Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 5, 2018

River City: Bleu Fox has your new favorite cheese

Co-owners Jesse Watlington and wife Brittany considered opening Bleu Fox elsewhere in Chattanooga but decided the Southside would be the perfect location for the specialty food shop. - Photograph by David Laprad

As part of the Southside’s makeover, Niedlov’s Breadworks, Main Street Meats and Velo Coffee Roasters unintentionally but fortuitously formed a small specialty food hub. Nearby residents are spoiled, as they can walk to Niedlov’s to buy their favorite bread, hop next door to pick up locally cured meats and then grab fresh-roasted coffee on the way home.

Southsiders – and all of Chattanooga – can now add one more stop to their outing: cheese from Bleu Fox Cheese Shop.

When word about Bleu Fox reached my ears, I shifted my calendar back by one day to make room for a visit the following morning. If one thing will take me prematurely to my grave, it’s cheese. While one meal without cheese is acceptable, a day without it is not. I’m no connoisseur, but I do believe there are few foods – and few occasions in life – that a pinch, slice or ladle of cheese cannot improve.

The following morning, a sidewalk sign with the phrase, “This way to delicious cheese” scribbled on its chalkboard guided me in as I drove down Main Street looking for Bleu Fox. Since the logo on the storefront window is hard to make out at first, I appreciated the help.

For cheese lovers, stepping into Bleu Fox can be akin to a religious experience. My eyes are immediately drawn to the display case to the right, which contains dozens of blocks of different cheeses, all identified by name, producer, place of origin, the animal from which the milk came, whether it’s soft or hard or made from pasteurized or raw milk.

If there’s a cheese heaven, I thought, then Bleu Fox must be a tiny slice of it, cut off like a portion of perfectly aged gouda and placed with divine care on Main Street.

Behind the counter stood Bleu Fox co-owner Jesse Watlington, a.k.a. cheese god. Watlington doesn’t just sell, or love, cheese – he knows cheese. Just like a surgeon must go through years of education and training before operating on a human being, Watlington has completed over 4,000 hours of cheese-related work and taken several related classes to become certified by the American Cheese Society.

Now, when Watlington cuts into a block of Comte cheese, his customers can take comfort in knowing trained hands are holding the knife.

They can also rest assured that the selection of locally, regionally and internationally produced artisan cheeses in his display case have been meticulously curated. “A lot of importers go by name or price,” Watlington says. “We go to the producers, try their cheeses and bring back what we think tastes good.”

This includes everything Sequatchie Cove, a local creamery, makes. Bleu Fox also has a lot of regional and international cheeses. “We have a little of everything – mild, nutty, stinky, goat, aged, cow, sheep, raw and pasteurized,” he points out. “We also carry the full gamut from the softest of the soft to the hardest of the hard.”

Watlington adds he takes pride not just in offering a variety of cheeses but in selling selections no one else in Chattanooga carries.

“But everyone has an aged gouda,” I say, pointing at a block of caramel-colored cheese in his display case.

“Not that aged gouda,” he says, noting that it’s L’Amuse Signature Gouda from the Netherlands.

Fair enough.

Watlington also makes a good argument for buying cheese from a specialty shop like Bleu Fox as opposed to a grocery store. “You don’t have to buy chunks of cheese that have already been cut,” he continues. “You can taste what you want before you buy it and then have us cut off only what you need.”

Watlington says people are more willing to buy a cheese they’ve tried and love than a cheese that’s already wrapped and requires faith in what the label says.

“Plus, it’s better for cheese to remain in large chunks,” Watlington adds. “It doesn’t oxidize as much, so you get a fresher, better tasting product. It’s how cheese should be sold.”

When Watlington says “block of cheese,” he’s referring to everything from his one-third pound dollop of Snow Camp (a cow and goat’s milk bloomy rind from Goat Lady Dairy in North Carolina) to his 90-pound wheel of Parmesan.

Watlington’s customers are buying these other cheeses for making everything from fondues to frittatas. He says he can even recommend a great blend for a delicious grilled cheese sandwich.

His most popular cheeses, however, are the Comte, a French cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in eastern France, and Brillat-Savarin, a soft, white-crusted cow’s milk cheese, also from France. Other big sellers include his cheese plates, which come complete with a variety of cheeses, meats, crackers, olives and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Since one size does not fit all when it comes to cheese, Watlington will make everything from a cheese-plate for one to a cheese plate for a catered event. He’s especially proud of the 100-person cheese plate he made for a local wedding.

