Eric Paul was one of the first food people I met when I moved to upstate New York in 2008. He’d been depicted by Daniel B of FUSSYlittleBLOG as an iconic figure who roamed the land in an overcoat filled with cheese. Eric says this was not typical, but the first time I met him he did indeed reach inside a long black, adult movie theater-style trench coat and extract a carefully wrapped stinky for our friend Deanna Fox.
Eric has come a long way since then. The Cheese Traveler has evolved from a man into a store in Albany’s DelSo district which most would say is the premier cheese destination in the Capital District. A number of restaurants consult with him on their cheese selections and he’s designed the menu at least one very trendy place, as well as expanding to his own charcuterie, beer, meat and confections and occasional in-store eating events.
Best of all, he’s achieved this success without compromising his principles or the quality of his product—something that’s unusual in a region where restaurants and retailers seem to struggle whenever they deviate from a safe middle ground of familiar tastes. I asked him how he did it.
First, a word about Eric’s background. He has a degree in Classics from Bard, a field of study which requires you to fill your brain with large amounts of information that has no everyday application. I don’t know if Latin conjugation or Greek mythology is still in there but he seemingly has an anecdote about every scrap of cheese or cheese maker represented in his shop, from the French family that creates its product in an abandoned bomb shelter to the monk on the run who invented Camembert. Many of these stories are represented on the charming, hand-lettered signs atop the cheese wheels as well as the elaborate descriptions printed on the label for your purchase.
The cheese selection is not huge but is beautifully curated. You’re not going to see mass marketed brands you’ll see elsewhere, but you’ll most likely find something that is new to you yet has an accessible flavor profile. I think this is the key to Eric’s success. He originally focused on small scale, esoteric producers but shifted to cheeses that “sold themselves” through self-evident quality instead of requiring “hand selling” an unfamiliar taste. His goal is to bring conversions to the point that 80% of the time when customers sample a cheese, they buy it. He’s learned that his clientele enjoys sharp cheddars, smoked Gouda and brie and always has a selection of those categories on hand as the gateway to more adventurous tasting.
The Cheese Traveler buys its cheese from half a dozen reliable distributors and another dozen or so cheese makers with whom Eric has direct relationships. The reduced reliance on middlemen helps to control retail prices so these tend to be objectively reasonable compared to the competing cheese departments at local gourmet boutiques and high-end supermarkets. There are no $4.99 blocks of baby Swiss, but there are plenty of tempting selections in the $10-20 per pound range.
Eric told me he has always had a fascination with cheese, dating back to a cheese-loving grandfather and a favorite childhood book about cheese. He became serious about cheese when working at Honest Weight coop in Albany, where he expanded the selection 200% and grew sales 160% over a 4-year tenure. When he decided he wanted to be a professional cheese monger he spent a year apprenticing at Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, MA, considered by many America’s finest cheese store.
I’ve gotten this far without saying what makes Cheese Traveler absolutely unique in the region: it’s the only local store that “faces” its cheese. This is the process of shaving off a top level periodically to keep the cheese fresh and moist as opposed to sweating and absorbing off-tastes from the standard plastic wrap. For practical reasons, Eric’s cheese is stored in plastic. But it’s faced before tasting and also multiple times a day as it sits in the display case. When you buy it, it’s carefully wrapped in a coated paper to preserve its flavor and freshness on the ride home. I had not given much thought to the benefit of facing until Eric described it to me, but now I want all my cheeses this way; it respects the product in a way that’s appropriate for a carefully made and not inexpensive foodstuff and gives me reassurance that the cheese will be the same at home as when I tasted it in the shop.
I asked Eric, suppose I was from Utica (another midsized upstate city) and wanted to open a shop like this one. What would be his advice? His answer: unless you know a lot about cheese, don’t do it. Eric’s fascination with his wares, his willingness to chase down producers and his savvy for his market probably do make him unique. The Cheese Traveler is at 540 Delaware Ave, Albany, NY 12209 which is a fairly mild detour off I-87 if you happen to be in the area. They offer sandwiches and soup to go in addition to the cheese, beer, charcuterie and assorted crackers, candies and other accompaniments, and there is a regular Friday night cookout. Closed Monday; call (518) 443-0440 for hours other days or check the website.