Love of cheese leads to new career for former pubradio exec

By Mike Janssen

Chris Kohtz standing in doorway of his cheese shop

Kohtz’s involvement in the launch of APM proved valuable when he left to start his own business, the Wedge & Wheel. (Photo: Dave Sonderegger)

Chris Kohtz is no longer in a position to tell you about portfolios of programs available for airing on public radio stations. But he’s definitely your guy if you’re craving a good cheddar or Camembert.

After 25 years in broadcasting, Kohtz has shifted careers to pursue his dream of opening a cheese shop. The Wedge & Wheel opened for business Jan. 2 in Stillwater, Minn., on the outskirts of Minneapolis, offering a selection of domestic and foreign-made cheeses to an enthusiastic bunch of cheese connoisseurs. And Kohtz is taking wholeheartedly to the labor of love.

“I wanted to do something fun,” he says about his 2012 departure from the St. Paul–based American Public Media. “My advice for anybody, whether they’re seeking a career in broadcasting or not, is to make sure that you ask yourself if you’re having fun.”

Kohtz got into broadcasting in 1987 and eventually ended up as APM’s director of distribution, a job he held from 2004-12. But he had always enjoyed good food, and living near Wisconsin he had the chance to try a lot of tasty artisanal cheeses close to the source.

“As I’ve gotten to know cheese, it’s one of my favorite foods to eat,” he says. “For me, a great dinner is just a cheese, cured meat and a glass of wine.”

A visit to a cheese shop on a 2011 trip to London crystallized his desire to open a store of his own, and a year later he started a blog about cheese that helped him network with other aficionados. He visited shops around the U.S., attended conferences and took a course at the Cheese School of San Francisco. By the time Kohtz left APM, he had a business plan ready and enough of his own money set aside to help finance the effort.

As he built his business, Kohtz drew on his previous experience serving on the board of his local food co-op. He also gleaned important lessons from the 2004 launch of APM, when he was in charge of Minnesota Public Radio’s Classical 24 service. “All the business planning we did to create and launch APM was probably the best schooling I had on starting my own business,” he says.

Though he also enjoys eating at fine restaurants, he decided against starting his own due to the higher cost and time commitment, as well as the greater likelihood of failure. “A cheese shop was something I could scale — it could be almost as small as I wanted, but I could make it bigger,” he says.

The shop that opened this month is small indeed — just 800 square feet, with about 60 cheeses on offer. About half are imports, the rest American. The domestic selection highlights artisanal cheeses made on farms where the cows are raised and milked.

“It’s one of the purest expressions of locally grown food,” he says. “Cheese has the hand of the maker in it. When you really get to know it — when you go to a cheesemaker, try the milk straight from the animal and then watch how it ages — it’s like wine. You develop a palate for the elements of it, the expression of where it’s made, what the animal was grazing on.”

Kohtz’s shop doubles as a cheese bar, so shoppers can sample cheeses along with a glass of beer or wine. So far the Wedge & Wheel has had a steady stream of enthusiastic patrons, despite the unusually frigid winter weather. And Kohtz is finding that his core clientele shares much in common with the audiences he used to serve — curiosity, a thirst for new experiences and a desire to learn.

“It’s not a lot different from radio, really,” he says. “You have to understand what your audience wants, put a good story to it and meet them where they are.”

And public radio listeners already share his appetite for cheese. According to NPR research, an NPR listener is 16 percent more likely than the average U.S. adult to consume at least one pound of “higher-quality” cheese per month.

We asked Kohtz to share some tips for cheese novices. Here’s what he passed along:

Six Tips for Buying Great Cheese
  • Don’t be intimidated! There are no dumb questions. Feel free to start the conversation with “I know nothing about cheese.” And there are many types of cheese from several types of milk. Not even the best mongers know them all. Ask questions and taste.
  • Buy cheese from a local shop that lets you sample the cheese before buying it and cuts fresh to order. Good cheese is not inexpensive; most is north, sometimes well north, of $20/lb. You’ll be disappointed if you get it home and discover it’s not what you hoped for or is old and stale. Try different cheeses each time you visit. Build your “cheese vocabulary” as you might with wine. And, remember, mongers want you to try; you’re not obligated to buy.
  • Build a relationship with your cheesemonger. Mongers are passionate, enthusiastic cheese geeks who are there to help you. As they get to know your tastes, they’ll be able to steer and guide you. Good ones will even give you a heads-up when something they think you’ll love is in the shop.
  • Buy a little at time and visit the store more often. Buy just what you can eat in the next few days. Different cheese will store and hold differently, but you’ll eat better cheese if you take home just what you need.
  • Should you eat the rind? For many cheeses, yes! But for some, no. When in doubt, ask. If you didn’t ask, give it a nibble. Your mouth will tell you. Most rinds are edible but will have different textures and flavors from the rest of the cheese. Some, such as a clothbound Cheddar or poly-coated Gouda, you wouldn’t eat. But that soft, white rind on Brie or Camembert? Eat it!
  • About cheese and wine: Wine and cheese are considered an “obvious combination.” Getting pairings right, however, can be tricky. As with any food, the natures of a particular wine and cheese can compliment or combat each other. Ask your monger for tips. Later, let him or her know what you thought.
And we’re pretty sure Kohtz’s cheese shop is nothing like this one:

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