The Cheese Lady Sisterhood

Cheese Ladies of Michigan make sampling fun, offer unique experience. // Photography by Johnny Quirin
The Cheese Lady

Kathleen Fagan Riegler was working as a Midwest cheese distributor when she won a free trip to Provence in France. There, she planned to immerse herself in the world of French cheeses — and then she discovered the farmers markets. She visited the olive man, the pastry woman, the peddlers of linen and roast chicken, and lavender and cheese ripened in chestnut leaves. She was there when the markets opened, still around when they closed, captivated by the stories they’d tell and how their passion made them synonymous with what they were selling.

“It didn’t seem that any other name would work,” she said. “I just wanted to be The Cheese Lady.”

Some 14 years ago, shortly after the trip, Riegler quit her full-time job to sell cheese directly to the customer. As a booth at the Muskegon Farmers Market morphed into a storefront and beyond, she somehow lost her name Kathleen and became The Cheese Lady — as she would name her Muskegon store. Now, she’s cloned herself in a pretty real sense.

Shelley Essebaggers Lewis and Kathleen Fagan Riegler
Shelley Essebaggers Lewis (left) laughs with The Cheese Lady Founder Kathleen Fagan Riegler

Today, there are six The Cheese Lady stores around Michigan — none outside the state, though many have come calling — with Kathleen now acting as overseer of them all. But drop in to meet the proprietors of the shops in Rochester, Farmington, Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Traverse City, and you’ll be forgiven if you find yourself recalling that old game show, “To Tell the Truth,” and wondering who would rise when at show’s end the announcer says, “Will the real Cheese Lady please stand up?”

That’s because it would be all seven (Kathleen included) with not a single imposter. It’s just as the original envisioned.

“When we were first approached to do a franchise, we had no idea if this would translate into somebody else being able to do it,” said Riegler, who still is widely recognized by her preferred uniform of French beret and striped clothing. “Would they be able to become The Cheese Lady of Kalamazoo or wherever?

A delicious main meal or side dish. At The Cheese Lady, we’ve always suggested Friday night cleanup using whatever cheese is left over for the week. It is simple, using a white sauce, and then you’re free to buy fresh cheese on Saturday!

“I always impressed on the others that it’s a very personal thing — you — that’s the reason people are coming to The Cheese Lady. People can buy cheese anywhere. They’re not coming to The Cheese Lady to buy cheese. They’re coming for the experience. They’re coming to have personal relationships and get knowledge and information, and to make us part of their lives.”

A Sample and a Story

A boy of about 10 in a yellow ball cap is as excited as a kid in a, well, cheese store, as he talks excitedly about what the afternoon has in store.

“We’re going to pick some, and she’s going to pick some and we’re going to decide what we think of them,” he said about Tina Zinn, The Cheese Lady of Traverse City,  who stands smiling behind the counter on West Front Street in the uniform that’s become her trademark — a colorful bandana and striped apron. The young visitor and his sister listen with rapt attention as Cheese Lady Zinn talks about why this “Humboldt Fog” goat milk cheese has a line of vegetable ash and how its name comes from the fog on the California bay where it’s made.

Mary Cooper from The Cheese Lady in Muskegon
Mary Cooper helps Leesha Fagan with her wine choice at The Cheese Lady in Muskegon.

The yums that accompany this tasting turn to something else as they then try the “stinky cheese,” and on to a couple of goudas and beyond as Zinn unhurriedly unwraps new offerings like a gift, slicing generous samples and passing them around.

As in all The Cheese Lady shops, you don’t pick cheese by how they look under a counter. Nothing is showcased in clear plastic wrap (Riegler insists it alters the taste) but instead wrapped European-style in paper and stored in temperature-controlled coolers. Visitors make selections by browsing chalkboard names like Blue Jay, Potato Chip Gouda, Lamb Chopper or Ewephoria all color coded under categories like goat, sheep, very soft, very hard, blues and so on. Or, they just let The Cheese Lady guide them, gently inquiring about taste preferences and finding a match for their palate, much like an expert wine tasting room staffer would.

“We say we’re not cheesemakers, we’re cheesemongers,” Zinn said. “And to us, first of all, a cheesemonger is a caretaker of cheeses. Then we’re teachers, then we’re cheese slingers.”

