Deli manager Angela Martinez inches along the cheese displays at Bayview Thriftway in Olympia, giving a running commentary as she stops at each lovely round, roll and wedge.
“People love this,” she said holding a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy. “It’s self-selling. You don’t have to do much to sell it.”
She approached the Cotija. “This is our only Mexican (cheese) right now. ... Basically, it’s good on any kind of Mexican dishes like enchiladas or tacos. It’s a crumbly cheese, kind of like a feta. It’s good.”
Moving to the goat cheese section, she observed, “Goat cheese is a new ‘in’ thing. People are getting used to the goat flavor. It’s a lot creamier, and got a real distinct flavor to it.”
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Martinez is personally familiar with each of the cheeses at the Olympia store. As deli manager, her duties include buying most of the cheeses in the high-end deli that offers a wide assortment of artisanal cheeses that can be difficult to find.
“I’m able to have the freedom of choosing my product in the deli,” said the 35-year-old Lacey woman. “I love that ... they trust me to go out there and pick out the products. And for the most part, I’ve been pretty successful as far as what I choose.”
The independent grocery store carries about 100 varieties of cheese. About a third dwell in the specialty cheese case, where customers can ask for samples and watch as deli workers cut requested quantities.
The store’s packaged cheeses are spread among two expansive display cases. Selections range from Captain Black’s domestic cheddar with smoked Alaskan salmon to Italian Bocconcini pearls of fresh cheese, from British Wensleydale with cranberries to the domestic Humboldt Fog goat cheese with vegetable ash.
Prices run from $10.99 to $29.99 a pound. The priciest product: genuine Roquefort.
“I wish I could carry a lot more,” she said. “It’s a matter of having the space for it.”
To select cheeses, Martinez visits food shows throughout the year to sample new products. She pays attention to what other grocers stock, and tries to offer cheeses that aren’t offered nearby.
She’s keenly attuned to her customers’ likes and dislikes. She adds cheese at customer requests and drops the losers. She no longer carries Limburger, for instance, a flavorful cheese with an unfortunate odor that repels customers. But she’s added a Blue Stilton to answer customer demand.
And she’s an avid cheese eater herself. When she picnics with relatives, they put her in charge of the cheese. She’s passing on her love of cheese to her 11-year-old daughter, Isabella. “She likes cheddars and Havarti. She loves brie.”
Martinez draws upon a decade of experience in the food business, a path that wasn’t in her original career plans.
The Taos, N.M., native studied engineering at the University of New Mexico and originally moved to Seattle seeking work in the aerospace industry. When that didn’t pan out, she took pre-nursing classes at Tacoma Community College and got a job in the deli at Metropolitan Market’s Proctor store in Tacoma’s North End.
The Metropolitan introduced her to cheese, rotisserie chicken, high-end food displays and the rest of the deli world. She realized the food business was her calling.
After working four years in the Proctor deli and bakery, she became bakery manager at the Metropolitan store in the West Seattle Admiral District.
“I’m still learning to this day,” said Martinez, who’s managed the Bayview deli for four years.
She’s found educating customers is one of the keys to a successful deli.
“A lot of people will come to the counter and say, ‘I’m just looking.’ You have to pretty much give them 100 percent, and offer samples and say, ‘We’ve got a new product; would you like to try it?’ That’s my main thing ... having customers learn about the deli, showing them what we have and what we have to offer as far as services.”
Amy and Joseph Peters from Steamboat Island appreciate the attention.
Last week, they stopped by the deli with their 61/2-year-old son to buy a Canadian white cheddar to go with dinner. As they waited for their order, Nairn quickly gobbled a sample of the cheddar.
Amy said Bayview’s artisanal cheese selection is better and their customer service is superior to other grocery stores. Their 12-year-old daughter Neve has become such a cheese fan that her parents give her money to try cheese of her choosing at Bayview. “I can get a sample of anything and contemplate, and they give me time for that,” the mother said. “Or I can get it sliced, go shopping, and it’ll be ready when I come back. They also treat our children like they’re customers as well, and that’s important to me.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694