Moving Cheese

By Lloyd Graff

Food selling businesses can tell us a lot about best and worst practices in the unending search for elusive success as an entrepreneur.

I spent the holidays in the Bay Area (new granddaughter) and indulged my happy obsession of searching markets for the best and freshest produce, breads and cheeses. Farmers’ Markets are reduced in midwinter, but I indulged my passion at a semi-outdoor market open seven days a week called Milk Pail Market, in Mountain View, Cal., home of Google.

The store was started 36 years ago by Steve Rasmussen and his father when they bought a bankrupt drive-through dairy store and took over the lease. The business started out as an independent dairy. Steve bought tanks, contracted with local milk producers, homogenized and pasteurized raw milk and then sold it to the Silicon Valley locals looking for a better, fresher, cheaper product.

The milk business connected him to dairy farmers and he started buying big rounds of good quality local cheese which he then cut up to sell to his milk clientele. He built up a network of suppliers of superb cheese makers and then started to add fruits and vegetables of impeccable freshness and flavor. The dairy store became more like a cross between a Farmers’ Market and supermarket produce department—and he kept his prices ridiculously low.

Rasmussen competes with a Safeway across the street and a Whole Foods a half mile away. His prices are 25 percent lower than Safeway and around half of Whole Foods, and I consider his quality and service far superior.

The whole store is maybe 4,000 square-feet including an area under an awning and an entrance that spills into a parking lot. The aisles are narrow (he uses small carts), lighting is uneven, cheeses are available for sampling with toothpicks in a tiny nook next to the Acme bread (the best sourdough in the country) delivered twice daily. There are no checkout lanes. People just line up at the counter where cashiers also pack their groceries. AND it all works. Magnificently.

I look at Milk Pail Market and wonder why people make business so hard and complicated. Rasmussen runs one 4,000 square-foot store, buys the best stuff, sells it way cheaper than the competition and prospers. He does not plan to franchise—I hope.

Question: What is your favorite Cheese? Do you enjoy stinky cheese?

In Front of Milk Pail Market

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9 thoughts on “Moving Cheese

  1. Peter Bagwell

    A number of years ago, my wife and I took a trip to Quebec City in Canada. Although just as gray and rainy as it was here in Detroit, comfortably traveling by train with another couple and experiencing the European flavor of this city made for the perfect ‘escape’. However, we found ourselves with nothing to do one day, and asked the concierge at our beautiful Auberge St. Antoine what they recommended. To our surprise, she recommended a 20 minute walk in the rain to the local farmer’s market to check out the cheese samples which had just come in from the countryside. Local restaurant owners would be there, and we could just walk in and rub shoulders with the folks likely responsible for the gourmet meals we would be eating the next few nights. I must say we had the time of our lives learning about the different cheeses, flavors and nuances of the cheese market there. Not unlike a wine tasting event, every turn seemed to present us with a new twist on the relatively low level of expertise we were exposed with. Thankfully, I didn’t stink up my suitcase with the morsels we enjoyed there. However, I am sad we had to leave them behind, as they were the most memorable part of our escape.

  2. Donald Green

    My first real experience like this was when I was a teenager, and we went to a small cheese factory in Healdville, Vermont named Crowley Cheese. They made a “Colby” cheese instead of the usual Vermont cheddars that you found everywhere else. I was astounded by their extra sharp. It would make my mouth itch, it was so strong.

    I went back many times in the years afterwards. They still make the extra sharp, but their cheeses are so popular in general, that they can’t devote enough production to one style. You have to put in an order in advance, and sometimes wait a 1/2 year.

  3. Ben Guthrie

    Favorite cheese is a bag of fresh curds I bought at a Wisconsin cheese shop in June 1976. Never to be duplicated since! I like doing business with people who seek out the best stuff and present it in integrity – check out for another example. The clothing is worth the visit for anybody.

  4. Noah Graff Post author

    I love so many different kinds of cheese. Italian, spanish, mexican. But to the Cheese Curds topic, I love them, but what I realllllly love is Fried Cheese Curds.:)

    Anybody else got experience?

  5. Kent Bothe

    There used to be a cheese called “Liederkranz” that could vie for the title of “stinkiest cheese” but it tasted just heavenly! For some reason it was discontinued but I’ve heard rumors that someone has purchased the name and the right to manufacture this wonderful treat. It’s in the family of real limburger… the kind that’s in the form aof a “brick”, not what’s in a glass jar.
    If anyone knows more about Liederkranz I’d love to hear. My mouth waters just thinking about it!

  6. Phil Atkins

    Nobody talks about English Cheese, Why?
    Blue Shropshire is my favorit. But of course Chedder comes from Chedder, not WI, or VT. Chedder Gorge is a very beautiful area in the Mendips, Hills in Somerset. All other chesses are known by the area they come from except Stilton. See “Wallace & Grummit” Were Grummit is killed by the “Werrabbit”, Wallce’s favorit is Wenslydale, but the smell of the cheese that Grummit, uses to bring \him back to life is Stinking Bishop, This from a very small cheesery. The poor owner got swamped after the Movie came out. It’s quite pleasant actually. Think the name came from a pear.. Cider & Perry are both Alcholic in the UK. Cider apples and Perry pears are not eaten.
    excuse spelling errors no spell check.

  7. Ioana

    My favorite cheese is called URDA, it’s the Romanian version of Ricotta, I think. Every time I go back home, I only eat URDA with tomatoes. For 2-3 weeks.


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