Nov 9, 2015
Cheese Wiz: Aaron Foster Is Set to Revolutionize the Lives of Brooklyn Cheese-Lovers
There are two things you should know about Aaron Foster, formerly the head-buyer for Murray’s Cheese and Brooklyn Kitchen. First, his instincts are strong; second, he is a romantic. This is to say, Foster is a person who operates on a noteworthy amount of blind optimism—and it seems to serve him well.
In his personal life, this means that he recently married the girl of his dreams, a woman he first came across online, then saw on the subway, then sat down next to, then asked out on the spot for a drink. And, professionally, on November 19, he opens Foster Sundry, a high-end cheese-, meat-, dairy-, produce- and, yes, sundry other mouth-watering items-market in a handsomely renovated corner space in Bushwick.
“It should have been called Vandelay Industries,” Foster jokes a couple of weeks ago, standing inside his future business, which was still an empty shell. The building’s previous tenant was Constanza Grocery Corporation, which sounds similar enough to “Costanza,” that it’s hard not to want to make the ultimate Seinfeld reference, and name the place after the fictitious latex company, Vandelay Industries, at which George claimed to have interviewed.
“It didn’t stick, but it would have been good,” says Foster, while giving me a tour of the place, pointing out all of its exciting design features—which again, to be clear, didn’t yet exist.
“So here is the L-shaped counter, and this is the espresso bar,” Foster says, motioning to the empty space where the espresso bar would stand, and whose coffee program will be run by his sister, who has worked for the last two years at a coffee farm and processing mill in El Salvador. “There will be taps in back for growlers and cold brew,” he continues, then, “loop around at a hard angle and there is a ten-foot cheese case,” he says. “There will be two feet of charcuterie and like eight feet of cheese—just a lot of cheese.”
Continuing the tour he motions to the front entrance, cut at a diagonal, in an old-school shop style (which, to be fair, was already there). Then he brings me to the virtual produce case, filled with virtual eggs and dairy followed by a large freezer filled with virtual beer, cider and frozen stock, not to mention, virtual ice cream.
Then he interrupts himself: “Tell me if this gets boring.”
Since I am in the process of salivating over that which is not in front of me, I tell him to please continue.
Moving to the back of the shop he shows me the future eight-foot butcher case (which will be helmed by former Marlow and Daughters head butcher, Matthew Dale), and then the invisible meat bandsaw, and the cafeteria table with eight invisible vintage-designed stools that swivel out from beneath it, and which will host classes and pop-up dinners that are, at the moment, no less real than the table itself.
And finally, Foster tells me, there’s the butcher’s sink, and prep table, and—the grand finale—a restaurant-style double convection oven, equipped with “a big-ass smoker.”
“You can put a lot of pork butt in there,” says Foster. “It’s the biggest one we could fit in here without going through a lot of rigmarole and hassle,” he says about the install, which, in case it is still not clear, hasn’t yet happened.
“It’s like a guy with a convertible going from zero to sixty,” he assesses about the size of his oven, only the guy is in the world of gourmet groceries, and he suddenly gets to delivery them to his neighborhood, in bulk. All signs indicate it will be a very exciting and well-stocked ride.
Foster got his start in cheese in 2002, at Whole Foods Market in Annapolis, Maryland. He was at the end of his junior year at St. John’s College, where the curriculum is based on reading primary-source texts in every field. Rather than choosing one major, the goal is to learn to think effectively about anything, and the hope is that once you run into something you like, you have the brain power you need to run with whatever that is.
So there was Foster, at the cheese counter in a suburban shopping center in Annapolis. He realized he liked it pretty well and started teaching himself more about it from the resources available. “I had an interest in learning about stuff generally,” says Foster. “It only matters a little bit what it is. It sounds silly, but it’s very much like that.”
At the time, there wasn’t much in the way of cheese literature. There was the Cheese Primer, and then cheese tasting, and speaking to cheese makers and mentors in Annapolis, of whom Foster says he found many. After college, he moved to the Whole Foods Market in Philadelphia, before cold-calling Whole Foods Columbus Circle, which was about to open, to ask if they needed help. They sure did, and to New York he went.
After a year-long interlude, at the world’s first Slow Food school in Italy, Foster returned to New York and landed a job as assistant buyer at Artisanal Premium Cheese, who at the time were duking it out with Murray’s for cheese supremacy. Foster quickly became head buyer, learned a lot about affinage—the aging and maturing of cheese—and traveled to American Cheese Society conferences, which gather thousands of cheese professionals and enthusiasts, and fill up major conference centers across North America. “The American dairy industry is a huge business,” says Foster. “Every university has an agriculture program, and every agriculture program has a dairy program. We’re a country of milk drinkers,” and therefore cheese eaters (Wisconsinites aside).
