With Meat & Cheese, Wendy Mitchell’s Entrepreneurial Avalanche Gains Speed
Even if you’ve only lived in Aspen a short time, Wendy Mitchell’s is a familiar face.
You might find the tall, attractive Texas native selling her award-winning Avalanche goat cheeses at the farmers’ market, making cheese at her Basalt creamery, shuttling her two middle-school-aged children around or commuting to her 130-acre goat dairy in Paonia.
You might spot her at wine dinners or local restaurants, making deliveries. Last spring, I ran into Mitchell outside of Whole Foods Market in Basalt, where she was gathering the signatures necessary to win a beer and wine license for Meat & Cheese Restaurant & Farm Shop that she opened on October 17 in downtown Aspen.
For a woman at the helm of so many ventures, Mitchell is well suited to launch another. She’s a consummate workaholic, born entrepreneur, good-humored perfectionist and skilled food artisan who might also be called dilettante if not for her deep knowledge of food and her considerable success.
Mitchell founded Avalanche Cheese Company in 2008 after a year apprenticing with cheesemakers in England and Scotland, and has since garnered the respect of her peers and prominent chefs nationwide for the quality of her farmstead goat cheeses. So beloved is her product—and so eagerly anticipated her next business venture—that she had no trouble gathering the signatures for Meat & Cheese (M&C) in a single afternoon.
“Running a dairy farm with 10 employees is expensive,” she says. “At heart, I’m a businesswoman, and Avalanche needs to be financially sound to survive. As the realities of cheesemaking set in, I started looking at the most profitable way to sell cheese, which is direct to the consumer. I began seeking a retail space, the stars aligned, and we found a fantastic location [in the former Of Grape & Grain/Franck Thirion French Pastry spaces]. I was nervous about starting a business in which I have no practical experience [the retail shop], so I decided to devote half of the space to a restaurant that does lunch and dinner service. Both sides are meant to complement each other: The kitchen uses the produce, salumi and cheese from the shop [a brilliant way to cut food waste], and the diners get to taste items they can also purchase to use at home.”
“World farmhouse” cuisine
Stroll into M&C and you’ll immediately notice its cozy, rustic, alpine vibe. Reclaimed wooden tables, hardwood floors and vintage touches abound; the back wall is a glorious, multicolored botanical mural by Detroit artist Louise Chen. A tiny, bustling open kitchen fronted by a few bar seats divides the 41-seat restaurant from the retail shop. A red enameled rotisserie stands front and center, turning chickens from Boulder Natural Meats and porchetta made with pork sourced from Zimmerman Farm in Hotchkiss and Denver’s Tender Belly. Potatoes roast beneath the meats, bathing in their flavorful drippings.
The menu at M&C features “world farmhouse” cuisine made with local, sustainable ingredients whenever possible. Executive Chef David Wang works closely with Avalanche Director of Operations and baker Brennan Buckley and head butcher Flip Wise to develop eclectic yet accessible offerings that touch upon North African, classical European and Asian flavors.
“It really is a team effort, and all menu items are collaborative,” explains Mitchell.
The menu’s true signatures are the über-affordable specialty “boards.” A Porchetta Board for two with roasted potatoes and a mound of dressed arugula runs just $20. The Meat & Cheese Board—featuring a daily selection of four cured meats and four cheeses served with “the perfect accoutrements”—serves two for $18. Add a $5 pint of Scottish ale or the house wine priced at $1.50/ounce and you’ve inarguably got the best deal in town.
“I tried to make Meat & Cheese the place that fills a gap that I perceived in the community. At lunch, we offer counter service, while dinner switches to full-service plates meant to be shared and inspire communal dining. We hope to be the place locals come for a quick bite and the place people drop by when they don’t feel like cooking but don’t want a two-hour dinner,” says Mitchell.
Other early highlights on the wide-ranging menu include Korean rice dumplings with pork, ginger-chile sauce and green onions ($14); tender Creekstone Farms short ribs with an unexpectedly flavorful and addictive garlic-ginger congee ($22); Thai coconut soup with chicken, lemongrass and root vegetables ($5–$7) and a lamb korma sandwich with mint yogurt, basil, cilantro and pickled peaches ($13).
The kids’ menu includes chicken and waffles ($8 with a mixed green salad and King O’ Pops popsicle) and hearty salads like the three grain: a mix of forbidden rice, farro and bulgur with roasted winter squash, red peppers, Avalanche Midnight Blue Cheese, pine nuts and house vinaigrette ($9).
We expect to see items like the cheese-centric Swiss dish Raclette with rotisserie potatoes and Creminelli bresaola (air-dried, salted beef) on the menu as the temperature drops.
