On a recent afternoon, Jessica Mark, was engaging one of her customers about the types of cheese available at her Driggs Avenue store – semi-firms, blues, triple creams, goat cheeses, cheddars, alpines, ricottas, mozzarellas, and burratas. As it turned out, the customer, who makes his own cheese, picked up three varieties from her shop. They exchanged business cards and agreed to talk more at a later time.
Mark, along with her friend Ursula O’Hara, are the owners of Greenpoint Cheese + Meat, an artisanal cheese and curated meats shop that opened in Greenpoint this past Memorial Day weekend.
Mark’s discussion with her customer that afternoon is typical at the store where the duo places a high value on engaging customers in conversations about food, getting them excited to try different types of cheeses, and alleviating the anxieties that people often associate with shopping for unfamiliar products.
“There is a lot of cheese knowledge out there and it is trendy topic in the world, but I would not give a “Cheese 101,” personally,” said Mark. “Upon starting this company with my partner I wanted to be on equal playing field with my customers, and as I taste and as I learn, they taste with me. I don’t ever want it to be a situation where they feel intimidated by food. Food should not be intimidating in my opinion. Food should be welcoming, and friendly and hospitable.”
Mark and O’Hara work with Greenpoint-based artisanal cheese and specialty food distributor, Food Matters Again, to find farms and producers throughout the country, and take pride in the fact that all their products are entirely sourced and produced in the US.
For Mark, her love for cheese has aged over several years.
In her early teens she began working on weekends at a gourmet food shop across from her mother’s store in Long Island. The shop had a small cheese counter, where Mark was responsible for the checkouts. Each day she would eat a Cabot Clouthbound Cheese sandwich on a baguette.
“I probably fell in love with food at that point.”
Mark eventually went to culinary school, but for several years she worked in the front end of the business – waitressing, bartending, and managing, without achieving a sense of fulfillment. For Mark, there was nothing quite like creating food with her own hands and then watching how it turned out.
So, she started from scratch. She interned at Van Leuwen’s pastry department, where she was eventually hired. Then worked at Marlow and Sons as a pastry chef, after which she took on a position as a line cook at Poppy’s Catering and Events, a catering company based out of Carroll Gardens.
Greenpoint Cheese + Meat however was just around the corner.
She sat one evening with her husband, throwing out a series of ideas on her couch. And that’s when it hit her. It should be a cheese shop. That childhood love had grown into an adult necessity – especially with Mark already known among friends for the cheese and meat plates she brings to their events. She texted O’Hara and two minutes later had a response. The next morning the duo was ready to sign the lease.
Mark said the response has been fantastic so far with most customers eager to try the vast selection the shop has to offer.
“I think this neighborhood is hospitable to small business. We’ve had some of the most amazing neighbors come in and who have been in repeatedly since we opened,” said Mark, just as another customer walked into the store and picked up a ricotta, one of Mark’s favorites and an unusual choice as she excitedly pointed out to the customer.
“They want to see people succeed here, they don’t want to see you fail,” she added.
But running a shop isn’t all that easy. Mark and O’Hara run the entire operation and the shop is open six days a week. Its hard work, but they’re not complaining.
“The most challenging thing has been having it just be you,” said Mark. “There is no one to fall back on for us or to pass the buck to. That has been the most difficult and rewarding. It’s the answer to both.”
“I have 80 percent store and 20 percent beach,” she added. “I do the store all the time and then one day a week I go to the beach and that is it. That is my balance.”
Greenpoint Cheese + Meat, 192 Driggs Avenue, 718-383-0612, Tue-Thu 12 to 7 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sun 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., http://www.gpcheeseandmeat.com/.