When the lease was up at Artisan Cheese Company’s Main Street location, owner Louise Converse thought long and hard about her next move. Over six-and-a-half years in business, she made some friends, had some fun and made a little cheddar—she and her motley crew of cheesemongers could’ve walked away content and continued their love affair with cheese in the privacy of their own homes. But something in the vast, modern spaces of the Rosemary District’s new mixed-use buildings inspired her to gather her wares and relocate Sarasota’s cheese institution to a lofty, high-ceilinged space at 550 Central Avenue to continue unabashedly peddling her passion for the infinite permutations of caseiculture. As light spills in from the massive windows on the northern and western walls, it illuminates a chic interior highlighted by a long farm table with an ambrosia maple top. The front half of the store houses jams, preserves, boutique honeys, tapenades, gourmet finger foods, a carefully curated wine selection that matches the cheese offerings and stunning hardwood cutting boards made by Converse’s talented husband. Between the boutique, stylish assortment of product offerings and the Tim Jaeger paintings hanging above the cheese counter on the south wall, the retail space feels more like an art gallery than a grocery store. And one could be forgiven for forgetting that Artisan Cheese Company is, after all, still a cheese shop first and foremost.

PHOTOS BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

A great introduction to the cheese offerings, and one popular amongst lunch-breakers, is the cheese plate. Typically featuring soft, firm and blue cheeses, the cheese plates are served with a generous spread of fruit, nuts, crackers, bread, preserves and honey, arranged artfully on a charcuterie board. The plate featured includes three American cheeses made from raw milks that have retained the unique terroir of the farms from which they originate.

Piper’s Pyramide, a goat’s milk cheese out of Capriole Farm in Indiana, features a light dusting of smoked paprika on its exterior with a ridge of paprika running through the center like a crack on a marble face. It has a fluffy texture and a little kick of smoke and spice that pairs equally well with punchy foods like sopressata or sweet bites like grapes and berries. The Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Creamery in Vermont is everything a blue cheese ought to be: agreeably stinky, fudge-like in texture and marbleized with the telltale blue-grey veins of its culturing process. To complement the piquant tang, Converse suggests a drizzle of honey. Ashbrook, a Morbier-style cheese also made in Vermont, is named for the layer of vegetable ash used to form the gray line in its center and the farm from which it hails: Spring Brook. The cheese pairs well with an afternoon glass of full-bodied Italian red wine. Diners who don’t like to share: worry not.

Artisan Cheese Co might try to play down its minimalist menu of prepared foods, but many would be hard-pressed to find a more decadent iteration of the humble American classic known as the grilled cheese sandwich. In this case, it’s called the grilled cheese toastie and features a jalapeno-infused Havarti cheese (a great melter) oozing between two slices of toasted wheat bread from a local Bavarian baker. Offsetting the light kick of the cheese, a mango goat spread adds a bit of sweetness and tartness to round out the flavor. Served with a salad of mixed greens from Homestead Hydroponic Farm in Myakka City, the meal has all the comfort of the mid-century staple with an elevated, gourmet sensibility.

Quietly, a cult following has formed in honor of Artisan Cheese’s tacos. A restaurant has to have a real stroke of genius to brave a market already saturated with tacos both artisanal and authentic, and Artisan Cheese’s head chef, Kailene Quinn—a Culinary Institute of America graduate—has assuredly found a niche. The taco fillings can vary from week to week, but the tacos pictured feature roasted butternut squash, a kale and radish slaw, seared shallots, crumbled feta and sage aioli, arguably the unsung hero of the dish. The lightly browned tortillas provide a sturdy vessel and a bit of crunch to the otherwise bright, complex fusion of eclectic ingredients. “She has this way of marrying flavors that’s extraordinary,” says Converse of Quinn’s artistry in the kitchen. 

And that artistry along with Converse’s history with community outreach (she worked as an administrator with Harvard’s Saguaro Seminar, a civic engagement think tank) will make the lofty new location more than just a boutique food retail outfit. Artisan Cheese will be partnering with Girls Inc. of Sarasota County to offer a paid apprenticeship for girls interested in the culinary field. And under the hands-on tutelage of Converse, Quinn and Artisan Cheese’s team of cheese-loving wonder women, girls accepted into the apprenticeship will gain skills that can turn into fruitful careers in the restaurant industry. Where many businesses expand in size only to lose sight of the human element, the gals at Artisan Cheese saw an opportunity to keep making friends, keep having fun, make a little cheddar and fill their lofty new space with a lofty new vision.