It’s Cool to Be Cheesy
An inside look at the cheese biz with Cheesetique owner Jill Erber.
Jill Erber is the mastermind behind Cheesetique, the specialty cheese shop and wine bar with locations in Del Ray, Shirlington, Ballston and the Mosaic District. She lives in Del Ray with her husband and three daughters, ages 11, 9 and 3.
You graduated from the University of Chicago in 1998 and came to Virginia to work in software development. How did you get into the food business?
The tech bust came in 2001 and I made the transition to food. The Chef’s Warehouse, a food importer and distributor based in the Bronx, expanded into this area. I worked for them to bring food to chefs in the area.
That’s when you got hooked on cheese?
I had always enjoyed food as a consumer but didn’t understand how it was attained and produced, how restaurants worked. Seeing how food traveled from Italy, to the U.S., to a truck, to a restaurant made it more magical to me. One of the things chefs were most fascinated by was cheese. They wanted me to teach them (and their servers) how to teach customers about it. There wasn’t much cheese going on here then. I thought, You know what? Chefs are a harbinger of what’s coming and if they’re this into cheese, I bet this concept will work.
Why did you choose Del Ray for your first store in 2004?
I live here. I knew people would love it. It was a teeny-tiny little shop, a shoebox with just cheese and charcuterie. We relocated down the street 3½ years later and added a cheese and wine bar to make it a gathering place.
When did you become a full-service restaurant?
In 2011 we added a larger dining room and expanded the kitchen. All that infrastructure is a game-changer. That’s the same year we opened our second location [in Shirlington].
Are all of your stores in Virginia by design?
Understanding the ins and outs of all the regulations and requirements is no small thing. The idea of moving somewhere else and having to learn about all that stuff [in another jurisdiction] is daunting to me. Plus learning how to navigate D.C. and Maryland and not be driving my life away.
Have there been setbacks?
Gosh, there are setbacks all the time. The current one is finding great people. The restaurant business is shift driven, so you can’t run with a skeleton crew. We can’t say, “Oh, no servers today? We won’t do that part of the business today.” My team of managers deserves medals for making everything happen every day.
Has America’s taste in cheese matured?
There’s been a huge explosion in artisan cheese. Twenty years ago, the term “American cheese” was laughable. Now Americans are making beautiful cheeses.
Goat cheese is huge. One who really spearheaded that is Cypress Grove in Northern California. Humboldt Fog is one of their best known. They also do a super-hard, aged goat Gouda called Midnight Moon. From Wisconsin, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a hard, aged, Alpine-style cow’s milk cheese. Grayson, from Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia, is a washed-rind cheese, unpasteurized and stinky and farm-y and cow-y—it’s an extreme cheese and people love it.
What’s up for Valentine’s Day?
We love Valentine’s Day! You get all kinds of beautiful cheeses, like Le Coeur du Berry—it’s essentially a French, heart-shaped brie. You put that on a board and you’re done. Cheese is very romantic. It goes wonderfully with sparkling wine. It also goes great with chocolate. Put those things together and you’re going to get some loving!