Cafe Society

Longmont 's Cheese Importers finds new life in old building

Some families farm together. Some sell insurance. Some are partners in a law firm. Samm White's family sells cheese. Lots and lots of cheese. "It took a lot of work from the family to make [Cheese Importers] what it is today, but it's our passion," Samm says. "We love it and we do it for the smiles."

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Cheese Importers has been a Longmont standby since Samm's mother Linda and late father Lyman incorporated the company in 1976. Two bon vivants who'd met in Europe, the couple began putting importing cheese, and put together a business peddling Wisconsin cheddar and pepper jack to area restaurants and hotels. Six years later, the family moved operations into a cavernous warehouse that became their main retail store and cheese shop.

"It was a big deal for the family," Samm remembers. he and his sister, Clara, wrote their names in the concrete of the store and continue to make their mark on the business, where they now run the day-to-day operations. "It's always been a family-owned business. I remember pulling out pallets and sweeping up dust from when I was a really young kid," Samm says.

By early this year, when the family thought maybe the company had outgrown that space, Cheese Importers had grown into a combination retail store, bistro and cheese warehouse that was a fixture on an out-of-the-way stretch of South Pratt Parkway. "It was off the beaten path," Samm White says. "It was, and still is today, kind of a gem. It's a hidden thing that people can share with their friends and have them go, 'I've never heard of this place?'"

The Whites had their eyes on a potential new home: Longmont's original diesel-fueled power plant, built in 1931. The distinctive, brown-brick building would mean more space for retail and dining, and more eyeballs because of its perch on Main Street. "It was, 'Woohoo! This is gonna be great!' Until we started digging into the floors and finding old diesel fuel tanks that weren't on the plans anywhere, or the power that they thought was 800 amps and really only 400," Samm White recalls.

After some hiccups and false starts, the Whites proudly reopened Cheese Importers in the new space in August. The retail portion, stacked to the brim with imported French candies, Spanish honey and floral confit jellies, looks as handsome as ever, if not more so. The cheese cooler still packs cheese from all parts of the world and practically anything with an udder. But it's what the Whites have in store for the space that's really exciting.

"As a family, we start with a dream and then go, 'How can we build that?'" Samm says, explaining their vision for the future Cheese Importers. The upstairs will be devoted to a French-styled children's section -- think Babar and flashcards en Francais -- and for the ladies, a boudoir section with imported perfume and frilly accessories.

He points to a print of Frederic Leighton's Flaming June propped up against the wall. ""Basically that," he says. "That's what we want going on here."

And since Cheese Importers has a full range, hood and kitchen, as well as a prime location, the family plans to turn its bistro into Longmont's hot dining spot. A place, Samm says, "where you can be transported to a different feel. You can escape all the traffic and the noise... get lost in the French music and have some really great quality food."

The new dining room and patio will have three times the seating of the last location's tiny deli.

And when the dust settles, the new Cheese Importers should be a real landmark for gourmet food in Longmont, as well as a fitting tribute to this family's decades of hard work. "I think we were the initial natural-food movement in Colorado back in '76," Sam says, beaming. "There was no specialty cheese, there was canned cheese, there was Velveeta... So I'm really proud of the fact that my family helped develop that market.

"I think of cheese as taking someone's dream and manifesting it into something that you can share," he says. "And when you're eating it, it's like you're eating someone's dream."

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Chris Utterback
Contact: Chris Utterback