Cavaniola’s Cheese Heritage: The Asiago Doesn’t Fall Far From the Tree

The Fort Lee Cheese Shop was a trend-setting in the 1970s, just like Cavaniola's in Sag Harbor is today.

Over the holidays, the Sag Harbor cheesemonger Michael Cavaniola unearthed a 1977 magazine article about his family’s cheese store in Fort Lee, N.J., that described an uncanny resemblance–in customer service philosophy and trend-setting products–to the cheese shop, kitchen and wine shop that Michael and wife Tracey run today. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The issue of Specialty Food Merchandising, from September 1977, details how the Fort Lee Cheese Shop topped the industry list for sales growth for the previous three years: “No matter how busy the place gets (and it is often a bedlam of activity), each patron is addressed by name, offered one or more product samples, and waited on patiently until all purchases have been completed.” Such personal touch, not to mention the products distinguish it from “the nearby supermarket.”

The Fort Lee shop was three times the size of Cavaniola’s in Sag Harbor and was decorated with international accoutrement (flags), whereas Cavaniola’s is more urban-rustic. But the products offered are remarkably similar–cheese, oils, pastas, charcuterie, specialty coffee and teas, biscuits and crackers, pickled vegetables and condiments, as well as “heat ‘n serve” prepared foods made on-site. In 1977, the Fort Lee store featured Toblerone chocolate bars, Ka-Me Japanese rice crackers, Kavli Norwegian flat bread, “Quiche Lorraine,” mini calzones and fresh fruit dipped in chocolate ($5.95 per lb. depending on the fruit), whereas Cavaniola’s in 2013 features any number of food artisans from the modern era, whether Brooklyn Brine, Vosges chocolate, Neal’s Yard cheddar and Mecox Bay dairy, as well as homemade soups, paninis and meat, fish and veg dishes.

The article (in the same issue as a profile of then start-up Peet’s coffee) attributes the Fort Lee store’s success to the “special merchandising talents” of Bob Cavaniola, father of Michael. “Sampling is our religion,” declares the elder Cavaniola (and the junior Cavaniola would concur). “We are not afraid to give away a few pounds of cheese each day, as it pays for itself in good will and word-of-mouth advertising.” The story has an anecdote of giving cream Havarti to child, using the mild cheese “to encourage the youngsters to become cheese buyers later.”

In fact, the story ends noting the Fort Lee shop had plans to expand, including establishing and wine and spirits shop next door. Not unlike the current Cavaniola’s set up on Division Street, whose expansion now includes a sister shop in Tribeca. And for those who haven’t yet sipped or supped at Topping Rose in Bridgehampton, there’s yet another attraction: Cavaniola’s is now curating the cheese plates, including the creamy goat cheese Kunik from New York, the Alpine-style cow cheese Tarentaise from Vermont and the washed-rind cow cheese Grayson from Virginia.