. Bri [SP] has been with me for seven.

Then the kids, the high school kids, there’s usually one or two of those. We train them in the summer because they want summer jobs, but it’s not a summer job. It’s a Christmas job. You’re expected . . . If you work here and work here over the summer, you’re expected to come back every year that you’re in school. A year abroad, okay. But that’s the deal.

Dave: Yeah.

Peter: Because it’s a lot of time and energy to train somebody to get to the point where they can be productive helping a customer.

So the employee, the level of expertise, and the same faces time and time again. We’re not . . . We’re just as happy selling somebody a $9.99-a-pound cream cheese spread, as we are a $40-a-pound goat cheese from England, if that’s what they want. They’re gonna get that same level of service, that same interaction, that same appreciation. Some places that have this caliber of product and this caliber of service were like, “Oh. No, we don’t sell havarti.”

Dave: Yeah.

Peter: You know? We’re like, “Sure. Plain or with dill?” As an early mentor once told me, I think I just said this, “Sell your customers what they want to buy.”

Dave: This pride Peter feels for his staff, as well as his product, is really what makes the store stand out. We spoke with the store’s general goods buyer, Arma, to hear what it’s like working at the shop.

Arma: My name is Arma Neroute, I’ve been here 15 years this month.

What’s it like working for Peter? He’s great. You know, he’s got a good sense of humor, he likes to tease me because I’m very teasable and I try to tease him back but it’s very hard for me to get the one liners in, but he’s, he’s very good.

You know, he doesn’t ask much, he knows… We have our own jobs and we don’t have to ask him every little thing, he doesn’t, you know, need to know all the nitty gritty. If I go to a food show and I see something new and I think it’s going to be a great fit for the store then I, he has confidence in me that I’m going to make the right decisions and not bring back something that you’d find at the CVS counter or something.

If I go to a show and I find something new he’s more than willing to say ‘hey just go for it, you know what fits in the store you’ve been doing the buying’ so he let’s me have free reign which is nice.

Dave: Peter has created an environment where he and his staff can come to work feeling inspired, rather than run down. His trust in their ability has freed up his own time, so he can push the business to grow and take on new opportunities.

Peter: I don’t have any written goals. I don’t have a board room. I don’t have a . . . I’m the guy in charge. I’m the guy that, when the kid is sick, I take out the trash. You know? A couple of things that I wanted to . . . that I think I did, though not with any written goals, so to speak, was really instill a culture here of community and service and expertise. That is not something that you make rules to do. That’s something that evolves organically. I think it comes from the leader. So I show that.

Now I’ve got such a great crew that have been with me for so long. I don’t have my head in the weeds. I’m able to do bigger things, like have crazy ideas like, “Let’s have a parade for a wheel of cheese.”

Dave: The “parade for cheese” line isn’t a joke. In fact, the parade is now an annual tradition going on its sixth year. Here’s the backstory:

Peter: In 1998, I think, I was asked by the Boston Globe, “What’s on your cheese platter for Christmas?” Right? So I gave them things that weren’t everywhere, Crystal Brook Farm, Crucolo, things that are not exclusive to me, but things that you’re not gonna find at Whole Foods and the supermarket. The importer . . . So when the story hit, I had a wheel. So I ordered a couple more. They’re 30-pound wheels. The importer and the distributor were out of it.

Dave: This was the . . .

Peter: Right after the thing hit the Globe. That’s a nice PR hit. Right?

Dave: Yeah, that is.

Peter: It was pretty good. I’m out of cheese, and I’m thinking, “I don’t need any help looking like a chump. I’m fine doing that on my own.” Right? So I got a friend in Chicago who UPS-d me a wheel to get me through. Well, UPS and a 30-pound wheel of cheese significantly eats into your profit margin on selling that wheel of cheese, but at least I had the cheese. Right?

So the next summer, the importer was in town. He looked at this, my local distributor, and he was looking at my purchasing history. He sees me selling all this crucolo. So he comes out here, and he’s looking at this small little store. He’s kind of wondering how can this be. Right? We’re only open 38 hours a week. We’re not even open 40 hours a week. We’re closed on Sundays. We’re closed on Mondays.

Dave: Yeah.

Peter: So I get up into his face, and I’m like, “Last year, you ran out of cheese for Christmas time, and I put it in the Boston Globe.”

He says, “Why? How much are you . . . ” He’s looking around a small little store and said, “How much you gonna buy?” I’m like, “15, 20 wheels.” His eyes popped in the back of his head. He says, “Well, you know they make a 400-pounder.” I’m like, “Well, I’ll buy a 400-pound wheel.” I know I’m gonna sell it. Right? I know I’m gonna sell that many pounds of this one cheese. I’ll buy a 400-pound wheel of cheese.

Then when it came in, we needed to do something here with it. So why don’t we roll it down the street on a red carpet, with rose pedals? So I had eight-foot long carpets, and I had a kid roll one down. Then we’d roll the cheese. Then he’d grab the one that was rolled off, and he’d run in front of it and roll it down there. It was really quite chaotic.

Dave:  During the event, Peter pulls out all the stops with horse drawn carriages and Italian singers. After hearing all about it, and seeing some videos on YouTube, I already have a group of people planning on joining me in the crowd next December. But the parade hasn’t been Peter’s only creative idea. Here he is talking about an upcoming event at the store, this time celebrating another one of Peter’s favorite things: butter.

