When an old, faded grocery store in Portland's Irvington neighborhood was recently redeveloped, I was curious about what would move in. Perfectly situated in a residential area, the site seemed to suggest small, friendly shops of one kind or another. Rumors of a restaurant and then a clothing store circulated...and then one day, from the proverbial ashes sprung Foster & Dobbs, selling all manner of wines, cheeses, charcuterie and other tasty comestibles. It's been a little over a year since they've opened now, and I thought it was time to talk to the busy people behind the scenes, owners Luan Schooler and Tim Wilson.
How did you start Foster & Dobbs?
L: Tim and I both have arts backgrounds. I worked in theater forever and Tim has worked as an artist and as an arts administrator forever as well. Maybe about 5 years ago we realized it was time to shift gears. We discussed a lot of different things that we wanted to do. Tim’s first job was as a grocery bag boy in Juneau, Alaska and he always had this idea to have a little grocery store of his own.
So when we first started talking about doing opening the store, what was in our mind’s eye was this general store kind of thing, a little mom and pop shop, one of the sort of scrabbly little shops like they have all over Alaska that has both anti freeze and cookies. And as we evolved that idea over time, because of my love of cheese kind of became the heart of the whole thing.
There’s a wonderful cheese shop in Berkeley called The Pasta Shop. I wrote Juliana Uruburu (Cheese Manager at The Pasta Shop) and said – we’re moving to Portland and I want to open a shop and I love your shop…could I follow you around? And she was great, she just let me trail after her. She was really generous with her time and her knowledge. So that experience really helped focus what we were doing. Then we moved to Portland and we started looking for space…we knew we wanted the shop to be in Northeast Portland because there wasn’t a shop here and also because we live in this neighborhood.
Now that we’ve been going for awhile we’re experiencing the big learning curve. We're constantly asking - OK, what exactly works in this space - and trying to stay true to what we originally wanted to do and make it viable. Sometimes there’s a tension between those things!
L: I always think of Portland as the most Alaskan you can get outside of Alaska. There is sort of an outdoors orientation, kind of a relaxed quality that you don’t find in many urban places. Also because it’s close to Alaska we can still see family pretty easily.
But even before we moved to the Bay Area, when we thought about moving from Alaska, Portland was where we wanted to end up. I love that in Portland you’re still pretty much 15 minutes from anything. People walk and ride bikes, people are more relaxed. When we moved into our house our neighbors across the street brought us a little welcome package…the whole time we lived in the Bay Area we never even saw the people who lived across the street! So a welcome basket was so unexpected. We thought – oh my god, what do they want from us! They didn’t want anything, they were just being nice. It’s one thing I’m continually amazed at working in the shop, how nice people are in Portland.
On your website you talk about approaching the shop from the perspective of “curators and storytellers.” Can you say more about what that means for you?
L: I find the stories behind so much of the food as entrancing as the food itself. For example, I love that Rockhill Creamery in Utah has five cows. That kind of dazzles me. Or that out at Pat Morford’s place (Rivers Edge Chevre) all of the goats have names.
One of things that has occurred in our culture in the last few decades is this complete disengagement from where the food originates. You can’t even imagine what the ingredients actually are, much less where they came from. So one of the framing pieces for the shop is – does the food have only ingredients that you can pick or make? We want to know that they are made on a human scale, that there’s somebody behind it, not just somebody watching the dials in the factory.
What we’re saying is that you can get vinegar and know who made it and how it was made. You can get cheese from someone who knows the name of their animals. It’s quite different from the factory plant manager whose job it is to bring in the bottom line. Not that there’s not a place for industrial food, but … I like picking up the phone to call Rick’s Picks and Rick himself answers. I can say – Rick, the last batch of these pickles seemed different than previous batches, what are you doing?
T: I think wine people were more familiar with this already, but people don’t always appreciate how seasonal many products are, that they change. Each one is an expression of a moment in time, which is really extraordinary when you think about it. Like when we’re tasting meats - these batches are handmade and so some of Armandino’s batches (from Salumi in Seattle) come out spicier or drier, there’s variances to it.
We’re more familiar w/ the concept of seasonality in relation to something like produce, we know when strawberry season is, berry season, peach and pear season and so on.
T: Right. What we do is a little bit more complex than selling regular produce; most of the produce has to be delivered and consumed within a certain period of time. For example, with cheese there’s various degrees of aging, and so some cheese is going to come ready before others. You have to have the knowledge to know the aging cycle – when is it coming into season and going out? Sometimes you have to think back a year to eighteen months to when that milk was fresh.