The more Watlington talked about his various cheeses, the more I wanted to try them. The opportunity came when a lady from Cleveland, Tennessee, arrived to order a gift box to be sent to Knoxville. Watlington patiently and attentively served her, helping her to select several cheeses and other items. Each time she tried a cheese, Watlington gave me a sample as well.

Like I said, I’m no connoisseur, but I do know what I like, and I liked – no, loved – nearly every cheese I tried. I prefer milder and softer cheeses, but even the selections that had a kick were clearly in a league of their own. Chattanooga is lucky to have a merchant selling cheese of this quality.

Watlington’s shelves are stocked with more than cheese, though. Bleu Fox also sells products that pair well with cheese, including meats, crackers, flatbreads, oils, vinegars, jams, honey, spreads, beer, spring water and more.

“We wanted to give people who didn’t want to buy a cheese plate from us the opportunity to purchase the products they would need to build their own plate,” Watlington adds.

Many of the products come from local producers, creating a nice synergy between Bleu Fox and several area merchants, including Main Street Meats, Olive Chattanooga and Bread and Butter, an artisan bakery on Dayton Boulevard.

My only disappointment at Bleu Fox came when Watlington told me the cheese paper he sells is for wrapping and storing cheese, and is in no way related to or inspired by the cheesy paper one gets when ordering a fast food burger.

The history of Bleu Fox can be traced back to Whole Foods’ purchase of Greenlife Grocery in 2010. At the time of the buyout, Watlington was a manager-on-duty at Greenlife. Whole Foods had no such position, so Watlington applied for and secured a job as assistant manager of the cheese department. As the manager taught Watlington everything he knew about cheese, the apprentice was drawn in and immersed himself in his new passion.

Watlington was already angling for his ACS certification when Whole Foods sent him and Sam Weathers, another cheese department employee, to study at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Watlington then took additional cheese-related courses before earning his certification in 2012. (He renewed it in 2015 and will have to renew it again in 2018.)

Watlington and his wife, Brittany, have been wanting to open a cheese shop ever since but were held up by a lack of start-up funds.

When they sold a house on which they’d been working, they decided to pour the profits into Bleu Fox. While they considered leasing a place on the North Shore or MLK Boulevard, the Southside, and in particular Main Street, seemed like the perfect place.

Watlington invited Weathers to join him in the venture, giving Bleu Fox a second ACS certified cheese professional. Since the shop opened at the beginning of December, Watlington has promoted Weathers to regional manager as well as European manager.

“I promote him every day,” Watlington recounts. Weathers, who’s sawing a block of gouda in two with a thin wire, bows to his boss.

Watlington is joking about the promotions, but he’s serious about going the extra mile to attract customers. To that end, Bleu Fox is offering house-made sandwiches, cheese balls and individual lunch plates for people who want to try the cheeses and meats in meal form.

As if on cue, a gentleman walks in and asks for one of the “Lunchables.” After selling him a cheese and meat plate, a bag of chips and a can of cold sparkling water, Watlington says they don’t call the plates “Lunchables,” although they have yet to come up with a workable name.

“Let’s call them ‘adult snack packs,’” says Brittany, who’s there with her and Watlington’s three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son.

“No, let’s call them ‘snack-tastic,’” Weathers counters.

“I love it,” Watlington says to Weathers. “You’re promoted to president of marketing.”

If Watlington were to hire a president of marketing – or promote from within – that person would have to have a deep-seated love of cheese to make the grade. This kind of love is behind every decision in the store – from the careful selection of cheeses, to the choices of dry goods, to the willingness to scoop off a bit of costly Snow Cheese and let the customer try it before committing to a purchase.

Behind those decisions is an owner whose vast knowledge of cheese may very well eclipse that of anyone else in Chattanooga (except maybe that of his European manager). That foundation of information and experience enables Watlington to answer every question but one:

What’s your favorite cheese?

“That question is impossible to answer. It should be, ‘What’s your favorite cheese right now?’” he adds. “It’s like picking a beer or wine; my mood and what I’m doing are all factors in which cheese I would pick.

“So, while I won’t say I have a favorite cheese, I will say there’s a cheese for every occasion and everyone.”