Interview with Eric Larson, Marion Street Cheese Market

Oak Park's Best Cheese Source Turns Two

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By David Hammond

 

The Marion Street Cheese Market is celebrating its second anniversary. Has your mission or vision changed at all during the past two years? 

 

We have continued to keep our focus on small, local, independent and artisanal producers.  That focus has only grown stronger in the past two years.  Our cheese collection has become even more focused on American artisan cheese because the domestic cheese producers are now as good as or better than many European producers, and we always try to keep our focus on local as much as possible.  Of course we always offer the great cheeses of Europe, but our mission and vision are more designed to help the small cheesemaker in America.  The same goes for beer, wine, chocolate and any other product category.  Our bistro has had a motto of "local, sustainable, seasonal, organic and humane," and we try very hard to provide those things to our guests.  The menu is designed specifically with those criteria in mind, and that will only continue in the coming years.

 

Mary Jo Schuler and I have worked very hard to ensure that Marion Street Cheese Market is working to achieve our mission and vision every day - that is, supporting small independent local producers of food and local specialty food artisans, providing healthy and nutritious foods that are grown with sustainability and the humane treatment of animals in mind, offering our guests an exciting and satisfying shopping and dining experience where customer service is the priority, providing a good place to work for our staff in which their ideas and opinions are valued, serving as a community resource whenever possible and helping to add to the overall vitality and vibrancy of Oak Park.  Every day, that is what Marion Street Cheese Market is really about.

 

Were you able to work with local ingredients as much as you had hoped in the beginning? Is there as much of a market for local as you had originally thought? 

 

We are able to work with local ingredients a good deal of the time, especially spring through fall.  Winter can be a little more challenging, but we try to have our menu reflect the seasons and we try to utilize what our local farms are producing at the moment whenever possible.  The Green City Market has been incredible for Chicago restaurants, and we utilize many of the farms that sell there year round.  It can get challenging to get down there on Wednesday mornings to shop, but we do it as often as we can.  We are often there twice a week buying fresh local produce for our bistro.  Also, local food distributors are beginning to offer more locally produced vegetables, fruits and dairies.  Local distributors like Testa, Natural Direct and JDY and doing a great job sourcing local produce and meats to offer to restaurants, and that makes sourcing local produce and meats easier for us.  Regarding the market for local, I believe there is a large number of people who like to support local producers and farmers whenever they can, and it is our job to make those products more accessible to local consumers by using them so much in our bistro.  If anything, Marion Street Cheese Market needs to do a better job communicating that this is what we do.  I am always surprised at the number of people who don't know, for instance, that our eggs, meats, dairy and produce we serve is so heavily focused on locally and sustainably produced foods.

 

When you first opened, I believe the plan was to open a butcher shop in conjunction with MSCM. Is that still part of the plan? 

 

The status of the butcher shop is that it is on the backburner for now.  We opened the new location in July 2008, just as the economy fell off the cliff.  We have had to focus on the operation of the new cheese market and bistro exclusively and so, while we still feel it is a great idea, it will have to wait for now.  We are offering an ever-increasing variety of cured meats and charcuterie from local artisan producers in our current cheese market

 

For now we are using pork from amazing local producers like Black Earth Meats and North Country Meats, both in Wisconsin.  These are producers practicing sustainable and humane agriculture and we are excited about supporting them.  But for now, any expansion plans relating to the butcher shop are on hold.

 

Service issues have been a continuing problem; why has it been so challenging for MSCM to fix the problems that people seem to have with the service in your cafe? 

 

Ah, the service question.  Having not come from a restaurant background professionally, I have found that it is more difficult to produce consistently outstanding service than it is to produce consistently outstanding food. 

 

As a new restaurant, there are many challenges.  One is attracting servers who have experience and are professionals.  Experienced servers go to restaurants with proven track records where they know they can make good money.  We found ourselves having to start with many servers who either were brand new to the job or who were just doing it part-time or as a second job.  Also, most really strong professional servers live and work in the city of Chicago, and there is a perception of the suburbs as being a less appealing place for them to work.  So we struggled early and for a while to attract, train and maintain the level of servers we need to meet our customers’ expectations.  Guests come to us with high expectations, and when the service doesn't match those expectations is when entire experience starts to go downhill and people complain.  And they have a right to expect and receive exceptional service.

 

There is also an issue related to service that has nothing to do with the actual server - it has to do with the ability to quickly produce food in the kitchen and turn around ticket times expeditiously during the busiest times of the day.  When we chose to move into this location in the Opera Club condominium building, it had been built for the original tenant, which was going to be a bank.  So essentially we had a boxed in unit with no way to build and operate a traditional gas grill cooking system with a hood and vent.  We couldn't retrofit the entire building with people living above us to install a vent to the roof.  So we had to design a far more technological kitchen using electricity and induction burners.  That greatly limited the capacity and speed at which we could produce food and get it to the tables.  No matter how many cooks we would hire, there was only so much production the equipment was going to be able to handle.  When it became apparent that we needed to address this, Mary Jo and I decided to do an upgrade of the kitchen equipment.  The new equipment installed last week utilizes new technology that will now allow us to grill food and prepare much more food more quickly than before.  So, often what people perceived as "slow service" was really inadequate kitchen equipment to meet the highest volume times of the day.  Their food took longer than they expected to come out after their order, and this was often called "slow service".  These recent improvements and upgrades should greatly help solve that problem.

