2021 People’s Awards

Deli Business Magazine

Deli Business’ annual People’s Awards honors those individuals in the industry who are standouts in their fields.

These retailers, distributors, academics, importers and marketing professionals’ personal and professional contributions in the deli and food industries are worthy of this annual recognition. Honorees are nominated by past winners and fully vetted by our staff.

CJ Bienert
The Cheese Shop of Des Moines/The Cheese Bar of Des Moines
Des Moines, IA

Q. How has your career evolved over the years?

A. I started cooking at a young age, before I ended up working at a wine store. Culinary arts got me into the store that opened in 1995. It was really ahead of its time. They had a cheese counter and provisions area with pasta and olive oil. The cheese lady and my mentor, Barbara Horn, got me into cheese and gave me never ending curiosity about it. This was my gateway to the world. I ended up behind the cheese counter and sold a whole wheel of Ossau-Iraty. That was the beginning of my journey. The wine store went out of business, and my trajectory really changed when I had the privilege to work with one of the most prominent American producers, Jasper Hill in Greensboro, VT. I contacted owner Mateo Kehler about doing an unpaid internship. It was through this that I learned that I didn’t want to make cheese, but would rather sell it. That’s when I had the a-ha moment—that the artisan domestic category was on the rise. From that point on, I’ve been less Eurocentric and have been loving the small scale domestic cheese, especially the softies! I also worked at Cowgirl Creamery in California. I took a little bit from all that when I opened my shop. We focus on small batch cheese.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?

A. Never give up on people, and be honest. It’s really easy to think that people are lazy and will steal from you. I don’t believe that to be true. You need to find the right area for people, and it’s about staying positive. Sometimes the industry is not for them, and you need to find an exit strategy, but more often than not people don’t disappoint. We have people who have worked here for eight or nine years. Also, being able to share great food and wine with employees as well as customers is very impactful. Having open communications at all times is my favorite part of being a business.

Q. What is the best advice you ever received and why?

A. I’ve been very lucky to have mentors in the industry, like Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill and Herb Eckhouse, owner of La Quercia (maker of salumi and dry cured meats). And Ari Weinzweig (founding partner from Zingerman’s) is so willing to share and give advice. He provides his direct e-mail and number to everyone. I’ve called him up on multiple occasions. When I was in the planning stages for the shop, we had lunch, and he said, ‘You can do anything if you don’t give up and stay positive.’

Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?

A. I make it home every night for dinner. You have to make it a point, it’s like brushing your teeth. My wife or I may have to go back to work after dinner, but we make it a point to eat together every night.

Q. What deli retail trends have impacted the industry most over the last year?

A. I really think it’s quality. People want the best. If you asked me five years ago, it was washed rind cheeses. We had a slogan then, ‘embrace the funk’. Now, I think people are looking at different styles and milk types like sheep’s milk and mixed milk cheeses. People are cooking with better cheese nowadays. Everyone is using cheese in culinary so much more, and that’s great. Buy cheese like you buy steak, it’s an investment. I’m seeing more people buying specialty cheese since COVID. Herb said to me “We’re 100 years behind Europe” in terms of cheese, but I think we’re really getting there and seeing it with customers in terms of what they’re interested in and their buying habits.

Q. What technology or technical tools are indispensable to you in the workplace and why?

A. E-commerce for sure, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface.

Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome on the job?

A. Finding that balance. Being able to delegate as an owner/operator is difficult. I still do purchasing because I can’t let it go. Still, I have more than ever delegated to others. We’re really blessed with the employees we have because the labor market is so difficult. We’re so lucky to have our cheese family, our core people. Giving a raise is one thing but giving someone more responsibility is sometimes more impactful.

Q. What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?

A. Recently fly fishing but really anything outdoors.

Q. Are you married? If so, how long? How many children?

A. I’ve been married 10 years to my business partner Kari Bienert. We have two amazing kids that both love cheese and La Quercia prosciutto.


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