The cost of cheese
To add to all of what has already been said, there are many non-cheese costs that factor into the prices charged by a cheese shop: paying staff, cost of equipment and supplies, utilities, etc. In big cities, real estate, whether purchased or leased, and ongoing costs of upkeep can be fantastically expensive. Obviously, these costs are going to be recouped in the form of higher prices to customers. This is a major reason why cheese in places like New York City and San Francisco sells for more than it does elsewhere. Add to this the fact that big cities have a lot of high-income residents who don't blink twice at high mark-ups.
It's also worth noting that a cheese shop never is able to sell 100% of what it purchases. First, shops do a lot of sampling, yet can't charge for samples. That reduces the amount of cheese than can be sold. Second, no matter how good a shop gets at ordering and managing inventory, things don't always work out as planned. A cheese may not sell well or may sell too slowly to still be in good condition near the end. A reputable shop will not sell below par cheese just to get rid of it, so it takes in less money on that particular cheese than it expected to. Third, there are various other forms of shrinkage: the occasional accidental damage to a cheese, rendering it unfit for sale; theft, especially when a shop has an open case or prewrapped cheese that the customers can handle themselves; and disparities in weight between what the shop pays for and what it actually receives.
This last mentioned situation is a dirty little secret of the trade. Here's an example: A shop buys a wheel of a cheese through an importer/distributor that gets the cheese from France. The cheese is weighed at the point of origin before shipping and determined to be 5.73 kilos, which is the amount the distributor pays for. The cheese arrives in the US by boat and goes into the distributor's storage facility. Eventually a shop places an order for the cheese and this particular wheel is delivered to it. Now, it is a fact that cheese loses moisture, and thus weight, over time. When the shop puts the wheel of cheese on its scale, it weighs 5.45 kilos, a loss of 0.28 kilos , or approximately 5% of its original weight. What is the shop charged for? 5.73 kilos, because that is what the distributor had to pay for. When I sold cheese, I had several conversations both with distributors and government officials about this. The government agencies invariably said that what the distributors were doing was illegal. Technically, you can't charge customers for more than you actually sell them. However, all the distributors do it, and your choice as a shop is to play along and cultivate a good relationship with them or to become persona non grata. So the shop, which has to charge for the actual weight of the cheese it sells, takes the hit on the 5% shrinkage. The point of all of this is that losses of all kinds occur with cheese and are passed on to customers in the prices charged.
You might also be interested in another thread on why American artisanal cheese costs as much as it does. Here's the link to that thread:
I've found it possible to get really good cheeses in the $10-$20/lb range. On my visits to the cheese counter I am usually buying about four different cheeses at about 1/2 lb per cheese, and find the value to definitely be worth it for the cost. The resulting 2 lbs of cheese to provide many servings, and the quality is very high. Plus, four options provides a nice assortment, especially when my cheese board is only being prepared for 2-6 people, usually. The price is usually commensurate withe the quality and amount, in my mind.
For example, I bought about a 1/2 lb each of Beemster X-O, Beemster Extra Aged Goat, Appenzaler and a 12 month aged Piave Oro last week. All were more than $10/lb but less than $14/lb, and all are fantastic.
The only times my cheese expenditure really gets out of hand, in my mind, is when I spring for a super expensive cheese or am preparing a cheese plate for more people than normal.
Not stupid and not surprising. My markups aren't much different in commerical photography frankly. I guess I was checking against the method I use now-which is to set a budget for what I am willing to spend during a cheese buying adventure with a little extra mad money for total surprises. I'd rather shop with more knowledge...but for now..a student with miles to go...I'm stuck with budget.
I anticipated this reply; similar to other categories of food/wine. I understand and appreciate you taking the time to explain the general costing process.
But, I also really appreciate you not blowing my question off and finding the best way and most helpful way to answer it. Because it does come down to wanting the best value and selection from your purchase. YOUR guide is most helpful.
phew... at first read of your reply I thought I was gonna get a roasting for treading on the know-it-all tip but I'm glad you found the rest of my reply helpful. The only reason I mentioned all that other stuff is that a lot of people at my counter think cheese is a stable product that doesn't have constant pricing pressures.
Also, please keep in mind that I ALWAYS end up with more cheese. Partly because I look down at my selection and ALWAYS think - oh that's not enough! So I get more cheese - it's always too much. So I hope you have more will power than I do at the cheese counter.
Another way I have learned to control my purchases at the cheese counter is to serve individual cheese plates instead of big cheese platters. This way I can portion out the cheeses and make sure everyone has a bit of everything. I do take note of my guests who avoid the blue/ washed rind cheese and serve them even smaller pieces in the future. I love cheese and respect the hard work of cheesemakers too much to waste the fruits of their labor!
This is a tough question because cheese prices can vary from week to week, store to store, and due to season. Here are soem reasons why prices and vary so much
1. Some stores have higher volume so they get better distributor prices and reflect a lower retail price
2. Some cheeses are only sold directly from the producer that generally causes high transportation costs and higher retail prices
3. After winning awards, demand for those cheeses go up and generally so do prices
4. If there is a shortage on inventory from the producer this can cause increased prices
5. Tax, tariffs and other importing goodness can make the price of those cheese fluctuate.
If I'm trying to put together a cheese plate I try to include 1 or 2 "filler" cheeses that taste great, will please most everyone and are inexpensive. This will generally be an aged gouda (Beemster XO is my favorite and can usually be found at reasonable prices - under $10 per pound) or a brie style wedge ($6.99 - $12.99 lb). Tallegio ($8.99 - $14.99 lb) is a good filler cheese and if people can get over the smell - they are often surprised by the sweetness of this washed rind (it has to be ripe tho). I'll buy about 1 - 1.5 ounces per person of each of these cheeses.
Then I will pick one or 2 or 3 more that are more interesting but may have less appeal and higher price points ($19.99 - $40 per pound). Like goat cheeses, washed rinds, blue cheeses etc. With these more expensive and usually more pungent cheeses I will generally cut down the cheese into appropriate serving sizes to indicate that this cheese maybe strong and not for everyone. I'd estimate only about a 1/4 - 1/2 ounce person of these cheeses.
I think that's very good advice. There are after all some delicious cheeses that will be popular with your guests in the under-$10 range. Then add a little something exotic.
I always smile at people who think $15/lb. is a lot to spend on cheese. I've spent three times that, but as you noted, the more expensive the cheese, generally the farther a small amount goes.
My problem is ending up with too many cheeses. I know I should keep it down to four, or maybe five, and then I end up with six or more! Because having company is really just an excuse to splurge on cheese.