 

In the past year, we have developed consistent leadership in our dining room and we have a significantly improved level of service professional working in our bistro dining room.  I believe that customers should expect exceptional service whenever they dine out, and that is our goal at Marion Street Cheese Market.

 

What are some of the new menu items that you’re most excited about serving? 

 

First, we have revised all of the artisan cheese and charcuterie flights, so as a cheesemonger that really excites me!   I am also really excited about the new Black Earth Meats pork chop and the Kentucky Bison Burger.  There is a fun play on carpaccio - a beef one from Black Earth Meats and a beet carpaccio from Green Acres.  Our Executive Chef, Leonard Hollander, is pulling out some of his Southern roots with a terrific Louisiana Crawfish and Sweet Corn Fritters that uses a certified sustainably farmed (and BP oil free) crawfish that is raised much further away from the Gulf.  We want to help support Louisiana seafood producers as much as possible while providing our guests healthy food.  We have an incredible certified organic Scottish Salmon served with a quinoa tabbouleh (for our gluten-free diners) and a really nice vegetarian preparation of ricotta, gruyere and parmesan stuffed crepes served over a bed of Green Acres zucchini ratatouille and onion jam.  ANd those are all just on the dinner menu.  We have also revised and updated the lunch and brunch menus.

 

What would you say has been the most surprising “revelation” that you’ve had over the past two years? What things that you thought would work didn’t, and have you been surprised by any of your successes? 

 

Honestly, the two biggest revelations so far have been just how difficult and challenging it is to operate a restaurant that offers a consistently outstanding experience for our guests (both the food and the service), and just how satisfying it can be when it all is going smoothly and guests are truly enjoying themselves and having a good time in our establishment.  Right now there is a lot of stress in society, and we try to give people the chance to relax and unwind and forget their problems for a bit.  That is why we are working very hard to provide both food and service that allows the guest to have a genuinely good time whenever they dine in our bistro.  When it come to things that didn't work, we tried at first to be more of a small plates wine bar and people quite often wanted a main course option, so we evolved.  We have moved in that direction with the opportunity for the diner to now choose between a good variety of small plates, large plates (more like entrees) and a wider variety of artisan cheese and charcuterie flights. 

 

In the retail side of the business, we thought we could be a bit more of a local grocer offering produce and other items that might be found in a small grocery store.  That was more challenging than we thought and didn't really work,  so we have focused on what we do best - offering artisan cheese and charcuterie and all the great things that accompany them (honey, preserves, mustards, pickled vegetables, nuts, etc.), fine wine and domestic craft beer, locally made chocolates and sweets.

 

What do you see in the immediate future for MSCM? 

 

We are going to continue to work hard to serve our community here in Oak Park/River Forest/Forest Park.  We will continue to explore ways to work with local farmers and food producers to utilize even more locally grown products.  We will explore the possibility of using the roof of the building we are in for solar panels to help provide electricity not only to our operation but to the entire building.  In our retail area, we will be developing our e-commerce presence on the web and we're also looking to develop a local delivery service to help our customers simplify their lives by delivering all the great products that we sell right to their door.  In the near future we are planning to become a zero-waste kitchen and we will become certified as a "Green Restaurant" with the Green Restaurant Association.  We will continue to increase our focus on local agriculture and small family farms. 

 

Most restaurants don't have relationships with the people who produce their food.  We want to know the people who grow and raise the food that we serve, so we will partner with more local farms and producers to help our customers shrink the carbon footprint of the food they eat, and working hard to always provide an exceptional dining experience for our customers.  We are also growing our artisan cheese wholesale business, where we are providing cheese to many of Chicago's finest restaurants.  We source cheese from small farms throughout the U.S. and offer them to restaurants, helping them design cheese courses and training their staff on artisan cheese.  We are selling cheese to about 20 of Chicago's best restaurants and we plan to expand that part of our business. 

 

 

What have been your experiences at the Marion Street Cheese Market?

 

Marion Street Cheese Market

100 S. Marion Street

708.725.7200

 

Crossposted on The Local Beet

Reader Comments

2 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Kathleen Wrobel from Oak Park  

Posted: February 18th, 2011 7:46 PM

A Great Escape! There are many fine restaurants in Oak Park that offer good service, good food and nice surroundings. Marion Street Cheese Market is BEYOND fine. Three of us had lunch at MSCM this afternoon. First time for each of us. From the moment we walked in until 2 hours later when we left we experienced phenominal service beginning with our hostess, Corey. She knew everything about the menu... Gordon Ramsey would have loved her. Thank you Eric and Leonard.

Dan Haley from Oak Park  

Posted: October 11th, 2010 8:51 AM

I am a fan of Eric Larson. And this interview reinforces why. His remarkably candid, straightforward explanation of service issues is the sort of answer all business owners would be wise to adopt. Just tell the truth. People understand and appreciate that. And that doesn't even get into the many remarkable, ambitious efforts that underpin MSCM. This is a local business with a purpose.

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