#21. Jill Forster
Full disclosure, we like cheese. Ok, we don’t just like cheese, we LOVE cheese! Our two year old loves cheese. I’m pretty sure our dogs love cheese, too. So, when Jill was nominated by Melissa from Five Points, we couldn’t wait to get into Nickel City Cheese & Mercantile. But, to our (pleasant) surprise, we discovered that Jill offers so much more than just cheese! If you haven’t been down to her shop at 423 Elmwood, you really should get down there. Trust me.
“I grew up in Orchard Park and left Buffalo to go to culinary school at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. My first internship was at the Scottsdale Princess Resort. I decided the hotel life wasn’t for me and went back to school for another 6 months and I moved to Boston and worked at Biba with Lydia Shire. I loved it, but really wanted to move to San Francisco. So, after graduating from culinary school I moved to San Francisco for a year. I loved it. I had way too much fun. But, I really missed my family. My siblings were still in high school and I felt like I was missing out. Plus, my mom was in horrible accident, and just to be that far away when major life changes were happening was just too much. So, I moved back east and worked as a sous chef at the Etson Hill Manor in Stowe, Vermont. I moved to Boston again and helped open up the new Boston Garden. I was in the fine dining restaurant and then spent the next 11 years all over the Boston area.”
“Then, children came and it became very difficult to be a tiny little island in Boston just me and my spouse, trying to raise two children. So, we moved to Minneapolis, where my ex-husband’s family is from. I then moved home a few years later, which was 5 years ago now.”
How did you come up with the idea?
“I opened Nickel City, 4 years ago this coming March. It’s amazing and scary and wild. It just went so incredibly fast. It’s like raising children. In the blink of an eye, they’re potty trained and you’re wondering what happened. I never anticipated we’d make it this far.”
“When I was in Boston, I was a line cook at Cafe Louis, in charge of the weekly cheese plate. Formaggio Kitchen would come by and drop off the cheeses, we would taste through them and they would tell me about them and I would make descripting notes for the sales staff. It just became more and more fun. My one day off each week, I would spend working behind the cheese counter at Formaggio Kitchen. Then all of a sudden, I decided I didn’t like cooking anymore, I like cheese! I went to the front of the house to learn the customer service and sales aspects, to see how that all worked. That was back in 1997/1998. Everything after that was to get to this final goal of opening this shop. And I did it.”
How did you decide on the location?
“I liked the size of the space, and the rent is affordable. It’s not up in the mix of the Elmwood Village, where the rents are a lot higher. This seemed like a great spot. I wasn’t ready to move to Hertel yet, I didn’t know enough about it. When we were in the process of opening, I was only back in Buffalo for a year and a half and was just learning the city again. My brother and sister, who own Bistro Europa suggested that I open up down here. It’s great. We have the hospital. We have Oakland Place. We have so much parking here. People never have a problem finding a spot out front.”
“We would like to grow. We’re are looking for a larger space because we want to open a cafe and have tavern beer and wine in here. I’d like to sell beer retail as well. While this is a lovely first home, we’ve outgrown it almost as soon as we got into it. We’re looking in the same area, maybe Hertel or the West Side. While we have a following, it’s still a risk to move somewhere else. What if they don’t come with us?”
How did you know this would work in Buffalo?
“Buffalo has been amazing to us. I really didn’t anticipate it. But that’s because I didn’t know enough about it. I didn’t know that I could come with these lofty big city ideas, like people are eating all of this cheese in Boston, why wouldn’t they do it in Buffalo? Then I opened the doors here and they did! The whole purpose of this store was because when I moved home, I just couldn’t find a job that I really liked. There’s no cheese store, or specialty food store. I had to create my own happiness. So I did.”
“It’s amazing, but it gets scary sometimes, like the cold months when not many people are walking through the door. But in the end, it’s mine. And that’s cool. And I can bring my kid to work!” (her daughter was with us for this interview)
What is your greatest area of need?
“I got a lot of people this past Christmas that told me, “I’ll see ya next year!”. But, we aren’t a once a year kind of place. We do breakfast, lunch, coffee, tea and so much more. You don’t just have to come to get cheese. You can come in for lunch, or dinner or breakfast. We also do catering. There are so many facets that people don’t know we do. That’s why I think I bigger location with a cafe and seating area will help us. We have the outside area in back, but it’s not useful in the colder months. It’s great in the warmer months, but I think that people forget about it. There are so many things happening in the city that it’s hard to hit them all. For Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day, we do a catering menu. We’re doing dinner for two for Valentine’s Day this year. We take care of everything, you just order off of the menu and heat it up at home. Don’t worry, we give you the heating instructions.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself?
“Do it sooner. I feel like I waited too long. Only because of the flexibility, freedom and mentorship. Cheese is not a well-known fact. I teach the people that come to work with me a lot about it. That takes time. Do it earlier, and do it bigger. I was so against sandwiches at the start. I said we’re a cheese shop! But, once I opened, we started selling sandwiches too. Each year, things just keep evolving and changing, and it’s awesome. There are negative things that come up, they always do, but in the end it all works out.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Come on down and see us. We like visitors!