Half an hour before opening for what's typically a busy Friday shift, Lisa Morris and several of the team members at Truffle Cheese Shop, 2906 East Sixth Avenue, are busy putting together custom boards as the 1961 Marvelettes song "Please Mr. Postman" plays in the background.
While Morris spoons cornichons near a pile of Parmesan and artfully arranges slices of Gouda, the group chats about food and life, laughing together along the way. If there wasn't a cash register nearby, you might mistake this scene for the beginning of a dinner party. I immediately decide I want to open a cheese shop one day, a desire that only gets stronger as Morris shares her story.
After years of working nine-to-five in the accounting field, Morris needed a change of pace. A friend of hers was working part-time at Truffle, helping with off-site events like cider pairings. Morris began helping as well, and "I just ended up staying and working," she recalls. "I kind of just fell into it. I've always loved entertaining. I loved food in general. It just felt like a really natural thing to do."
An employee at the shop works on a cheese board order.
The shop opened in 2001 as a specialty-foods store, but after purchasing it from the original owners in 2007, Potager alums
Rob and Karin Lawler began focusing on cheese. The two owned the shop for twelve years, building it into a destination for fromage lovers in the city and adding the Truffle Table restaurant in the Highland neighborhood in 2013.
In 2019, the Lawlers sold the shop to Mark Schwab, whose son, longtime employee Joe Schwab, took over operations with the help of Janet Schaus, who'd worked at the shop for over a decade (the Truffle Table got a new owner as well). But by last August, the Schwabs had decided to move, and Morris stepped in to take the reins with the support of Schaus and her family, including son Samuel Farber, who works alongside his mom. "We like to say we're family-owned and women-led," Morris notes.
The energetic Farber was manning the counter a month or so ago when I stopped by, intending to pick up a few cheeses to take on a road trip; instead, I walked out about 45 minutes later with five cheeses, three meats and several accompaniments, including a small box of local honeycomb, a container with a handful of truffle Marcona almonds and a baguette — not to mention a whole lot more cheese knowledge than I walked in with.
"I've learned a ton about cheese. I didn't know much before," Morris admits. "After four years of college, I think I've learned more about geography and language working here. There's just so many interesting things about cheese."
Cheeses here are cut to order.
Morris enjoys sharing thoughts when people come in with wine, asking for cheese-pairing suggestions. "We're all really passionate about food in general," she says of her team. "Our biggest thing here is we want to create a good experience. We're not just going to sell you some Parmesan. We'll talk to you about the cheese. We want people to be as excited as we are about it and as nerdy as we are about cheese."
Her son has picked up plenty of knowledge, too, which is apparent as he spouts off facts and flavor notes while handing me nibbles of different options to try.
Cheese boards and their meat-bearing counterpart, charcuterie boards (yes, they are different), are everywhere these days, from restaurant menus to TikTok. "We're definitely seeing an increase in people wanting boards," Morris says, crediting the trend, at least in part, to the pandemic. "People were staying home more, so they wanted to feel like they were having a fancy dinner. But they are also finding that you can eat this kind of food and it's a little lighter. You can sit on the patio with some wine and graze."
Now, with summer officially here, picnic baskets are a hot commodity. Truffle Cheese Shop offers a variety of options for those looking to embrace the cheesy life. You can come in and make your own creation (there are even platter-making classes available for private groups), and the shop can also build custom boards and baskets based on budget. Special requests are welcome, and the staff will guide the process. "Some people like strong cheeses, some like mild. Some people say they are very adventurous. It's really just about putting together flavors you want and are going to eat so you don't have any leftovers," Morris explains.
Since taking over, Morris hasn't changed much at the shop beyond adding a fresh coat of paint and rearranging a bit after the March 2020 pandemic shutdown before reopening to walk-in customers. Truffle Cheese Shop still offers the European style of service that the Lawlers implemented, cutting cheese and charcuterie to order — which means you can get as much or as little as you'd like.
Besides the standout service, the shop offers options you can't find at other places around town. "Everything we have, pretty much, is imported," Morris notes. "We really only bring things in that we think are quality. Everything is from grass-fed animals, no grain-fed, because that affects the quality of the milk. We like to curate fun things you can't find anywhere else."
Working with direct importers also gives the shop access to cheeses that are only available seasonally. Unlike cheeses from the bigger U.S. dairies, which work with farms that force animals to produce milk all year long, many of the artisanal cheeses are made on the same farms where the animals live. "So in the spring, there's fresh sheep- and goat's-milk cheese that you wouldn't see in the winter, because you can't make a fresh cheese when you don't have fresh milk," Morris explains.
That approach is helping the shop gain new customers. "A lot of young people are really interested in where their food is coming from," she says. "We're getting a lot of younger customers coming in who want something other than the mass-produced cheeses."
"They want to talk about provenance, they want to talk about sustainability," adds employee Joe Marci, who was a longtime customer before he began working at the shop. "Every year when my tomatoes were ripe, I'd want real buffalo mozzarella, and this was the only place I could find it."
Marci's current favorite is an Italian goat's-milk cheese wrapped in cherry tree leaves. "It actually imparts some cherry flavors," he says, handing me a slice to try.
Right now, Morris is loving Ewephoria, a sheep's-milk Gouda that is "rich and almost caramel-y," she says, adding that her favorites change all the time because the shop is always getting new options to try. Her "desert island" cheese, though, is Gruyère, for its versatility.
Like cheese preferences, Morris says that building a cheese board is personal, too; staff members have their own, untutored styles. "Most of us could look at a board and tell who made it," she adds. "You can be as creative as you want. You eat with your eyes first, so it's nice to make it look pretty."
If you're new to the process, Morris offers some other tips:
1. For a picnic, choose a cheese that can hold up outside. "Everybody likes the fresh and creamy cheeses, but for a picnic, we always recommend a harder cheese because it will keep its shape and stay a little better outside," she says.
2. Mix it up: Try getting a sheep's-milk cheese, a goat's-milk cheese and a cow's-milk cheese to get different flavor profiles.
3. A sample of two to three cheeses is ideal — you don't want to overwhelm your palate — and just a couple of ounces of each is all you need. "Especially artisanal cheeses, because they're high in nutrients, so they're more filling," Morris notes.
4. Cut your cheeses into bite-sized pieces and place those down first, then fill in with the other elements. Some of Morris's favorites are trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, Marcona almonds, cornichons, olives, charcuterie, local honey, and jams like the ones the shop carries from Denver-based Red Camper
5. Go for movement and height, and use the other elements to add pops of color. But most of all, just let your creativity flow.
Truffle Cheese Shop is located at 2906 East Sixth Avenue and is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit denvertruffle.com.