This week we spoke with Ruben Donze, French native and owner of La Fromagerie cheese shops in San Francisco.
What inspired you to open La Fromagerie?
I moved to Potrero Hill five years ago and I’ve been working in the Dogpatch for eight or nine years. I really enjoyed the environment of the neighborhood when I first moved here- it had a very industrial vibe and was pretty edgy at the time. I wanted to have a cheese shop where I could enjoy cheese near my home, and I also wanted to share my passion with the local community. So those two things combined is what inspired me to open the first shop. I had the space in the American Industrial Center, and decided to remodel it- and that’s how we got started.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered in opening the shop in the Dogpatch?
You know honestly, when I opened the first shop – I didn’t think it would do as well as it did. The first idea was to offer soley cheese, but soon after opening we began offering charcuterie and Firebrand bread as well. With all those ingredients we decided to start making and selling sandwiches, and that did really well. As time pasted we started to work with local companies, like Adobe, started to deliver some sandwiches to them. That did well so we started to cater for companies in the Financial District and SOMA. From there we started working with companies like Apple and the other big corporations- so maybe the biggest surprise is that from the cheese came so much more. I’d thought we would just be selling cheese in the Dogpatch.
You’re are expanding to a new location in the Financial District, is that correct?
Yes, so about a year ago I met with Aymeric (Joigner), he’s the co-owner and manager over there. Together we found a great place on Montgomery Street and felt the Financial District would be a good location for our products. We worked with a friend of mine who is a French designer- his company is called Design by Nico, he remodeled the space and created something that we felt reflected who we are and is an extension of what we want to contribute to the community.
Do you have any neighborhood regulars in the Dogpatch who you see often?
Oh absolutely- it’s been two years and people come in for their cheese on Thursday or Friday before the weekend to treat themselves or to bring to friends places. There are locals who we see come in three or four times a week for our sandwiches- and so we can’t change the types of sandwiches anymore since our regulars all have their favorites.
How do you source your cheeses?
The cheese is mainly from France, and we buy it from importers who bring it over. We are lucky to have a fairly wide selection. We don’t narrow it to France- I love cheeses from Switzerland and Spain among many others. Even the US- they make great goats milk cheese here.
Do you make any cheeses in house?
Not currently- we may end up making some cheese in house. I thought about doing that at a certain point, but doing something like that in San Francisco is extremely complicated- both because of the health department and because of the milk. Sourcing the milk and acquiring the milk are difficult tasks. There are major companies that can provide the milk, like Strauss, but the problem is that it’s coming from different places. Really if you want to make good cheese, you want to make the cheese in the same place as where the cow is producing the milk, and eating the same grass and the same flowers. It’s difficult to make great cheese if you use milk from major manufacturers because everything is blended together and it’s not natural. I don’t know if you’re a fan of Beaufort- it’s a cheese from the French Alps. When you eat the Beaufort from the summertime as opposed to Beaufort from the wintertime, the difference is enormous. In the summertime the pasture at 3000ft has a lot of fresh grass and flowers for the cows to eat, and you can taste that in the cheese. And when you eat the Beaufort from the wintertime the cows have to stay in the barn and the color of the cheese is more pale, and it has a different taste. Ultimately it’s a very complex process, and we’d be concerned about the value of our cheese if we made it in house today. But that doesn’t rule it out for the future.
For people who have a limited knowledge about cheese, where would you recommend they start?
I think a good way to start is to first work on the different types of milk- a cow’s milk cheese, a goat’s milk cheese, and a sheep’s milk cheese. Very quickly you’re going to observe the differences. So that’s a good way to start. That’s more horizontal, then I would go more vertical, like what is a triple cream, what is a semi-soft cheese, what is a hard cheese, etc. Then I would have them sample a variety of types of cheese for textures and tastes. I’m a firm believer in sampling- that’s the only way to find out what you really like.
Visit La Fromagerie in the Dogpatch at 2425 3rd St, and in the Financial District at 101 Montgomery Street in San Francisco.
About the Author // Eliza Dropkin is the newest member of Vantigo. She enjoys live music, good food, and cruising around town in Jerry (the other newest member of Vantigo).