Exclusive Interview: Michaela Grob of Brooklyn’s First Vegan Cheese Shop
Most vegans can attest that the hardest thing to give up is cheese.
As sometimes vegan Carrie Underwood once said, “It’s a cheesy world.” Indeed, it is. From pasta to pizza to sandwiches, cheese is pretty much everywhere. And finding that same fatty, creamy, gooey goodness in plant-based options had been difficult for vegans – until now. Lately, there has been an exciting plant-based cheese renaissance, and Michaela Grob, a Brooklyn-based sales specialist and hospitality professional and plant-based cheese connoisseur, is proving that with the recent opening of her 100% vegan specialty cheese shop, Riverdel, in Prospect Heights.
The shop, which features a delectable array of artisanal cheeses, sandwiches, yogurts, milks and more, is the first of its kind of Brooklyn (but we have a feeling it won’t be the last).
Ecorazzi chatted with Grob to discuss what motivated her to adopt a vegan lifestyle, what are her favorite recommendations, and, of course, everything cheese.
So, firstly, why cheese? What drew you to establish a cheese shop?
I’ve always liked cheese; the stinkier and stronger the better! When I became vegan, for ethical reasons, I found that, back then, there weren’t many non-dairy cheese alternatives out there. So I started experimenting with making my own cheeses — thanks to a book by Miyoko Schinner! But, I also started looking around for what was available at the market. I found some good cheeses, but they were difficult to find, and sometimes difficult to get. So I thought, “How great would it be if they’d all be available in one place, just like any other cheese shop, but this one would be entirely vegan?” That’s when the idea started taking shape.
Were you always working in the food world, or is this a fairly recent transition?
I’ve worked in restaurants before and also have some kitchen training; I studied Hospitality Management & Tourism Management in Europe and traineeships are mandatory. But that was several years ago. I’ve spent the past 15 years in sales in the corporate world. So, in a way, this is going back to my roots.
How long have you been a vegan and what was it that motivated you to adopt the lifestyle?
It’s been probably around 5–6 years; I don’t recall the exact date when I became vegan. For me it was a gradual transition. I became vegetarian first, for ethical reasons. But, once I started uncovering what’s going on in the dairy and egg industries, and animal agriculture’s overall massive impact, I couldn’t not become vegan and eschew all animal products. I also don’t wear wool, silk, leather, down or fur. I try my best to be conscious of what goes into other products as well. Someone once said to me that, “We vote with our dollars.” I’m voting with my dollars every single day by not investing in, to any degree, animal derived items — be it food, fashion, cosmetics, entertainment or otherwise.
If someone who has never eaten vegan cheese before entered your shop, which cheeses would you recommend they try?
I like to ask what they usually look for in a cheese and then suggest cheeses accordingly; some people want something creamy, and some want something firm and some want something sharp. Or a combination. Here’s a list of what I like to recommend based on that: Our house-made Billy cheese; it’s light, creamy and easy, with a nice, long finish. We have various flavors and it’s a great intro to vegan cheese.
Cheezehound’s Mulshenok; it’s slightly smoky and firm. A lot of people that make the transition are often looking for cheeses that are firm; I think this one tastes amazing, and the firmness is fantastic.
Miyoko’s Kitchen Sharp Farmhouse; for the cheese lovers that like it sharp and cheddar-y.
Vtopia’s Peppercorn Brie; super creamy and medium firm with a nice mouth feel.
What is a personal favorite item that you currently sell?
Can I say that they are all my favorite? I know that’s hard to believe, but I adore everything we carry!
From your perspective, do you feel more people than ever are adopting a vegan lifestyle? Or, at least, they’re being more open to incorporating plant-based items into their diets?
Absolutely. It seems that more people are adopting a vegan lifestyle or are at least dabbling in it — for a variety of reasons. There has been so much press about dairy not being good for you. And then there are more and more people that are realizing that they just don’t feel good after consuming dairy. Plus, the environmental toll dairy takes on our earth. The list goes on.
What would you say is the mission of your company?
In short, Riverdel’s mission is to help people move towards adopting a vegan lifestyle and/or a more healthy diet and, by doing so, helping animals and the planet.
What’s next for you? Do you plan on opening another shop?
Not quite yet. Right now I’m still learning the ropes. I’d like to make sure that we have inventory relevant to our customers’ tastes and that they enjoy their visits to our shop. I’d love to say we’ll be expanding, but I want to focus on this shop first and get it right. One of my early mentors always said, “You need to focus on your foundation first, get it right and do it very well, before you can move on.” I think those are wise words!
Riverdel, 820 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Photos by: Alexis Buryk Creative