Long Island cheese lovers still reeling from last week’s shuttering of Sayville’s American Cheese are in for another bit of bad news: C’est Cheese in Port Jefferson will be cutting its last wedge of Humboldt Fog on Sunday, July 12.
Joe Ciardullo opened the shop in 2011. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, he cooked at Tellers in Islip and Major’s in Woodbury among other restaurants but, through it all, he kindled a passion for cheese — and a passion for sharing his passion.
"I love it when someone says, 'I don't like blue cheese,'" he said in October, 2011, shortly after the shop opened. That would be his cue to bring on the mild Ewe's Blue from Old Chatham Sheepherding Co. in the Hudson Valley. A confirmed blue-lover might be encouraged to try the Verde Capra, an aggressive goat's-milk blue from Lombardy. "Every cheese," he said, " is lovable."
Ciardullo knew that the profit margin on fine cheese was even thinner than a Kraft Single and, thus, he diversified from the beginning, backing up his 100-plus-variety selection with a cafe. The cafe always had a great beer selection, but in 2017, he expanded the back of the store to establish Craft Growler Bar & Bottle Shop.
None of this protected him from the havoc wreaked by COVID-19. “Since March, it seems like you have to reinvent yourself every two weeks,” he said. “You’re a full-service restaurant and then, boom, now you’re takeout and delivery. Now you’re outdoor dining. Now you’re 50% capacity indoors.”
Profits fell and not because C’est Cheese was necessarily doing less business. The delivery services took a large chunk, and while food costs rose significantly, “now all of a sudden every order needs a plastic container, disposable flatware.”
And customers who objected to wearing masks convinced him not to do indoor dining even when it was permitted. “We’d ask people to wear a mask and they’d get mad, turn around and leave — or they’d stay, be rude to the staff and wouldn’t tip.” Then there was the health of his family: Being in constant contact with the public, he felt, put his kids’ health at risk.
“There isn’t one aspect of the business that hasn’t played a part in this decision,” Ciardullo said. “And I realized that now is the time to exit as gracefully as I can.”
The graceful exit has a silver lining for customers as C’est Cheese attaches “fire sale” prices to its remaining stock. Friday, the goal is to sell off all the cheese in the counter, Saturday, salads and sandwiches will be priced to go, and on Sunday, well, bring your cooler and empty growlers: the beer will be liquidated.
C’est Cheese, 216B Main St., 631-403-4944, cestcheesepj.com