Deli Business 19th Annual People’s Choice Award Winner: Louise Converse

The Artisan Cheese Co.
Sarasota, FL

Q. How has your career evolved over the years?
A. I’m originally from England and Scotland, and I have lived all over, including in the UK and Asia, before I ended up in America. I went to school for graphic design, which had nothing to do with food, but I worked in restaurants in college back in the 80s, and I learned how to engage with people. I think everyone should work in hospitality. Fast forward, I moved to Santa Fe, NM, where I worked in the art business, and then after some time I moved back to the East Coast to the Boston area. I did graduate work on the history of Art and Architecute, and accidentally found myself in a 27-year career at Harvard working on a research project on community engagement in America. It’s there were I picked up my passion for connection.

I left Harvard in 2002, and with my husband moved to Sarasota. In 2008, the recession was hitting, and we realized it wouldn’t be great in Sarasota, so I got pulled back to Cambridge and my former research program, where I worked for an additional four years. But I wanted to come back to Florida and do something that speaks to all my interests. I love all things food and while in the Northeast, frequently found myself in front of a cheese counter when I was happy, sad or glad. Independent of each other, my husband and I were buying copious amounts of cheese. Clearly we had a bit of a problem. So I turned it into my third act, and planned on moving back to Sarasota to open Artisan Cheese Co. For two years, I traveled around eating cheese, and read everything I could on cheese. I’d go to cheese counters on business travel in the UK and America.

Eventually, we moved back to Sarasota in 2011, and I opened my little cheese shop. I designed everything myself, as it responded to that part of me. I realized I was part of a community, and that also was a part of who I am. I think that engagement in the community has to come from small businesses like mine.

Q. What is your leadership philosophy?
A. I still get pulled back to consult on book projects with my former boss, Professor Robert Putnam, to help with the rollout. I’ve always been behind the scenes as an administrator/puppet master, making things run on time, reading the room and making sure people have what they need to be successful. I’ve brought all of that knowledge with me to the cheese business. I like to find out about a person’s interests. It doesn’t have to be related to hospitality; our industry is filled with some incredibly talented people, so I like to think I gently allow my team to explore what they are passionate about. The cheese business can foster there.

I heard once that if you’re looking for your life’s passion, ask yourself what do you lose time over? Make that your work.

I also find people who are smarter than me who can fill in the gaps because I can’t do it all. I give them tools, so that they’re comfortable in their jobs, and it helps keep the spark going that makes them want to come to work.

Q. What is the best advice you ever received and why?
A. Be authentic and your true self. Speak your truth. I have to check myself inside and outside the shop, and try to get my team to think that way. We’re in service, whether to our customers, each other, our producers; everything we do is about being in service.

Q. How do you balance your work and personal life?
A. We’re closed on Sundays, and I made that decision to always be closed Sundays. We all need a rest to be with family. I also want my team to have a couple days off in a row if possible, which is important. The staffing issues of the last couple of years have made some of that challenging, but we are getting by.

For me, once I get home and settle into the evening, I find I can work on my laptop with Netflix on in the background. We live in near one of the best stretches of beach in the country. It’s incredibly restorative, and I have a great husband who supports me.

Q. What deli retail trends have impacted the industry most over the last year?
A. Hand cut to order independent cheese shops are unicorns right now, as there aren’t that many of us, with more closing than opening, especially over the last couple of years. Over the last four to five years, especially during the pandemic, more charcuterie board entrepreneurs have appeared, many of them making them in their home kitchens! But they’re out there on Instagram, so we have to make sure we are better and that what we do is about educating our customer. If we do that then we can stay true to who we are and ride trends. We made it through the pandemic, which was a minor miracle. Prices have been incredibly challenging as well as pipeline issues, so we have had to stay sharp and pay attention to how we curate what we do. We offer an experience, something you can’t get online, so we try to stay relevant and true to who we are as a cheese shop.

Q. What hobbies do you enjoy outside of work?
A. I enjoy photography. I went to school for fine arts, but put my paint brushes down years ago. I’m comfortable behind the camera. And I write. There’s a book in me that will get written soon.

Q. Are you married? If so, how long? How many children?
A. Yes, I’ve been married 19 years, and we’ve been together 21 years. I don’t have children, but I have two dogs.


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