Cheese Culture

By Katie Faulkner | Photography by Emily Long

 

When you open a new specialty food shop on Main Street two days before the MainX24 festival, you might be crazy or you might be crazy ambitious. Jesse and Brittany Watlington opened Bleu Fox Cheese Shop on November 30, 2017, and prepared for the onslaught of nearly 10,000 potential patrons. “We worked ‘round the clock to get ready for that,” Brittany recalls. “It was really hard, but it was totally worth it!”

Jesse and Brittany have been married nearly nine years, and both have worked in the local food scene for over a decade. They both worked in several natural food-focused grocery stores – Brittany as a designer in the marketing departments and Jesse in the specialty food departments. During these years, Jesse developed an appreciation for the complex world of cheese: the craftsmanship, the flavors, and the people who produce them.

Eventually he enrolled in the American Cheese Society’s inaugural class to become a Certified Cheese Professional. He took his final exam at the American Cheese Conference in 2012, which Brittany attended with him. They were both amazed by the intricate world of artisan cheese production. They knew they wanted to share their knowledge with the world, so the idea of a specialty cheese shop was solidified.

The pair began casually looking for locations for the shop. They really wanted to be on Main Street but weren’t having much luck finding a place. One day, Brittany’s former employer called Jesse to ask him a question about cheese. As they spoke, Jesse asked the gentleman about a building he owned on Main Street, and with a stroke of luck, he agreed to rent it to them.

In 2015, before opening, they welcomed their first child, their daughter Amelia Bleu. And in 2017, their family grew again when their son Henry Fox was born. Their children’s middle names now compose the name of their business. “Amelia tells people her name is ‘Amelia Bleu Fox Cheese Shop’ now,” Brittany laughs. But in truth, the shop does feel like one happy family, hard at work. Brittany and Jesse brought on a few of their trusted friends whom they had met in the local food industry over the years. And many afternoons, the kids can be found at the counter, snacking on some cheesy treat being handed to them by one of the staff members as they package new products.

 

“We only stock it if we love it. We’re looking for quality in each individual cheese type.”

– Jesse Watlington

For Brittany and Jesse, product selection is another fun part of the job. They love to visit specialty cheese shops in their travels. “We like to see what’s going on in New York, grocery stores everywhere. We order samples, go to all kinds of food shows, and anywhere we travel we’re looking to see what’s in the market. We like to try to stock things you can’t find at a grocery store,” Jesse explains. They also attend the Festival of Cheeses, which is held annually by the American Cheese Society, to learn what producers all across North America are up to. “We have found some very special and very rare cheese that way,” Brittany explains. In fact, they have a cheese made by one man, from an endangered breed of sheep, and the cheese production is the reason that breed still exists. Another is from cows that graze on the side of a volcano – talk about a rare treat! But they don’t just stock things to be novelties. “We only stock it if we love it. We’re looking for quality in each individual cheese type,” Jesse explains.

It’s obviously working – the community’s support of the shop has actually catapulted them to a new location within 16 months of operation. They’re moving just two doors down in the same building on Main Street, but it’s much larger. The new space will feature a dining area that allows for more events in the shop. They’ll be able to expand their already popular cheese and beer dinners (hosted with local breweries), cheese roasting and poutine parties, and cheese and cookie events. “One day, we’d love to expand into other locations, but right now, we’re just focused on serving the community well here,” Jesse says.

Not only was their ambitious opening weekend at MainX24 a smashing success, the community has also continued to support them with enthusiasm. “The response has been wonderful,” Jesse says. “I feel like Chattanooga is really supportive of local business.” CS

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