Cheese to Please

Steve Lidle and Nancy Wright stock Cheese Traders with a full palate of products at purse-pleasing prices

by Larissa K. Vigue

Cheese Traders, the cheese, wine, and you-name-it store on Williston Road in South Burlington, is run by Steve Lidle and Nancy Wright. In the shop's nine years, it has claimed a spot in the local food market as solid as a well-aged block of Parmesan.

When you buy truckloads of discounted product, as does Steve Lidle, co-owner of Cheese Traders in South Bur-lington, you can get stuck with what he calls "buggy whips."

"Back home in Pennsylvania, you can't sell a buggy whip to anyone but the Amish but the Amish don't buy them, of course, because they make their own," he explains. "So when we get something like that, I say, 'What am I going to do with this monster?' But then we'll just sell it for a lot less, and that creates excitement. People say, 'Wow, I got this for 25 cents it's four dollars in the grocery store!' They'll remember that."

Since the fall of 1991, customers (as many as 3,000 to 4,000 in a week, says Lidle) have made their way repeatedly to Cheese Traders' front door for gastronomic bargains. Wedged into a back lot on Williston Road, the cheese, wine, and you-name-it store run by business (and life) partners Lidle and Nancy Wright has claimed a spot in the local food market as solid as a well-aged block of Parmesan.

"Steve and Nancy have done a great job of positioning themselves," says Jed Davis, director of marketing resources at Cabot Creamery's new Montpelier office. The Vermont cheese giant has been supplying Cheese Traders with its award-winning product from day one. "They work their tails off to bring out a diverse slice of the population," says Davis, and then, as if inspired by such boundless energy, switches the metaphor: "Everyone plugs in where they can, but there's an outlet for everyone."

Lidle, the store's primary buyer and creative whiz, sees the proof of that every day. "It's rare that anyone comes through the door and doesn't purchase something."

Whether your tastes run toward common cheddar or classy Champignon (a mushroom Brie, Lidle's favorite cheese), Cheese Traders satisfies. The business specializes in, as Lidle says, "buying right to sell right" purchasing discounted product (often in bulk) and pricing it low and they do, grossing more than a million dollars a year. Forty percent of Cheese Traders' stock results from manufacturing and purchasing mishaps. "We fix people's problems," says Wright.

"Steve's philosophy is to mark up modestly," explains Wright, who oversees accounting and paperwork, "because we're interested in turnover." That means that other than 400-500 cheeses over the course of a year, more than 3,000 wines, and a few other regularly stocked items, customers don't know exactly what gastronomic treasures might be waiting on the shelves on any given day.

Sharon Wille-Padnos helps customer Wendy Davidson. The employees at Cheese Traders work four 10-hour days a week in order to have three days off. Says co-owner Nancy Wright, "We want to make as much free time for them as possible."

If, for example, one of 12 boxes of rice turns up punctured in the distributor's warehouse, the entire case is undeliverable to a traditional store. Most retailers place standardized orders, "get a case in, run it through the computer," explains Lidle. Because the system depends on a perfectly numbered case, "they won't be able to handle it if it's broken. We have flexibility the other stores don't. The distributor gets credit from the manufacturer, they sell (the case) to us cheaply and we mark it accordingly, basically a third to a half of what it would regularly run."

Such mishaps of the dents-and-dings variety, called "zoins" by the industry, less than picture-perfect, though perfectly edible, containers of everything from soup to nuts accounted for half the store's inventory in the early days. With these "salvaged items" on the lower level and wine, cheese, and other traditionally gourmet items upstairs, the original Traders had quickly succeeded in its mission to serve all pocketbooks.

Lidle even tried to tap into the on-the-run-but-health-conscious lunch market by purchasing the Olive Branch Bakery in 1994 and placing it in the store's back right corner. Although the food quality was high, "it never really took off," says Lidle. "We're more of a destination spot, not a walk-in area, so it didn't fit." Closing the bakery in 1998 "was a hard decision, but the right one," says Lidle. "You make those along the way."

By 1996, Lidle and Wright had already made one such corner-turning decision by deciding to get rid of the "dents and dings." "The distributor kept raising prices and cherry-picking the good stuff," says Wright. "We weren't getting dented cans of tunafish and peas and soup, we were getting sugary cereals and candy." When, in 1996, prices suddenly skyrocketed 30 percent based on surveys of what inner city residents in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York were willing to pay, "we decided not to do business with them" and shut down the lower level immediately, says Wright.

With half the inventory gone, "we should have been reserving resources," says Lidle, but instead they spent three-quarters of a year creating the downstairs Wine Cellar to offer a huge selection of wines at bargain-basement prices. Although they had always relied on word-of-mouth and the occasional advertisement to draw customers, Lidle thought the new venture deserved a non-traditional approach.

Wright explains: "Here's Steve's crazy brain: We're opening the cellar and advertise that Saturday is 'Cork Day' we'll pay 5 cents for a used wine cork. This person comes in with 50 corks, he gets his $2.50, he buys (an inexpensive) bottle of wine. People said, 'Are you crazy? Give cash for something worthless?' But it brought people in and created interest."