Shelley Essebaggers Lewis updates order boards at The Cheese Lady
Shelley Essebaggers Lewis updates the order boards.

The name has been the best marketing tool, she said, cemented by the way each Cheese Lady opts to own it. In Zinn’s case, she carries cheese in her pocket and freely gifts it — a giant hunk of Piave Vecchio or Roomano Pradera added with a restaurant tip or handed out to strangers while she stands in a movie line.

Zinn also shares by pairing cheese with local wines or microbrews — even with her daughter, Kimberly, making spreads that integrate local brews and spirits. Others like the Rochester store and its Victorian dining room find niches like in-store classes. All spread the cheese gospel as founder Riegler did when she started, at birthday parties, fundraisers and libraries, and inside the stores themselves.

“I found the people liked to know where the cheese came from,” Riegler said. “They didn’t have any idea goat cheeses could be hard cheese, didn’t know Manchego was made from sheep’s milk (from a specific type of sheep) and had been made in the same area all these years and was a protected cheese. But generally speaking, I found they came for camaraderie.”

The Cheese Lady Store - Interior
Cheese Lady staffers stand ready to help customers.

In the Grand Rapids store, Cheese Lady Heather Zinn (niece of Traverse City’s Tina), makes sure she and other staffers always come around the counter to greet each customer without the barrier between them — one step in upping the welcome and reducing the intimidation factor of cheese — which can be as much so as the purchase of wine.

Being generous with samples and being present are just two things she said she learned from a mentor with vision. “There are a lot of differences between all of The Cheese Ladies, but we have a lot in common, too,” Heather said. “I really feel it is a sisterhood.” Only one photo, though, is situated next to the register — that of founder Kathleen.

“When people ask about the name,” Heather said, “I just say, ‘That’s Mama Cheese right there.’”

Cheese Speak

A sampling of cheeses, dried fruits and meatsUp your cheese vocabulary for your next wine and cheese gathering or trip to the cheese counter.

If you are a lover of cheese, you are a turophile. The word comes from the Greek words for cheese (tyros) and lover (philos). The love of cheese is turophilia. If you are an affineur, however, you’re not necessarily someone with an affinity for cheese. You’re the person who manages a cave in which cheeses are aged.

If you like cheese with those small crunchy white crystals in certain aged cheeses like Gouda, Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Piave Vecchio, you will want to ask for a cheese
containing tyrosines. Those are formed by a crystallization of amino acids, a result of the breakdown of proteins as cheese ripens.

Like wine, cheese is known for common descriptors to capture flavor. Barnyardy isn’t a slur; it’s what aged goat cheeses often are and considered a positive characteristic. Mushroomy is a descriptor of the flavor and aroma of certain soft and semisoft cheeses, particularly members of the Brie and Camembert family.

Farmstead cheeses, or farm cheeses, have a specific meaning. To be that, the cheese has to be made on the farm by the farmer using only the milk from the farmer’s own herd.

Fresh cheeses are exactly what you might think; they are high-moisture content cheeses intended to be eaten within days of production. Hard cheeses, however, are typically aged more than two years, during which the water content evaporates.

Want a cheese grown from on high? Try a mountain cheese; according to Caseus Montanus, an international association of mountain cheese producers, a mountain cheese is
one produced and aged above 800 meters (approximately 2,500 feet). Most are made in France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland.

Cheese Lady Mac and Cheese (Serves 4-6)

The Cheese Lady Macaroni and Cheese Recipe
The Cheese Lady Macaroni and Cheese Recipe


½ cup butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper to taste
4 cups milk
1 jar Cheese Lady Maple Onion Jam
6 cups sharp white cheddar, shredded (1½ pounds)
1 pound pasta of your choice, cooked al dente


Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat, being careful so butter doesn’t burn. Stir in flour, salt and pepper until smooth, about 5 minutes. Slowly pour milk into butter-flour mixture while continuously stirring until mixture is smooth and bubbling, about 5 minutes. Stir in Cheese Lady Maple Onion Jam. Add your choice of Cheese Lady cheddar cheese to milk mixture and stir until cheese is melted, 2-4 minutes. Fold pasta into cheese sauce until coated. Serve from the stove or bake in a preheated oven for 12-15 minutes.

Kim Schneider is an award-winning travel writer who has visited nearly every corner of Michigan.

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