We had just gotten this catalogue from a vendor, and I’m going through it. I see like four butters in this catalogue. I thought, “Oh.” The light went on in my head, like, “Let’s have a battle of the butters.” So then I started going to get little Seuss-ey in on it, and we could have a ballot box. So we can have a butter battle ballot box, and the butter battle ballot box can be manned by the butter battle ballot box butler. Right?

So I’m thinking this kind of Dr. Seuss thing in my head, and I mentioned it. They’re like, “That’ll be fun.” So I have to figure out how to say it really fast. So it’s the butter battle. Pow, pow. We have an old butter churn. We’re gonna have little jars, and we’re gonna put some cream in it for the kids. They can shake it up and make their own butter, which will be cool. So we’re gonna have a butter battle in May.

Dave: With all this confidence, creativity, and fun — I was starting to think Peter’s shop was more of a cheese utopia than a business. But when I dug a little deeper to hear about the challenges his business faced, it’s clear that even the most established businesses have some sore spots.

Peter: So there’s an event called The Taste of Concord.

Dave: Yeah.

Peter: To support the Chamber of Commerce. It’s a wine and food event, $30 to get in. It’s in Concord. Couldn’t define my demographic any better than that. Right? That’s disposable income, interested in food and wine, interested in the community, locally thinking, perfect.

I go to this event, and the most frequently asked question I got there was, “Where are you located?” It’s been here for 35 years. You don’t know where we are? You are the definition of my demographic, and you don’t know where we are. It’s across the street. Do you ever go to the post office? Right?

So I broke down my display that night. I’m coming back here, and I’m on the verge of tears, thinking, “What have I just done to my family?” You know? My demographic doesn’t know I exist. It just . . . It was horrible. It was just like [inaudible 00:53:30] I’m really ready to go home and tell my wife, “I’m so sorry.” But fortunately it’s a long ride home, and I got thinking about it. That’s my potential for growth. That’s how I’m gonna grow the business. If I can get all these people to know that I’m here, then I have some ability to grow the business some more.

Dave: Part of reaching this audience involves continuing to be active in his local community. The Cheese Shop also uses email marketing and social media to build a presence online. While Peter has always preferred to connect with his customer base in-person, he works hard to send his audience something of value. Here he is talking about his email newsletter:

Peter: Yeah. It’s hard to write it well. One comment that I get from a lot of people is like, “Your newsletter is really well-written.”

Dave: That’s great. Yeah.

Peter: That’s because we write it. We re-write it. Then we edit it. Then we re-write it again. It’s really a labor of love to do it right. Also, mine tend to be less commercial.

Dave: Right.

Peter: More chatty. Talking about the employees went to vacation in Florida, had a great time in Santa Bell, the sand as soft as sugar, stuff like that. So it’s much more connected than it is commercial.

Dave: As Peter continues to think about marketing his business, the focus — whether in store or online — is always the same. Put the customer first and deliver an experience they won’t forget.

Peter: Give them the most unbelievable experience that they’ve ever had. You walk in here. Even if it’s . . . Here’s a great metric. Christmas time, we’re busy. I got five cheese-cutters. I’m running five boards. We’re taking numbers, and there will be a 20-number differential between who I’m helping, the number I’m calling, and the number that’s still hanging. Right?

I go through a little better than 60 numbers an hour. That’s a number a minute, on average. So there’s a 20-number differential. You got about a 20-minute wait. Right? Chances are. Every day that that happens, somebody says . . . I overhear somebody saying, “This is a great place to wait in line.” Where in the world else would that happen? It didn’t happen at Target on Sunday. Right?

Dave: Yeah. Yeah.

Peter: That was . . . People go there at 8:45, and everything is gone. That’s a heck of a customer experience. Huh? No. You come to my counter. You’re gonna have a great customer experience. You’re gonna get some great product, whether it’s cheese. You talk to the wine guy. He’s gonna tell you about the size stones that are in the field, if you want to know about it.

So they’re gonna tell their friends, “I got this at the cheese shop. This was great. I talked to Bri, or Peter helped me. It’s a great store. I got to go back there whenever I can. Whenever I need cheese, I can’t buy it at supermarket.”

You’re gonna want to come back here because you had a great time, even if you were waiting in line. You had a great time. That’s a valid metric.

Dave: Businesses measure success in many different ways. Of course financial goals and growth will play a big role, but it’s clear that, for Peter, there’s more to it than that.

Walking away from our interview, I’m left with three main takeaways: 1. Sell people what they want 2. Provide them with an unforgettable experience, and 3. Invest in your employees and community

These are the elements that have proven successful for Peter over the years. And as Peter will tell you, once they’re in the shop, this is where the magic happens. Here’s Peter with the last word:

Peter: Now not everybody that comes to Concord is gonna come give me their money, but I’ve got a decent shot at getting some of their cash or plastic. If they’re in my building, I got a really good shot at getting into their wallet, really good shot. If they start talking to me or to one of my staff members, hang it up. I’m putting some cheese in the bag.

Dave: We appreciate you listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Your feedback is important to us, so please go to iTunes right now and leave us a review.

Small Biz Stories is produced by myself, Dave Charest Shaun Cronin and Miranda Paquet. You can contact us at podcast@constantcontact.com

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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