St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop finds its niche in north Denver

“Where are you guys located?” Denise Scanlon asked the young man at the St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop booth at the 32nd Avenue Farmers Market one recent Sunday morning.

Scanlon has been a resident of Denver’s Highland neighborhood for 4½ years and prides herself on knowing the go-to nooks and crannies of the ‘hood. She was even a regular at the cranniest of them: In Season, a sweet shack of a farmstand that was on the LoHi side of Federal Boulevard.

So her question could have elicited a sigh from a small-business owner. The shop has occupied the same space for 13 years.

Jon Marsh, right, owner of St. Kilians Cheese Shop and Market, and his partner Veronica Martinez , second from right, in their tent at the farmers

Instead, when St. Kilian’s proprietor Jon Marsh heard the story, he smiled.

That morning, the just-launched market was doing its job: introducing locals to their food-foraging neighbors as well as acquainting them with some of their local businesses, like St. Kilian’s.

“I got a lot of people who’d never been to the shop, just being there,” said Marsh of the farmers market. “People who seem to know the neighborhood well, still say ‘I always thought this was a bar.’ “

Of course, for cheeseheads — and we don’t mean Packers fans — St. Kilian’s has been a destination for more than a decade. Former restaurateur Hugh O’Neill and Ionah Defreit opened the shop in 2001. In November 2011, they sold it to Marsh, who first got to know the pair as a customer.

“I was doing some of my own charcuterie,” the one-time manager for REI said from behind the airy shop’s cheese case. “I would come in and get advice from him and bring him stuff I had made.” When Marsh was ready for a change, so were O’Neill and Defreits. A deal was struck.

After being closed for a couple of months for renovations, the shop reopened in late April, with triple the square footage and the welcome addition of a produce section.

The cheese no longer stands alone at St. Kilian’s — not that it ever did exactly. But Marsh has expanded greatly the store’s specialty foods offerings — and hours. The store, at 3211 Lowell Blvd., is now open seven days a week.

The new produce section is a humble but welcome affair, determined mostly by seasonal organics, much of it from Boulder’s Oxford Gardens.

The addition reflects Marsh’s aim to serve his customers’ thoughtful “eat local, embrace global” hankerings.

Indeed, the denizens of the booming Denver ‘hood have grown accustomed to having nearly everything within walking distance of their homes. “You should open a market,” they’d tell Marsh.

Sure, a Sunflower grocery store and a couple of Safeways and a King Soopers are near. The Belmar Whole Foods is about eight miles away. But a more intimate grocery store where you could grab some produce while walking the dog remained elusive.

The model forged by In Season, which closed after changing owners, appealed to Marsh. “They would post their produce on Facebook. They’d post that they had tomatoes. People would come in and get tomatoes, but you couldn’t go in there thinking ‘I’m going to buy tomatoes.’ It’s ‘in season.’ That’s the concept I’d rather do,” he says.

“I can’t compete with Whole Foods and Sunflower,” Marsh says. “But if someone comes in here and I have spinach, they know it’s going to be really good spinach. If you need something to put on the grill, I can say ‘Oh, the asparagus is good right now. But I don’t have zucchini, it’s not good yet.’ “

Which doesn’t mean they’ve scrimped on world cuisine. Looking for vegetable pho broth? Got it. Not looking for, but intrigued to find, black truffle potato chips? Got those, too. In the freezer cases, you can find Nye’s Cream Sandwiches from North Carolina.

“We also wanted to expand on our current stuff,” says Marsh, whose business partner, Veronica Martinez, happens to be his ex-wife. (Yes, they get along that well.) “But we also wanted to do as much local stuff as possible.”

He’s got baguettes from the Denver Bread Company down the road on 32nd Avenue. Cappello’s gluten-free, grain-free chocolate chip cookie dough and pastas. Mmm. MM Local’s canned goods and the Real Dill’s hand-crafted pickles are amply represented. The refrigerator display case has a dedicated space for Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe meats.

Marsh reached out to Western Daughters before they opened their first shop on Tejon Street.

“It’s a perfect fit for what we want to do,” he said. “It’s not a big-money proposition but a customer thing. We wanted to have meat, but we wanted it to fit our concept. They do local, sustainably raised meats. They work directly with farms, and they do whole-animal butchery,” he said of the meat purveyors.

“They make all their own sausage,” added Marsh with a bit of a gleam. He did, after all, begin this delicious second career visiting his St. Kilian’s predecessor bearing homemade salami.

Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, [email protected] or