Anne Saxelby admits she was a little bit nuts in 2006 to open a stall in the Essex Street Market focused on American farmstead cheeses. “It was definitely a crazy idea,” she said during a recent interview. “I started when I was 25. I didn’t want to do anything else. I just wanted to do this.”
But Saxelby and partner Benoit Breal have proved that crazy ideas sometimes work out just fine. In the past month, they celebrated Saxelby Cheesmonger’s 10-year anniversary. Today, they’re going strong on the Lower East Side, but also supplying about 100 restaurants across the city. A few years ago, Edible Manhattan noted that “Saxelby has helped redefine what the very words American cheese even mean.”
Saxelby has built her company into a force on the New York City food scene. Operating from a warehouse in Red Hook, she could have chosen to give up on the Essex Street Market long ago. Instead, she not only stayed put on the Lower East Side, but has become a high profile advocate for her fellow vendors.
“When I opened in 2006,” Saxelby explained, “it was a little bit like the wild, wild west, I guess.” As a resident of lower Orchard Street, she’d fallen in love with the quirky, historic public market. But in those early days, business was sparse. “The passion to do it is what really sustained me for the first little while,” she said. Eventually, both local customers and destination shoppers found the tiny stall, which now features cheeses from 50 different local farms.
Retail and wholesale customers turned to Saxelby because it offered something they could not find anywhere else. “Because we’re small,” explained Saxelby, “we handle every wheel through the cave (as the red Hook space is known). “We can kind of make that connection between the farm and the end-user that makes us an attractive purveyor to work with, because we know the cheese inside and out.”
Anne Saxelby fought an unsuccessful (and fairly lonely) battle a few years ago to save the 76-year-old market building. The city, which operates the facility, pushed hard to build a new, modern market as part of the Essex Crossing development project. But even after the initial battle ended, Saxelby stayed engaged. She was instrumental in creating a vendor association, which is helping to assure that merchants make a successful transition to the new building when it opens in two years.
Asked why she’s stuck with it on the Lower East Side all these years, Saxelby acknowledged that doing business in the Essex Street Market can be exhausting. But she continues to believe that its survival as a distinctive part of New York City is critical. “What was appealing to me from the beginning,” said Saxelby, “was being part of this community. From the beginning, the relationships I’ve had with all the other vendors here — it’s something so positive and wonderful… I have come to see everyone in the market as like family.”
In the new market, Saxelby Cheesemongers will have a larger foot print. The new space, featuring a u-shaped counter, will boast 300 square feet (up from 115 now). There will be glass display cases on three sides, and a lot more room to show off a wider variety of cheeses. There’s also talk of setting up a mozzarella-making station and, possibly, offering a selection of charcuterie.
In the meantime, though, there’s still some celebrating to do. Saxelby is hosting a “Cheese Trivia Night” tomorrow evening. You can see details here.