Niche Store in Winter Haven Indulges Customers' Tastes for Artisan Cheese

Sherry Summers, 46, and her husband, Michael, opened the rustic shop with modern touches in downtown Winter Haven in February that has quickly convinced locals to spend between $5 and $10 for a quarter pound of artisan cheese.

Seven weeks into the venture that still gets confusing stares from pedestrians on Central Avenue, Summers is already adding new non-frommage specialty foods and looking for other ways to expand.

“I thought about this for three years. I told all of my friends and they thought I was insane,” Summers said.

But after meeting her initial sales goals, “I feel like it’s not such an insane idea.”

With a good location, inexpensive labor — from her children — and an emphasis on taste testing and customer service, The Cheese Room has become a bustling piece of cool in the center of a budding hip cluster on Central Avenue. Traffic from nearby businesses, such as popular Spectrum hair salon, has helped drive business.

“It is an interesting market niche that they are pursuing and from what I can tell, they are staying busy,” said Winter Haven Economic Development Council Executive Director Bruce Lyon. “Every time I walk by there, there is someone there. Sometimes it’s me.”

Buying cheese at the store at 254 W. Central Ave. always comes with three things: a sample, a story and some help pairing with wine or jam.

The cheese sometimes goes home with a piece of artisan chocolate or specialty fare from the store’s growing collection of novelty foods, such as a collection of $6 chocolate bars with a little something extra, including flakes of potato chip or finely chopped maple bacon.

Summers started the store after years of quarterly trips to New York City for cheese classes at the famous Murray’s cheese shops.

“Mike got tired of me driving him to New York City every three months to take a cheese class,” she jokingly said.

The cheese ranges from fresh to aged and mild to sharp. They’ll start cheese newbies mild and “get them to bleu eventually.” She sells specialty jams, high-end salami and light crackers to pair.

The cheeses can be quite funky, or quality bearers on the standards. The Maytag blue cheese ($5.50 per quarter pound) — made by the same people who make the washers — is the most popular bleu cheese in her case because it’s creamy and spreadable. The Beehive Barely Buzzed cheese ($6.75 per quarter pound) is covered in an espresso and lavender coating. The Chimay Beer cheese ($7 per quarter pound) is made by the same Belgian monks of the Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey that make the beer.

Summers admits the cheese can appear pricey to the uninitiated, but she says it’s worth it.

“For $50, you could buy a really beautiful tray of cubed cheese at Publix or you could get a tray here of four or five nice wedges and have artisan cheese,” Summers said.

She’ll even lend slate trays to you for parties, but she’ll sell you the Brooklyn Slate Co. cheese slates in assorted sizes (from $29 to $46) with a wooden cheese knife ($14) and soapstone chalk to mark the name in style.

Artisan cheese has experienced a boon in the last few years, but Polk County residents who sought it had to drive to Orlando or Tampa to get it.

Ron Hatley and his wife, Patrice, lugged a cooler to an Orlando Whole Foods for years before Summers, who is a friend of theirs, opened the store.

The irony of their monthly trips to Orlando with a large cooler is the cheese went through Lakeland to get to Orlando.

Summers gets her cheese from Atlanta-based Gourmet Foods International’s Lakeland distribution center.

“And if she doesn’t have it, she’ll get it,” Ron Hatley said.

She said she may even want to get some wine to add to her business soon, too.

[ Ryan Little can be reached at [email protected] or 863-401-6962. Follow him on Twitter @LedgerRyan ]