"One guy brought in 1,200 corks," adds Lidle, recalling the other end of the spectrum. "Sure, that's $60, but he spent almost $500 on wine."

The wine and other regularly ordered purchases make up the other 60 percent of the store's inventory that "sometimes I get a good deal on," says Lidle. "Often, it's the amount you buy."

That's certainly the case with the cheese. "We go through so much cheese here" approximately 2,000 pounds a week "that I'm buying like a chain of stores would," Lidle explains. There's probably not more than a handful of (independent) stores in the country that buy cheese like I do."

Certainly there isn't when Lidle prepares for the Eastern States Exposition or "Big E," held in East Springfield, Mass., every fall, which draws tens of thousands of food enthusiasts. The Vermont building alone sees 50,000 to 60,000 visitors a day. In addition to Cheese Traders, vendors include Ben & Jerry's, Cold Hollow Cider Mill and American Flatbread. This year Lidle brought more than 20,000 pounds of Cabot to the Exposition; only 280 pounds came back.

In addition to purchasing from local cheesemakers (Cabot, the state's largest producer, is the store's main supplier), Cheese Traders deals with virtually all the major importers of cheese in the United States who call on Lidle when they hit a snag. Once it was because a naval base backed out on 6,000 pounds of high-quality cheeses, like Boucheron, a pound of which costs upwards of $15. Cheese Traders sold the whole lot for $1.99 a pound.

Occasionally, they'll get batches because the cheese "just wasn't the company's flavor profile," explains Wright. "There's nothing objectively wrong with it."

That's the case also with "Traders' Truffles," factory seconds from Birnn Chocolates, a manufacturer of European-style truffles located in Burlington. Birnn has been supplying Cheese Traders with their slightly-off-recipe sweets (think Ben & Jerry's pints with "too many" chips) since the store opened. Says co-owner Bill Birnn: "Our relationship has been very exciting. They're out-of-the-box retailers. Steve's fun and eclectic retailing style runs in his blood."

Indeed it does. Growing up, Lidle learned about food service and sales from the inside in the family business, Lidle's Market in Hummelstown, Penn. Before graduating from high school, Lidle had earned a butcher's license, although he didn't plan on using it for very long. "I swore I'd never be in food service," he says, with a wry smile.

For a while, he wasn't. After serving in the Air Force as a security courier from 1966-70, Lidle returned to Pennsylvania and studied psychology and art at Lockhaven University, graduating in 1974. He then moved to Italy, where he apprenticed with a sculptor and took a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Florence. After a year in France "enjoying myself," Lidle moved to Montreal and then to New York, where he taught sculpture and pottery at the (now-defunct) Bennett College. After a stint teaching ice carving for a semester at the Culinary Institute of America, Lidle followed a friend to Vermont in 1979 and took a job as chef for Stowe's Logwood Inn. A year later, he opened a catering business called "Evening In" and made his first serious foray into the world of cheese.

Noah Bernstein cuts a block of aged Gouda. He has worked at Cheese Traders for seven months. "Everyone does a little bit of everything here," he says.Wright and Lidle were introduced by mutual friends a year or so later. Between that time and when she helped Lidle buy out his original partners in 1996, Wright served as accounting and business manager for various small companies, like Cambridge Mechanical Construction.

"I was buying from the Cheese Outlet (the current Fresh Market, located on Pine Street in Burlington) and got to know the owners," he explains. Then offering much the same product and price diversity as Cheese Traders does today, the Outlet's owners hired Lidle as manager in 1981. He stayed with the company full-time until 1987, when new owners went all-out-gourmet. After briefly running Ben & Jerry's franchise school in Montpelier, Lidle returned to the Outlet for 16 months as a consultant, but, with two partners, opened his own store in 1991 "to take care of the 95% of the population that wasn't being served." The partners sold their shares in 1996.

Nancy Wright shares Lidle's socially conscious perspective and his all-over-the-map history. Born outside of Philadelphia and raised throughout the country, Wright spent a high school year in Germany as an exchange student. After two years at William Smith Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., she returned to Germany in 1969 to attend the University of Hamburg. After receiving a master's in education, Wright taught in Germany until 1977.

The following year, Wright began a master's degree in business administration at the University of Pittsburgh, and degree, in hand, was hired at PNC Bank's Manhattan office, eventually getting into management. "Quite frankly, I went into finance out of personal protest," she explains. "In Germany, teaching is a valued profession. When I came back (to the United States), I didn't feel that anyone appreciated what I had accomplished, so I said, 'I'm going to show these guys.' But in working with creative people, I learned that finance and business could spur my creative side."

After a decade in the Big Apple, however, Wright craved change and chose Burlington in 1991 based on its combination urban-rural atmosphere and a week-long trip during which she interviewed a variety of people about the area. "On the one hand it was analytical; on the other, impulsive," says Wright, "but I've never regretted it."

That Lidle and Wright complement each other makes for good business, says Wright. "Part of the magic is that we come from such different disciplines. I think many couples who try to do busi
"We go through so much cheese here that I'm buying like a chain of stores would. There's probably not more than a handful of (independent) stores in the country that buy cheese like I do." Steve Lidle