GTPulse: A Sisterhood Through Cheese
“I actually used to get my pizza without cheese. I was anti-cheese, if you can believe it! Did not like it at all.”
Tina Zinn, aka The Cheese Lady, sat next to me at St. Ambrose Cellars yesterday and told me how she used to be a strictly sauce and veggie only pizza kind of gal. She’s come a long way from those days and has found a home and community in Traverse City, all she had to do was change everything about her life. Tina runs The Cheese Lady in Traverse City with her daughters.
Tina is from Grand Rapids and spent most of her life there working for Steelcase, a large office furniture manufacturer.
“20 years ago one of my bosses sent me to a life coach because I was interested in developing professionally more. So I set one, five and ten year goals and one of my goals was at ten years to be able to leave Steelcase and go do something I was passionate about.”
She didn’t know what she wanted to do instead of working for Steelcase, she just knew that she wanted to pursue something that excited her and let her interact with people more. Tina started helping out her niece at the Muskegon Cheese Lady.
“My niece worked in Muskegon and I started taking vacation days just to help her in her shop. I have a culinary degree so my background is already hospitality, customer service and I was missing that whole interaction with people and being passionate about what I did.”
The Cheese Lady is a Michigan-based and woman owned company, with each shop having creative freedom in how they run their particular store. It began with Kathleen Fagan Riegler opening the first one in Muskegon.
“The first Cheese Lady was a lady that worked for an import company and she won a trip to France. Her and her husband everyday would wake up, go to the outdoor market and buy wine and cheese and she fell in love with the idea of buying cheese from the market so she came home, quit her job and started selling at farmers markets in Muskegon. She got so popular that in the winter she was selling cheese out of her garage!”
A few other women have since opened up Cheese Lady’s in their own communities.
“We’re really a sisterhood, we all support each other.”
The brand’s story of selling in outdoor markets became a less than charming reality for Tina when her new shop’s storefront became near inaccessible not long after opening.
“In 2014 we opened in October. In May of 2015 they tore up Front Street from CVS on Division, all the way to Northpeak. I’ll never forget standing on that bridge by Park, thinking ‘what am I going to do?’ I called every farmers market within 100 miles.”
Selling in the farmers markets became Tina’s main source for income that summer and the success carried her through the road repair.
Tina has embraced the community and they have embraced her. A trend with Traverse City business owners is their commitment to support one another and Tina is thrilled with her choice to make a life here as a business owner and resident.
“I never once blinked an eye at moving up here, I never had second thoughts. I may have prayed about it a little bit, but I knew this is it. When I moved up here I knew I wanted to open a cheese shop, what I didn’t know is how much this community would accept me. I didn’t know the wineries, the breweries and the meaderies would reach out to me.”
Living in a region where so much wine and beer are made has naturally been a dream for Tina. She regularly does cheese pairing events with other local businesses. Guests learn what cheese tastes good with a particular beer, wine and mead and they’re also able to buy cheese from Tina at the events.
The shop carries a huge array of cheeses, from local to all over the world, with the idea that anyone can find cheese that they like and trying new ones is fun. Tina and her staff make coming to the store an experience and encourage customers to get experimental and try and learn about the different types of cheese.
Living in a resort town is all fun, games, cheese and wine until the tourists clear out and business slows down. Tina isn’t put off by the slow season, however. She plans to focus her winter down time on getting her cheese out all over the U.S. by offering some cheese to ship, and grilled cheese sandwiches are made at the shop from November to February. She’s also going to focus on the business. Tina’s number one goal for 2020 is to be able to staff five employees full time, year-round.
“It’s not just a tourist town, there’s a community of people who care about each other. We want to be a better community member by being able to offer that.”
Tina and her team of ladies will be at fun pairing events in the region all winter long, and their downtown Traverse City location is open Monday through Saturday.