By Emily Hopkins and Emily Cassel
If you don’t pass them every day, you’ve probably learned their names by osmosis. Some are brand new, and others have been around for decades. Either way, they’re undeniably Cambridge: small shops with big passions, dedication to quality products and the community they serve. We took a closer look at four shops who are doing it right.
The stairway down to the cheese caves is a little steep, and it’s easy to hit your head if you’re not careful during your descent. In 1996, Formaggio Kitchen (244 Huron Ave.) became the first retail store to be equipped with this type of underground storage system. The small rooms are cramped. The first little more than a slender walkway bordered on each side with wheels of cheese. It’s cold and, more importantly, humid, which keeps the cheese from drying out and cracking. In the older cheese cave, a small modified garden fountain continuously pumps water into the air.
“They like humidity, so we give them that,” said Tim Bucciarelli, head of business operations at Formaggio. They like to be unwrapped, so we give them a nice place to sit and grow old gracefully.”
When their cheeses aren’t being stored in the cave, they’re probably part of what the Formaggio folks call the cheese wall: a pile of cheese that sits atop the a glass display case (which holds even more cheese). At any given moment, Formaggio Kitchen offers somewhere between 175 and 200 types of cheese. During the holidays, that number swells to around 250. In addition to their meticulously curated cheese selection, Formaggio offers pasta from small-scale vendors in Italy, vinegars, olive oils and other staples. Each product is selected for its quality, and the minds behind Formaggio are willing to go the distance for the good stuff.
“We travel, a lot,” Bucciarelli said. The owners make regular trips throughout the United States and Europe to track down the best products, some of which are exceedingly rare. On occasion the products are so uncommon that Formaggio is the only place you can get them in the country.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” said Bucciarelli, how Formaggio tracks down their smaller vendors. On a trip to the Loire Valley in France to drop in on a goat cheese vendor, they might find out that a guy down the street is making really great jams. It’s this careful networking that keeps Formaggio Kitchen stocked with otherwise impossible-to-find edibles.
“It’s all just relationships, and we’ve been doing this long enough that we have a lot of really wonderful relationships throughout Europe and the U.S.,” Bucciarelli said.
Bucciarelli has worked at Formaggio on and off for 17 years. He started when he was in high school and returned when he moved back to the area after college. He wanted to work with food but not at a restaurant. At Formaggio he’s been able to pursue and share his passion with equally eager staff members.
“The best way we’ve found to learn is by doing, so [the staff] are here every day with their hands on the product,” said Bucciarelli. They also have informal trainings once a month where they’ll get together, open a bottle of wine and taste new cheeses. Bucciarelli compares the staff’s expertise to that of a librarian.
“People come in, they say, ‘Hey, I want a soft cheese, not from France, I want it to be goat’s milk, not too strong.’ And then we taste a cheese to them, a couple more, and then they’ve got the cheese they want. Everyone walks out of here happy,” said Bucciarelli.
From distributor to staff to customer, it’s really the people that make Formaggio special for Bucciarelli. Case in point: In 1997, shortly after the first cheese cave had come into existence, Julia Child wandered into the shop to see what all the fuss was about. Finding the stairs were too steep for her, Child enlisted the help of the shop’s owner, Ihsan Gurdal, to carry her to the basement. There was the expected excitement surrounding the visit by Child on that particular day, but Bucciarelli said that she was just one part of a great community wherein Formaggio finds itself.
“You’ve got a lot of independent shop owners in [Huron Village] run by people who, just by the virtue of running an independent business, have to be passionate and dedicated,” said Bucciarelli. “Child was just here as a regular customer. It’s a great community. They’ve made it for us I think.”
What is it like to be an ice cream shop in the middle of the worst Massachusetts winter in decades or possibly ever?
“We’re a little smacked,” says Mimi Rancatore, co-owner of Toscanini’s Ice Cream (899 Main St.). “But we’re doing our best, like we say. We’re doing our best.”
Winter is always a slow time for the shop, and predictably so—snow and ice typically don’t send people running for frozen treats. Though the shop doesn’t usually have to shut down for days at a time like it did this year, winter is their offseason, and they’re used to the cycle.
“Our growth has made us feel philosophical about winter,” says Gus Rancatore, Mimi’s brother and business partner. “In my mind, it’s sort of like being a farmer. Winter is always winter. Spring always comes. All we have to do is hold our breath, not do anything stupid.”
And even with a windchill below zero, folks are coming out to Toscanini’s for a chilly snack. The seating area is bright and open, with a wall of windows that face the street. The ice cream is creamy and slides into the cartons like a cream-based version of velvet. The staff seems warm and eager to please, no doubt an extension of Gus and Mimi’s dedication to the customer’s experience. A lot of their work takes place behind the scenes—experimenting with new flavors and researching product costs—but they still put in some hours at the counter to tune into their customers. This is their lab: A customer’s reaction can say a lot about a new flavor.
