By Paige Gance and Zack Richards
As a college town, Lexington has long attracted educators, but a new type of teacher has cropped up at 7 N. Main St.
When you walk into the shop in Lexington’s historic downtown, Meg Hall, owner of Cheese To You, is ready to instruct you with a selection of artisanal cheeses. Alongside her, a cupper, the coffee equivalent of a sommelier, brews three different beans each day for tasting.
The shared shop opened last May, but the two have been operating in Lexington for years.
Cheese To You started in November 2009, sharing a space with Farm To You on Waddell Street, on the southern edge of Lexington. Within a couple years, Hall said, she had outgrown the space.
Toward the end of 2011, the owners of Lexington Coffee Roasters, Melissa and Terry Scholl, approached Hall about leasing a place on Main Street. Hall’s husband is a roaster for the coffee company.
“I couldn’t have imagined how incredibly different it is,” said Hall about the exposure and space of the Main Street shop. “I just continue to gain customers daily.”
Some of these new customers wander into the shop with little knowledge of cheese. Hall said cheese and coffee are similar in that a lot of people like them, but few know much about them.
“A lot of what each of us does is teach,” said Hall. She carries 40 world-class cheeses and said each one has a story about where it’s from, how it was carefully made, and how it came to be in her collection.
“The artisanal aspect of the two products is similar,” said Melissa Scholl. Both Hall and Scholl compared their respective products to the intricacies of wine.
For instance, both owners educate their customers on how coffee and cheese are truly seasonal products, much like wine.
San Francisco roots
The Scholls started roasting in 1991, when they moved to Lexington from San Francisco. The couple and their two children stumbled on this small, rural town after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake destroyed their home.
Scholl said she and her family originally looked at Charlottesville, but fell in love with the mountain scenery and nurturing atmosphere of Lexington.
She added, however, that “it was clear we would have to make our own jobs.”
Her husband was an artist in San Francisco, but became interested in coffee before moving to Lexington. The two invested their own money and worked non-stop to keep their business going in those first few years.
They continuously outgrew each new location. In 2005, they constructed their current roasting facility on North Lee Highway, where they intend to stay.
With the higher volume of this facility, the Scholls are able to supply roasted coffee beans to cafes, restaurants and coffee shops along the East Coast, and even a few in Texas and Colorado.
Food Mecca in rural Virginia
Some of their coffee stays local. Pure Eats, The Red Hen, and Lexington Coffee Shop are a few of the downtown places that brew Lexington Coffee Roasters’ beans. The Scholls started The Lexington Coffee Shop in 1996 but sold it in 2002 to focus on roasting.
The Red Hen, along with the Bistro, also serves cheeses from Cheese To You.
“The Red Hen wouldn’t be the Red Hen without our local producers,” said Stephanie Wilkinson, co-owner of the restaurant. “My partner, John Blackburn, and I started the restaurant with the farm-to-table concept,” said Wilkinson.
The restaurant’s goal is to highlight as many local producers and products as possible. It has used Lexington Coffee Roasters’ coffee since the restaurant opened four years ago and cheese from Cheese To You for roughly two years.
Wilkinson said that the Red Hen’s relationship with Cheese To You and Lexington Coffee Roasters is terrific. She said it is crucial that small businesses cooperate with one another to survive in a small town like Lexington.
Sammy Moore, executive director of the local chamber of commerce, said Lexington has become a dining destination in the past decade. Rather than having to travel to Staunton, Charlottesville or Richmond, people come here from those places, Moore said.
“You can eat your way through Lexington,” said Melissa Scholl.
“I have lived in a lot of great places – New York, San Francisco, Boston, Charlottesville – and I would put Meg’s cheeses and Melissa’s coffees up against anything sold in those places,” said Wilkinson.
Only the finest
“Both businesses are run with immense care and integrity and their products reflect that every day,” said Wilkinson.
Hall said she won’t serve cheese unless it’s at its peak. She rewraps each cheese weekly in a special paper imported from France that preserves its freshness while allowing it to breathe.
Gail Hobbs-Page, owner of Caromont Farms, south of Charlottesville, said she loves dealing with specialty shops because she knows the cheese is handled well after it leaves her farm. Some of the seasonal goat cheese at Cheese To You comes from Caromont Farms.
“Cheese is alive,” Hobbs-Page said, “and wrapping it in plastic kills it.”
“Cheese care is one of the things I really built the business on,” said Hall, who rejects about a quarter of the cheeses she gets because they fail to meet her quality standards.
The Scholls also carefully screen the coffee bean crops they accept. When a new crop comes in, the Scholls and a few of their six employees taste a sample roast before committing to the whole batch.
Melissa Scholl said that a cup of coffee is the result of the farmer’s crop, transport, storage, roasting and brewing, and that a mistake at any step can ruin the final product.
Josh Keith, one of two apprentice roasters, said everyone has to do their part. Scholl compared the process to a relay race.
Hall sells her cheese from the shop, and Lexington Coffee Roaster provides complimentary tastings from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Scholl said they specifically chose to avoid the morning rush because they do not sell coffee by the cup, only roasted beans.
The tasting room and cheese shop are open Tuesday through Saturday, with varying hours.