Although Avalanche cheeses appear on the M&C menu, the restaurant also serves cured meats made at the creamery in Basalt, which Mitchell expanded in late summer to permit the production of salumi. Avalanche has long made a fresh, Spanish-style Merguez sausage from a blend of pork and goat meat, but Patrick Kennedy, the company’s salumiere, now makes two dry-cured versions: Finocchiona and chorizo.
“Fermented foods are what we do, and they’re central to our concept at Meat & Cheese. It’s just so cool to take a basic ingredient like milk, meat or grain and not only extend its life but make it taste even better,” explains Mitchell. “We’re looking forward to adding our own beer to the mix as well.”
The basis for Avalanche’s salumi is a little-discussed byproduct of cheese-making.
“Part of the reality of the dairy business is that goats have to be pregnant to give milk, and they only lactate for about 10 months,” says Mitchell. “Each year, we have 200 goats having 400-plus kids. It quickly becomes unsustainable unless you have a use for the offspring. It might sound harsh, but I believe it’s better to raise the kids humanely, give them a beautiful—albeit short—life and use the meat to make a quality product.”
A sustainable business plan
Since opening in the fall M&C has enjoyed a well-deserved dose of local buzz, and momentum only appears to be growing. Yet opening a cheese shop—even one adjoining a restaurant—is a risky venture in Aspen. In the past, similar efforts have folded under the tripartite strains of the off-season, poor location and outrageous rent. When I asked Mitchell what prompted her to try a concept that’s proven lethal in the past, she explained, “That’s exactly why I decided to have Meat & Cheese be so much more than a cheese shop. I think the rents are too high in Aspen to make a dedicated business like that work, so I’m trying a more European model: squeezing as much as I can into a 1,500-square-foot space.”
In that spirit, the floor-to-ceiling shelves in M&C’s narrow retail area are stocked with an array of specialty foods sure to entice even the most jaded traveler. Pastas, vinegars, preserves, chocolates, mustards and sea salts sit alongside dried heirloom beans, small-batch bitters and syrups, handcrafted wooden muddlers, French canning jars and Spanish tuna packed in oil, all of it hand-selected by Mitchell and General Manager Chris Becker.
Earthly treasures like Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators (a hopelessly addictive potato chip from Louisiana) offset the higher-end items. In the back is a tiny produce case filled with Western Slope edibles like Avalanche’s eggs, Osage Gardens herbs, Rock Bottom Ranch greens and McClure potatoes, and root vegetables and brassicas from Paonia’s Zephyros Farm. There’s also a table of gorgeous, well-priced housewares including olivewood cheeseboards, delicate ceramic platters and vintage sterling cheese knives (a set of four is just $18).
For all the variety on display at M&C, Mitchell pays ample attention to the foodstuff closest to her heart: cheese. Near the entrance, a small but carefully curated case contains a few imports and a number of primo domestics: Buttery Carmody from Bellwether Farms in California; funky Grayson and Appalachian from Virginia’s tiny Meadow Creek Dairy; Oregon’s Rogue River Blue, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Wisconsin and Vermont cheeses like Thistle Hill Farm’s Tarentaise and the nutty Alpha Tolman from Jasper Hill Farm.
A selection of Avalanche products are on offer too, of course, and diners will find the Basalt-made cheese garnishing soups and salads or embodied in a lush cheesecake on the menu. Yet promotion of Avalanche is subtle at M&C. When I inquire, Mitchell explains, “My mom always said it’s not good to be ‘overexposed.’ I think that’s just because she didn’t want me going out to parties as a teenager, but it’s good advice. Our cheese is fabulous, but there are a lot of really good items to cook with. The restaurant is meant to highlight our products, but not exclusively.”
Living as we do in a society where self-promotion is all too common, it’s refreshing to hear Mitchell’s wise take on exposure. Yet she also seems to understand the oldest adage in the restaurant business: It’s always good to leave ’em wanting more.
GO FIND IT!
Meat & Cheese Restaurant & Farm Shop
319 E. Hopkins Ave., Aspen
Stay and Play at Avalanche Goat Dairy
Last spring, Mitchell added a new component to her goat dairy in Paonia: agritourism. In keeping with her love of European-style food production and agriculture she’s renting out a historic cabin on the farm that she restored with her husband, Todd.
Situated on the far edge of the property near the base of Mount Lamborn, the cabin sleeps up to four. Guests can participate in farm life during their stay by gathering eggs, milking goats or bottle-feeding kids in the spring, but the work isn’t mandatory: It’s perfectly fine to simply dig into the welcome basket of Meat & Cheese house-made goodies and enjoy the view.
For reservations, go to AvalancheCheese.com.