When Kurt Beecher Dammeier mentioned that his grandfather’s first name had been passed down through generations, inspired by the great American preacher Henry Ward Beecher, we couldn’t help but recall one of his more empirical quotes: “It’s not the work that kills people, it’s the worry.”
Which may be the only thing to slow Dammeier down, if he were to ever do so. His growing family of food companies, including Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which opened its New York City doors this June, has provided an ample dose of worry, but not without offering a sweet taste of success.
We joined Dammeier a few weeks back to check out his monstrous milk drums, housed in the new 8,000 sq. ft. retail location in the Flatiron District. Walking into the Beecher’s space you’ll immediately notice a flurry of activity, and the transparency of their process. By literally building a window around the production of their signature cheeses, Beecher’s is opening up curdling and ripening to even the most innocent patron who stumbles in from the street.
“We wanted to make a cheese that was clearly premium, but ubiquitously likable,” says Dammeier. Juxtaposing himself against other well-known purveyors, such as Murray’s Cheese, which has multiple locations around the city and is a favorite among foodies, Dammeier’s goal has always been to be inclusive rather than exclusive.
“Murray’s is more about cheese like wine. I’m more about cheese like beer. You know, just eat it.”
Aside from his casual attitude toward the culture, Dammeier takes the production of Beecher’s cheese very seriously. After selling a family printing business, he decided to invest in ventures that were closer to his heart. He acquired Pasta & Co., a Seattle-based chain of specialty food shops, and spent ten years with Pyramid Brewery, another northwest staple, before it was sold to Magic Hat’s parent company in 2008.
"Everyone loves cheese. Even as a kid, I’d talk my mom into buying the premium cheddar, rather than Kraft."
When it came to starting something new, Dammeier told us he wanted to find a career that would not only support his family, but encourage their participation. “I wanted a business that would essentially last forever,” said Dammeier. “I was looking for things that wouldn’t go out of style, or wouldn’t have obsolescence.”
That’s how Beecher’s Handmade Cheese was born. When we asked him, why cheese, he had a rather default answer. “Everyone loves cheese,” replied Dammeier, a sentiment that definitely extends to him personally as well. “Even as a kid, I’d talk my mom into buying the premium cheddar, rather than Kraft.”
Yet as with all of us, it was Dammeier’s life experience that really solidified his passion for the cheese business and his company’s overarching mission. He explained how twenty years ago he came down with an ordinary, common cold. Hoping to extinguish it, Dammeier headed to his local Chinese take-out for a cup of hot and sour soup. The next day, he repeated the routine. Five days later, he had a hot and sour soup habit, and was feeling a hell of a lot worse.
“At the end of those five days, I thought I had a brain tumor. I had never felt worse in my entire life, and I didn’t know what was going on,” said Dammeier. One of his pals mentioned MSG, the familiar additive found in everything from hot and sour to tortilla chips. The more he looked into the health implications of his diet, the wider his eyes became.
“That was the loose thread in the sweater, that when pulled on, pulled the whole sweater off.”
When Dammeier decided to launch Beecher’s, he knew he wanted to open up other people’s eyes too. He outlined a broader vision, one that many people scoffed at, to challenge America’s popular diet. Now, eight years later, that’s what Beecher’s is known for.
With the 1% of sales that all of Dammeier’s businesses commit to his Flagship Foundation, its staff has teamed up with Washington State University to develop a curriculum for what they term Pure Food Kids Workshops. The workshops target 4th and 5th graders in public schools here in New York, and across the country in Seattle, to expose them to tactics food companies use to market unhealthy meals.
By making “Food Detectives” out of their students, the workshop teaches kids how to find out if a gleaming strawberry printed on the front of a supermarket box indeed harbors any whole foods. “The first time I found out what chemicals were in my food, I was like, ‘What? You’re kidding me,’” said Dammeier. “In a sense, we are really trying to spark that moment with these kids.”
Dammeier has a mission to measure the success of these workshops in teaching rudimentary nutrition tips to children. After the program’s first two years, 80% of workshop students reported that the lessons they had learned had changed their eating habits somewhat. More impressive were the 15% of students who reported that it substantially changed not only their own, but their family’s eating habits for the better.
“If our government could do one thing for us, it would be to require transparency,” remarked Dammeier. “Rather than tell us what to do, or making people do things that they don’t want do, just make everyone tell us what they’re doing. We’ll make up our own minds.”
Selfishly, we found that the most gratifying aspect of Dammeier’s commitment to a new American diet is in his role as head chef for The Cellar, the lower-level eatery housed in his New York store. During our visit, we were treated to some of the more popular items on the restaurant’s roster of locally grown plates. Oh, and not to mention a well-curated beverage list.
We’re happy to celebrate Beecher’s mission to create not only great American cheese, but a healthier American diet. Dammeier’s commitment to both is a solid reflection of another Henry Ward Beecher saying: “It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk.”
Beecher's New York, 900 Broadway, New York NY • 212.466.3340 • beechershandmadecheese.com