“Customers aren’t always verbal about what they like or don’t like,” says Gus. “You want to be there for smiles and enthusiasm or reluctance.”
This attention to detail goes beyond customer satisfaction. As Central Square has changed over the years, Gus has had his eyes and ears open to who’s coming into his shop. Some of their flavors have a very narrow focus, but will still sell out, like grape nut or grape nut raisins, which Gus says are favorites among his customers from the Caribbean. They try to make everyone happy, he says, though there are some things that they just can’t accommodate.
“There’s a big debate … If you have grape nut raisins, and they want grape nut, they’ll say stuff to you like, ‘Well, take the raisins out,’” Mimi laughs. “I can’t take the raisins out!”
Toscanini’s offers up to 32 flavors at a time—which is a lot. They keep crowd pleasers like vanilla, chocolate and cookie dough on hand, but the other couple dozen spots give Toscanini’s the opportunity to experiment. The inspiration can come from anywhere. After eating some bacon caramel popcorn at Backbar in Somerville, Gus experimented with those flavor profiles. They don’t do savory (though Mimi notes that garlic ice cream is delicious) but everything else is on the table, and they’re pulling ideas from every culinary corner.
“Even saffron ice cream, which is a flavor that we made that I was convinced would never be popular, has become more broadly popular as Indian food has grown in appeal in the United States,” says Gus. “We certainly sell a lot of kulfi ice cream flavors which will often include cardamom or saffron, other things like that.”
Gus knows his customers. He says he can even track trends amongst students from different schools. He and Mimi have watched as Central Square has changed over the years, and they speak as if they could be aunt and uncle to fellow business owners who have only been operating for a fraction of the time. They’re not panicked by the changes they see in Central Square, though they’re well-aware of the neighborhood’s ebb and flow.
“Central Square has changed a lot. It has not changed in a steady direction, it’s sort of taken two steps forward and one step back,” says Gus.
Wherever Central Square goes, Toscanini’s will surely be there, waiting to make flavors for whoever walks in the door. That’s the most important thing for Gus. There’s no ego in his ice cream.
“We’re not making ice cream for people to go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’” Gus says. “We want them to like it.”
SALT & OLIVE
“This is, without question, my midlife crisis,” Salt & Olive’s Mary Taylor says with a small smile.
Taylor is standing at the counter of the artisanal shop (1160 Mass Ave.) that she founded in September of last year, pouring glossy, golden extra virgin olive oil into small sampling cups. Afternoon sunlight streams through the store’s wide front windows, warming the hardwood floors as she explains the different taste profiles and health benefits of oils that have originated in Australia, Spain and Italy. Soft jazz music crackles through the speakers. Today, Taylor is the proud proprietor of her own Harvard Square business, but this is a relatively new venture—until recently, she worked as the global head of footwear for Puma.
Taylor is part of an ongoing movement that has been referred to as both the “craft economy” and the “happiness economy.” Rather than aspiring to a high-paying position and an executive suite, she and other like-minded Americans are taking risks and pursuing their passion—be it craft brewing or pickling—even if that means leaving six-figure paychecks and professional esteem behind.
“I’m not alone on this crazy journey,” she explains. She leans on a repurposed table which served as a desk during her days at Puma and is now laden with best-selling balsamic vinegars. Taylor cites Follow the Honey’s Mary Canning as another Harvard Square artisan who has chosen a path that doesn’t lead to the boardroom. “There are a lot of people who have done the same thing. They’ve decided, ‘Okay, that’s a good trade. I’m not going to make the paycheck that I made, but I’m going to be happy.’”
The transition from footwear to fine foods began several years ago during a series of business trips with her former employer. Taylor was lucky enough to travel much of the world in her more than 25 years with Puma, but it was with Italy that she truly fell in love.
“When you go to Italy, it’s not only that it’s absolutely gorgeous and the people are wonderful,” she explains. “The food’s spectacular. And when you really spend some time with the food you realize that it’s wonderful because it’s simple and it’s fresh.” Simplicity and freshness would eventually play a huge role at Salt & Olive. The shop’s straightforward mantra, “Fresh. Local. Organic. Sustainable,” was in many ways inspired by Italian cuisine.
Of course, Taylor didn’t simply touch down on a return flight from the Mediterranean and open a hyper-specific shop specializing in oils, spices and teas. She estimates that she spent two years in the dreaming phase of opening her own store, during which she actually studied olive oil to determine if this was something she wanted to do day in and day out, and another year in the hands-on planning stage. Having attended olive oil schools in Italy, San Francisco and New York, Taylor is the extra virgin olive oil equivalent of a sommelier. (She proudly gestures to a wall where two “geeky” certificates attest to that fact.)