Then Foster—a person who fell deeply in love with cheese—also fell for a girl, and moved his life to Boston. He got a job at Taza Chocolate, makers of stone-ground chocolate, which has since grown significantly but, at the time, he was employee number five. Three years in, the relationship ended and Foster moved back to the city, managing to make a nice soft landing as assistant buyer at Murray’s Cheese. After five months, he was head buyer there, too.
“I had a budget of over ten million dollars,” says Foster. “That’s a lot of cheese.” It was a period of crucial learning—not just about cheese development, and through relationships with farmers, and producers, and distributors, but also about the fundamentals of supply chain and shipping logistics.
“There is no way to sexy that part of it up,” says Foster. “Cheese is a dairy product and perishable and needs to be preserved. It could come from a tiny-ass farm in god knows where, Switzerland, and first it needs to get to France, shipped on a boat, go through customs, end up in a warehouse, then maybe to another distributors, until finally it gets to you. It’s a lot,” says Foster. “Ultimately, everyone has to make money, from the farmer to the retailer.”
The knowledge was priceless, but the job—being in charge of a ten million dollar cheese budget for one of the world’s premiere cheese bosses—was stressful. As he was preparing to quit, he turned off his electronic devices, dating apps included. It was in that window that he stepped onto the subway car that held his future wife.
“I was told it was not attractive to women to quit a job, but I asked her if she wanted to grab a beer, and she said yes, and now we’re married,” says Foster, as if no drama fell between that moment and marriage. “You can find love in the city, it is possible.”
For a long time, Foster was on a kickball team that played at McCarren Park and fueled up on giant styrofoam beers from the Turkey’s Nest, just across the street. Two of his teammates were Taylor Erkkinen and Harry Rosenblum, co-owners at Brooklyn Kitchen. At first, Foster intended to recommend someone who could head up their buying; Foster was a little steep for their budget. But the co-owners made Foster an offer anyway, and he accepted, heading up all of Brooklyn Kitchen’s purchasing except for meat inventory.
“Eventually I was not really buying anything, but overseeing buying to understand how to create economies of scale, how to become more efficient, where we were paying too much, or where sales weren’t covering labor,” says Foster. “I was learning a lot and running a business a size that was much more akin to something I would run.”
Last spring, after two years at Brooklyn Kitchen, Foster realized he had given them what he could, and learned a lot. He was newly married, and at a life juncture. So when Foster and his wife Tami were approached twice by a family friend and a family member with sums of money as investments in a house or business, Foster recognized the time to open his own business was now.
He started to do some research, looking for a neighborhood that could use a retail grocer. Bushwick, he realized, was having a moment he wanted to be a part of. It was also the first neighborhood he moved to when he arrived in New York, so it felt like a homecoming.
Foster is honest about what he will offer: “We are never gonna compete on price,” he says. “I can’t afford to sell King Arthur Flour to you for any less than a grocery store is going to sell it to you, but do we have access to local specialty products and amazing grass fed meat and pastured pork and excellent poultry and cheese that you’re not going to find anywhere else, from people I have known for more than ten years?” The answer, of course, is yes, including beef from Ken Jaffe at Slope Farms, whey-fed pigs at Jasper Hill Farm, acorn-fed ham from Herb Eckhouse at La Quercia, and all the cheese makers from all over the world he’s met through the years.
And then there’s his staff. In addition to the butcher from Marlow and Daughters, and his sister, Foster hired a cheese monger from Whole Foods who he selected specifically for her enthusiasm. “I can teach you about cheese, but I can’t train you how to be super passionate and have great customer service,” says Foster. “Any cheese knowledge is a plus.”
Basically, Foster is bringing together an army of Fosters: people who are completely crazy about learning about, vending, acquiring, preparing, and eating and drinking the most delicious things they can possibly get their hands on.
“We’re going to focus on something that is really fucking good, stuff I love,” he says. “I hope people want to shop here and we’ll sell you a sandwich and a pint of beer to hang out with and eat. I love entertaining,” and as every person who lives here understands, the path of least resistance to the nearest shopping destination is the one they will take. “It sucks to have to go all the way to Williamsburg for that or Manhattan, god forbid,” says Foster. “It’s New York, right? People do not want to do that.”
Back inside the shop, Foster finishes his tour. And I have to say, everything looks fantastic… or rather, will look fantastic. He concedes that his open date, just a couple of weeks from that cold October evening, sounds nuts. I couldn’t exactly disagree. I look up, and wonder what the ceiling will be. “It’s going to be Grade-B plywood that is soaked in oil, and then soaked in water, then soaked again in oil and water, then painted in a coat of white,” says Foster, which is supposed to create an effect that makes the grain of wood really stick out to passers by. “At least,” Foster finishes, “that’s what [my designer] tells me.”
In that moment, I’m pretty sure I can see it, too.
Foster Sundry: 215 Knickerbocker Avenue, Bushwick
Soft-open November 19. Store hours will be 8am to 8pm Monday – Saturday; 11am to 6pm on Sunday.
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