Chewing the Fat
So Long, and Thanks for All the Cheese
An exit interview with Downtown Gourmet's Carey Smoot
One month ago, Carey Smoot realized the numbers weren't adding up anymore. She finally put a sign on the door last week: Downtown Gourmet's last day would be Saturday, June 21.
The cheese shop at 900 Central SW was open for exactly two years and two weeks. In that time, the shop endured seven window replacements ("That's $378 per window—you do the math.") and three robberies.
Although there weren't enough of them to keep Downtown Gourmet open, Smoot says her customers were the best thing about the business. She says she can't forget them.
The feeling is mutual. Each wedge and square Smoot sold came with a story. This Ubriaco alla Birra Rossa (literally, "drunk on red beer") is washed in the grain mash that's leftover from brewing beer. This butter-flavored cheddar-like cheese is from Wisconsin and quizzically titled “Gran Queso.” Who knows why? This one has “flavor crystals”—just salt, really, but it'll keep your guests guessing. Smoot associates pimento loaf with bowling leagues, and now you will, too. She describes a weak-chinned Brie as needing to “grow up.”
Smoot thinks and talks fast. With slight bones, quick eyes and closely cropped hair, she has a small but intense presence, almost bird-like. She's an animated conversationalist. I'll miss her serene mastery of that scary stainless-steel cheese slicer—the one with the dangerously taught wire that sometimes snaps with an aggressive thwap from the tension of a stubborn rind or a cold corner. (Mercifully, no major slicing mishaps happened on her watch.) I'll remember how she folded cheese into neat, crisp packages of butcher paper at the store, and how the white paper would crumble into a confused wad as soon as I tried rewrapping my cheese at home. (When I came in to say goodbye, Smoot was kind enough to demonstrate her technique for me, using my reporter’s notebook as the “cheese.”)
Knowing it'd be my last chance, I stocked up on cheese one last time. Smoot usually likes to parcel out manageable chunks to her costumers, but she made an exception for the circumstances. "Just change the plastic wrap once a week. It'll be fine" she told me. Then, more to herself, she chimed, "It will be fine."
Has running Downtown Gourmet been a struggle the whole time?
No. Last year, in 2007, the winter was horrible because of the snow; but then as soon as the snow went away, it picked right up and it was great. It was like double the year before, and I was like, Oh, good. This year should have (makes an upward motion with her hand), but it was [bad] like the first year.
Why? Food prices? The cost of gas?
Food prices, yes; but I thought the gas would actually help me out because people would say, Oh, you've got milk, you've got eggs. Yeah, you might have to pay a quarter more for some things, but I figured that [the rising cost of gas] would help. I'm not willing to stay around long enough to find out. If I had enough to make the mortgage, I would have stayed through the summer, but when it threatened my house, I was like, That's it. I'm not doing this anymore.
Were you able to pay yourself at all during the two years you were in business?
No. But could I pay my bills. I could, you know, scratch together $50 for a haircut. Buying clothes? (shakes her head)
Do you think part of the problem was location?
No. I love this location. I'd rather be here than the Northeast Heights. ... Downtown was always where I wanted to be. It's like the neighborhood [where] I grew up in Manhattan. Just like it. And the neighborhood people are great. ... I just needed more customers. I don't know what to tell people. Today, I heard Ruby Shoesday is closing. Theobroma moved to the mall. Vitality closed. And they're gonna flatten this to put a parking lot next to those condos. [The Silver Moon Lodge owners were Downtown Gourmet's landlords. Both buildings will be mowed down for condos.]
So if you could have stuck it out, you would’ve had to move anyway.
Mmm hmmm. I'd been talking to Bruno and Sabine at the [La Quiche] bakery and Joe the Sausage Guy [of Joe S. Sausage and Ravioli] about the four of us putting a good shop together.
I totally can see you all hanging out together.
Yep. Joe and I have exactly the same theories on how to run a business. So whenever I had issues, I'd call him and say, What do you do? I'd start with mothers who'd come in and their little kids would be standing right here and I'd give ’em a piece, like, "Wanna try some cheese?" And the mother would put her hand on the kid's head and go, "Honey, you probably won't like it." And I would get so angry I would be blind, I mean I couldn't talk for a couple of seconds. Like, I can't I believe you just said that to your child. So, I told Joe about it one day, and he called back like a week and a half later and he goes, "Focus on the kid. Blow off the mother. Just go straight to the kid and go, Don't you like to try new cereal when it comes out, or new soda pop? Well, check this out!" And he said if the kid likes it, the mom will buy it. He said, "Why worry? You'll get your revenge one way or another, you know?"
Do you have another job lined up?
I have a job, starting July 7, selling most of this stuff to restaurants wholesale. It's for Altamira, and they're out of Denver. So I'll call up people like The Grove and La Montañita, that fancy food store on San Mateo, Fremont's. Start with the high-end restaurants and work down.
Weren't you working with restaurants before?
I offered to, but nobody took me up on it. And I think it's because restaurants, kind of like big places like Wild Oats, don't have a way of doing business with individuals. ... It's much easier for them to make a list and make one phone call. It's just like it's easier to go to a supermarket than to go to individual little stores. So that's a bummer. People were getting good at it, too. I kept teasing Joe; I was like, "If we got together with the bakers, we could call ourselves Everything But Candlestick-Maker." We could have done some really cool stuff. We all have the same work ethic; we can't afford to be sick ’cause we don't have any employees, so you gotta be there every day.
