A Portrait of the Cheesemonger as a Young Couple
Antonelli's Cheese Shop is an intimate neighborhood shop where curious patrons can taste everything, ask a million questions, and have their selections cut to order
Antonelli's Cheese Shop4220 Duval St., 531-9610
Tuesday-Saturday, 11am-7pm; Sunday, noon-5pm
It's 9am. John Antonelli hasn't even had coffee yet, but he's happily composing a tasting flight of some favorite cheeses. His wife and business partner, Kendall Antonelli, is showing off their bijou of a store – robin's-egg blue outside, brick-red inside, hand-painted sign on the door, miniscule storeroom, and sparkling cases containing carefully curated arrays of artisan cheeses, charcuterie, olives, and wine.
The spanking new Antonelli's Cheese Shop in Hyde Park's Duval Center has been open only a little more than a month, but ... build it and they will come. The energetic young proprietors haven't stopped to catch their breath yet. "We've been slammed from day one," says John. "But by now it's chaos under control. And we love it." Clearly, Austin was ripe for an intimate neighborhood shop where curious patrons can taste everything, ask a million questions, and have their selections cut to order by the Antonellis and their experienced and knowledgeable employee, Kelly Sheehan (the shop's catering and wholesale manager and formerly head cheesemonger for Central Market).
How do a New Yorker who grew up eating Velveeta and a self-described "4-H rodeo queen" from Mineral Wells, Texas, evolve into passionate cheesemongers? (One early clue: John founded a grilled cheese club in high school.) After they connected at Georgetown University, John became a certified public accountant and Kendall earned a master's degree from the University of Texas with a career as an advocate for human-trafficking victims.
Both loved their professions but shared a passion for "eating, traveling, and being together. That's what really made us happy." Wanting to work in tandem, they first thought a restaurant might be the answer. However, Kendall's mother observed: "John, you just don't shut up about cheese. It's not the cooking you're in love with; it's the cheese!"
While Kendall continued working, John left his job at Deloitte to spend two years immersed in cheese. He tasted; he read; he solicited advice from cheesemongers around the country. Attending boot camp at Murray's Cheese in NYC, he graduated with the highest score in a class of cheese geeks. He interned at Kerbey Lane Cafe, learning all aspects of the business from service to purchasing. He wangled a coveted internship in the cheese-ripening caves of Hervé Mons, probably the most respected affineur in France. Applying his accounting background to the business plan and daily operations, John has, according to Kendall, "more spreadsheets than you can imagine."
Months before opening, Kendall was blogging, e-mailing, and tweeting about Antonelli's Cheese Shop. "We handed out business cards at the ACL Festival," she remembers. Appetites whetted, Austin was primed. On the shop's first day, customers were three deep and cheese was flying out the door.
The Antonellis' enthusiasm is as viral as their marketing; it informs all their transactions. "There's a story behind every cheese; once you know the story, you understand the cheese," John says. The display case, organized in traditional tasting order, begins with fresh, mild cheeses and finishes with intense, aged blues and washed rinds. Discussion is encouraged, and every customer gets an account; if you don't remember a cheese you liked, there's a record of your purchases.
"We want customers to enjoy the process of buying cheese," Kendall says. "Here you get TLC – Tender Loving Cheese." John adds, "Most people leave with something they haven't had before, but they know they like it because they tasted it first."