For several hours, he walked me through the rules and regulations of my new place of employ. Enter and leave through the front doors, not the back doors or receiving dock. After six months, the staff are inducted into the union and must take a thirty-minute lunch break. As management, I'm not a member of the union, but responsible for making sure all their policies get followed.
I also learned I would be circling my way through different departments of different stores. Three weeks in organics, two in produce. Three in deli, one in receiving. One week in HR and one in marketing. I would be learning how the business worked from the ground up.
My stint would commence with six weeks in the cheese department of the newest store. My bosses know I am cheese-obsessed and cheese-experienced, and so this would be the first and longest leg of my training tour. Through percussive rain, my training mentor and I rode the bus to the shiny, new store.
Impeccable rainbow rows of candy! All the chocolates a serious baker could want! Olive oils as far as the eye can see! He introduced me to the cheese manager, wished me luck, and bid me goodbye.
The cheese manager threw me a white chef's jacket and a baseball cap emblazoned with the store's logo, and I got to work. I wrapped up buttons of ash-coated chevre in slick bundles of plastic, labeled and dated them, stacked them symmetrically on the shelves. I scooped up feta and feta brine and weighed out the packages. I built beautiful sculptures of goat gouda, and comte, and sheep's milk yogurt.
Meet Team Cheese
The cheese guys—there is one woman to a dozen men—are great. One has been with the company for 30 years, and most for at least several. They were warm and welcoming and showed me how to slice big wheels of Etorki with wire, explained the difference between the Greek, French, and Bulgarian fetas, and took me through the aisles of cream cheese, mascarpone, jalepelno spiked cheddar, figgy stilton, and mozzerella di bufala.
It's been a few days, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable behind the cheese counter. Here I am explaining the difference between the 6, 12, and 15 month Manchegos. Here I am hawking samples of mozzarella, just made downstairs by the tattoo-ed Indonesian man with a big laugh, and still warm.
I helped a posh lady plan a cheese plate for her gallery's fashion show. I introduced a fifth grade blue cheese-lover to buttery sweet Cambozola. I guided a stinky cheese adoring couple through the stinkers: Grayson, Stinking Bishop, a particularly offensive, ripe, wonderful batch of French Munster.
Sometimes, I enjoy the challenges of the cheese novices the best.
"I'm looking for a cheese that's aged several years, and also very soft."
The best response: "What are some cheeses you like?" I go from there.
Like restaurants, we are all about service. There are a million places to shop in Manhattan, and our goal is to make people happy to choose us. The staff is a hospitable, patient bunch. At the deli, they will slice "lite" cheese into perfect one ounce slices for a grumpy dieter. At the cheese counter, we will let the little old lady try cheeses until her taste buds must be confused, knowing full well that she might buy a quarter pound of our most affordable selection, or nothing at all.
This operation is on a different scale than a restaurant, even a big one. At one time, there are some 300 workers making sure the store shelves are full of plums and peaches and beautiful teas and fresh bread. At our flagship location, there are about 80,000 customers a week! 80,000! At my restaurant, a busy week entailed about 400 covers.
Cooks and servers and even managers do a lot of cleaning at restaurants. I'm used to breaking down boxes, taking out trash, even plunging toilets. At the grocery store, there are a whole army of porters who float in and out of the cheese counter, emptying our garbage and sweeping the floor.
Like a restaurant, the work goes by fastest when the place is busy and buzzing, which it most often is. It's a beautiful controlled chaos. It's been three days, and I already feel I could get addicted.
Just replace folding linens with pricing Parmesan, and selling meals with selling their ingredients. We are a part of people's lives—every day lives, not just special occasion lives. That makes me happy, and it makes me feel good.