It seems to me, to be a small business owner, you just have to be superhuman.
I'm looking forward to the new job. I told the dogs the other day, we were lying in bed talking and I was scratching them and saying, “Just think—eight to five!” (laughs) “Saturdays and Sundays off!” We won't have to wait every other week to go up to Placitas, and they can just run like crazy and get exhausted. So now when I say “eight to five,” they jump up—they don't know what that is, but they know it's exciting. The hardest part is going to be teaching them to sleep in if I want to.
So there's a silver lining.
Oh, yeah. There's a silver lining in: In two years I can get paid for two whole weeks to go wherever you want to go. Paid not to come to work—what a theory! I haven't had that in a looong time.
Your impetus for opening was probably because there was nothing like Downtown Gourmet here. And now?
There's still nothing like it and it's too bad. It's just too bad there wasn't more customers. And it was really working the way I had it in my business plan: a third to-go, a third cheese and a third groceries. People would come in and go, "There's no grocery store [Downtown]." And I'm like, [Lowe's at] 11th and Lomas—there really is a grocery store Downtown. I mean, this [Downtown Gourmet] just sort of adds to everything. I tried really hard to keep the prices down, and I think the rent is what helped me keep the prices down. The rent was affordable. ... And that's why the other places are never going to fill up Downtown. It's just too bad.
Where are your customers supposed to shop now?
The closest place would be Fremont's Fine Foods. Sunflower, I noticed the other day, is trying to do more foods to-go and they're pretty affordable, so there's yet another store you have to go to, but they're kind of catty-corner to each other.
What about cheese?
Neither of them, cheese-wise. I told somebody, “Go to Whole Foods and say, ‘Can I taste that?’ And if they say no, then don't buy it. But if they say yes and you like it, then they'll re-wrap it and you can buy it.”
How much cheese do you think you've gone through since you opened?
Let's see. If I know what sales are, I've probably sold about $100,000 worth of cheese a year. And I'm gonna work hard with the people I'm working for so that they can start buying the Dutch cheeses, like that Euphoria, and the goat Gouda with garlic. ... We need to keep that in the pipeline. Somebody can sell it. There are enough people who like hard, aged, Dutch cheeses in this town that we can keep that moving.
It must have been fun seeing how people used your cheeses.
Yeah. A customer came in and she put this [taps a large wedge of Morbier cheese] in a pastry shell—thin layers of it—and then put cumin all over the top. Well, I did that for a party on Sunday, and she wasn't kidding: It was really, really good. Yeah, stuff like that. When you can find something good to do with the cheese and then share it with everybody—and that's the thing; I'm going to miss the customers the most. We always had conversations and stuff going on, and pick up the conversations from the last time they were in.
Did you have any customers who really knew their stuff?
Yeah, you know who comes in and he knows exactly what he wants? He's on the front page of today's paper (reaches behind the counter and pulls out the June 21 Albuquerque Journal). That guy right there. The Archbishop [Michael J. Sheehan]. He knows about cheeses like you can't believe; he tells me stories about cheeses. He's amazing that way. He's really good at it. And he's tasted almost every one. The only one I think I stumped him with was that Euphoria [a Dutch cheese]. That's the only one I've ever sampled out to him that he's never had before, and he was amazed by it.
I'm sure he's tried Stinking Bishop cheese.
(laughs) Yeah, yeah! For sure. I think I probably teased him about the Stinking Bishop while he was here. He's got a great sense of humor.
I remember seeing a couple in here with a little cooler that they'd reserved just for your cheese. They were really agonizing over their choices.
Oh! There's a couple from Roswell that come up here once a month, stock up, bring their cooler, they'll call me and I'll make sure I have ice packs in here so they can layer everything up so they can take it back, and they're the ones that experiment with freezing cheeses. And they'll say, "This one freezes," or "Naw, this one doesn't freeze so well, it gets oily when it defrosts." So they're my experimenters.
Which cheeses freeze well?
Oh, the Menonita, but that's the horrible moldy cheese right here. When it melts, it runs. You can't contain it. It's strange. So it's great for stuffing peppers cause it's stuck in something, or it's great in rice-stuffed peppers because it's held within it and it makes a sauce all around it, and that's something the Fontina does, too. But it's so moldy that nobody likes it. And it's real cheap—like $4 a pound. And it comes from Mennonite monks in Chihuahua. Somebody in the East Mountains asked me for it because they eat lots of Mexican food; they freeze a big chunk and it comes out the same way when they defrost it.
Have you thought about selling at a growers' market instead of brick-and-mortar?
We talked about that, I talked to the [growers' market] people; Well, if you sell every Saturday [they said] ... and then I'm like, wait a minute. The whole point of all of this is me having two days off again! (laughs) And I'm like, the market's over by 11 [a.m.], I can do that, so—in the future ...
So, there's a sliver of hope that down the road you may do retail again?
Yeah. Mary, one of my good customers, she was just saying, "Oh, you'll do something again! It'll be somewhere tinier or smaller or different." Probably it'll just be different next time.
Well, if you do, give me a call.
Oh, I will. I'll call everybody. Yeah, I'm not really sad and angry anymore. But I was, a month ago. It's kind of all worn off. It's like, All right, this is just like building a place; I just have to deconstruct.