The similarities between wine and olive oil don’t stop with Taylor’s somm-like certifications. “Olive oil in the United States is really where wine was 20 or 30 years ago, she explains. “The American palate is maturing.”
This, too, can in some ways be traced to the craft economy. While artisans are willing to take home a slightly smaller paycheck to work in a field they love, consumers are prepared to spend a little more on quality products to share with friends and family. Sitting down to savor a home-cooked meal with loved ones “is a piece of happiness, there’s no question,” Taylor says. She gets genuine joy out of putting quality ingredients into customers’ hands, and she encourages aspiring foodies to send in photos of the meals they cook with the shop’s vinegars, oils, salts and spices.
But happiness, passion, even community—these things alone can’t sustain a business, a fact Taylor knows well. “Numbers are critical. We’re a small, independent business,” she says. “But we’re also making decisions based on instinct and what we believe our customer will love.” That means bringing in more products from local makers and focusing on goods like the artisanal salts, which have proven to be surprisingly popular. Ultimately, Taylor and her staff are thrilled that their shop is a place where people can go to be inspired about food, a place that gets people thinking creatively about cooking.
“We’re not here to take over the world,” she says matter-of-factly. “We’re here to love what we do, we’re here to create a place that people want to spend time in and can be creative in. That’s what the goal is.”
FOLLOW THE HONEY
Of all the challenges facing small business owners—an oversaturated real estate market, rising rents, the ubiquity of Internet shopping—Mary and Caneen Canning, the mother-daughter team behind Follow the Honey (1132 Mass Ave.), have found educating people about the value of honey to be one of the most difficult. While Cantabrigians are now accustomed to seeing $10 bars of dark, fair trade chocolate, many shoppers still balk when they see a $24 price tag affixed to a jar of ethically sourced honey.
“People have made a market for things like wine, cheese, chocolate, fair trade coffee and organic maca chia power bars,” Caneen says. “If [honey] was one of those things, people would say, ‘Yes I understand the wealth of that, and this is of value, and I will spend my money on this.’”
For the past eight years, Mary Canning has been advocating on behalf of the farmers and beekeepers—both locally and globally—who make their living harvesting honey, explaining to the uninitiated the high costs associated with it. She left a longtime position at WGBH, where she was an associate producer for “Nova,” to begin beekeeping with a friend in Central Mass. She started setting up a table at area farmer’s markets to extol the values of the sweet product, and eventually opened Follow the Honey in August 2011.
Today, Mary and Caneen still spend a good portion of each workday educating shop-goers about the beekeepers who have dedicated their lives to this craft. Caneen calls Follow the Honey a “kind of daily farmer’s market,” referring both to her mother’s early days handing out literature from behind a table and to the open bazaars and markets abroad where artisans sell this liquid gold directly to consumers.
Mary Canning sees herself as a “global locavore,” explaining that buying local doesn’t necessarily mean getting the best or most sustainable honey. While her shop has worked with area beekeepers like The Benevolent Bee in Jamaica Plain and Caledonia Spirits in Vermont, she and her daughter also travel the world to find honey from Africa, Mexico and beyond. This allows the Cannings to bring awareness to the needs of those far-flung communities, and it gives consumers the opportunity to taste flavors they’d never get a chance to otherwise, like that of the premium asali (that’s Swahili for honey) that they’re currently working with the Tanzanian government to bring stateside.
“We’re not going to be in the hills of the Himalayas next week, but we’re tasting honey from a bee who’s foraged the wild valleys in the Pangboche region in Nepal,” Caneen says. “It’s remarkable.”
By finding the best honey around the world and then enthusiastically engaging with their community here in Harvard Square, Mary and Caneen are able to make the global local. The duo will chat with shop newcomers over the unique offerings on the store’s raw honey bar. Regular customers return periodically to check out what the shop is offering on its rotating taps. Their latest program to get out into the community is “Honey on Wheels,” which finds Mary driving throughout the city to personally deliver gift baskets. And—while it’s closed for the winter—Follow the Honey also has a “nectar deck” where locals can host get-togethers and sample the shop’s wares.
Ultimately, Mary and Caneen view Follow the Honey as not just a retail establishment, but as a place of service. And, because the duo understands that fostering sustainability and cultural accountability means having one eye towards the future, they often welcome area schools to bring their students by the shop for field trips. Mary recalls a recent visit from the Fletcher-Maynard Academy, who stopped by with their teacher to learn about bees and check out the store’s own hive.
“As we were waiting for them to come down the stairs, the mailman happened to be there. He opens the door, and I’m standing there shaking each one of their hands… It felt like they were in ‘Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,’” she says, laughing.
This feature first appeared in the March/April 2015 print edition of Scout Cambridge.