You started Foster & Dobbs right around the time of a mini cheese shop boom in Portland - there’s you guys, Steve’s Cheese, Curds & Whey and so on. Why do you think that’s happening? Are people more interested in cheese than they were or what else do you think might be going on?
L: I do think there is a renaissance of sorts. Partly it’s the larger thinking about fats. Manufactured tweaked fats are being discovered to be the really bad ones, and natural fats like butter, cheese and milk are not the horror that people thought they were. That’s one part of the big picture. And I think also it’s due to the blossoming of cheesemaking both in the US and locally. There’s just so much good cheese being made all over the country, I think people are more aware of it.
T: I think there’s a synchronicity between that and this idea of seeking out artisanal products and an appreciation for a sort of slow food sensibility of handmade foods that are made close to you. And I think that on the one hand you have this general awareness of consumers, for example the interest in CSAs and so on, and then you have these artisanal cheese producers who a few years ago weren’t quite ready but now they are really coming into their own making cheese every bit as good as cheese from other parts of the world. The alignment of those two trends really fosters places like ours and others that are bringing in artisanal cheese that you can’t find in the supermarket.
Where would you like the shop to be in, say, five years?
L: First of all, I'd like to have a day off! Actually we’d love to be able to get out of the shop a little more, to visit farms. Some travel as well, maybe to Italy or Spain. We want to be able to have more of that direct relationship and access to products from the people who are making them. Right now we might talk to them on the phone, but it’s not quite the same thing.
T: We’re thinking about how to close that gap with our customers, how to strengthen those connections between producers and our customers and enrich the experience of food in that way. We’ve been talking to the folks at Ayers Creek Farms about carrying some of their produce…but we don’t have any real refrigeration so we might put out some stuff outside so people can pick up a pint of something like fresh beans or berries or something to complement the other products we sell.
We have customers who come in from around Oregon who say – you need to do this kind of shop in Bend, you need to do this in Walla Walla and so on. It’s not our goal to be that kind of business, but we might like to have another location somewhere. It would be nice to get closer to wine production…but at this point we want to make sure we manage and keep this one shop running.
When you’re talking about more ‘direct’ experiences, in some ways you’re hinting at an economic model as well, getting rid of the wholesaler, the middleman.
T: Not really that extreme, we’re not talking about what Michael Hebberoy said about “killing the restaurant,” nothing like that. We adore many of our distributors, we really rely on their judgment and their experience and their connections to help us. What we want to do is more to complement that relationship, to create a relationship between the consumer and the producer. Our role is sort of like a director or a theater artist, to create that experience for the consumer.
L: I also think there are producers that are working on such a small scale that they can’t work with a distributor, that just doesn’t work. These folks would love to have a more direct relationship with consumers. But people still want to meet the big producers too, I know I want to meet them.
In addition to selling cheeses, meats and other products you also do catering and events, is that correct?
T: We do catering, private events in the shop like luncheons, corporate meetings, birthday parties and things like that. We also serve sandwiches – people can come in and have a glass of wine and a cheese plate. We also have Buster’s Biscuits…we take our trimmed cheese to Magic Snacks, the organic dog food maker, and they make dog biscuits for us.
L: I had been making Buster's Biscuits from scratch at home from scrap cheese and Tim said – you should make these for the shop! But then Tim called Magic Snacks, and the rest is history. And they’re entirely gluten free, thankfully!
T: We take our cheese home and freeze it and when there’s enough we take it up to them and they make the biscuits. They bring us a big bag of snacks and we package them here…so it’s our own mini product line of sorts.
Would you ever consider doing something like making cheese at the shop - fresh mozzarella or fromage blanc, something like that?
L: I could see maybe making fresh mozzarella at some point, something simple. But making cheese adds another layer of complexity to managing the operation.
T: One thing that we are very interested in is affinage, the idea of actually getting a real cheese cave set up here. It was one of our original ideas in our business plan but as it turned out we didn’t have the capital to go that route when we were starting out.
L: Too often I'll get a wheel of Muenster or whatever and think - it’s just not going to keep going in the cooler at the temperature that I have to keep it at. It’s just not at its peak. And look at what Mateo and Andy are doing at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, sharing resources like their cave, or what Neal’s Yard is doing in England…they’ve really allowed some of the cheesemakers to survive by taking the affinage off of the cheesemaker’s hands.
But it would be fantastic if, at our shop, we could start off at a smaller level. I'd like to be able to say – this piece of cheese that we’re selling is beautiful; this is beautiful today. That’s what we’d like to be able to do.
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Foster & Dobbs 2518 NE 15th Ave. Portland, OR 97212 (503) 284-1157 firstname.lastname@example.org
summer hours: Mon-Sat 11-8 Sunday 12-6