To wait in line at St. James Cheese Company (5004 Prytania St., 504-899-4737; www.stjamescheese.com) is to feel surrounded by the gourmet abundance of a king's or magician's larder. Tiny jars of honeys, tapenades and terrines pack the shelves, while well-stocked coolers house grand wheels of cheese, iberico hams and smoked meats.
Danielle Sutton, who owns the store and its cafe with her husband Richard, says she's pleased to be among New Orleans' small businesses.
"[New Orleans] is not a big box kind of city; there aren't a lot of chains," she says. "It's the kind of town we thought would really like a specialty cheese shop or a butcher, and [before we opened] there [weren't] any."
Sutton and Richard met at Tulane University. After moving around the country and relocating to London, where Richard became a manager of the renowned Paxton & Whitfield Cheese Shop, they returned to New Orleans to open their Uptown store in 2006.
Their first challenge was importing cheeses and specialty meats from European sources.
"We had to figure out how to get the cheese here; New Orleans is sort of the end of the Earth as far as distribution," Sutton says.
Sutton learned about cheese and charcuterie by traveling through Spain, France and Italy. She says there's no end to the factors that go into great cheese. Cheesemakers use arcane processes to create their products: They'll craft different cheese from grass-fed or hay-fed cows and other animals, or even from the different milk cows produce in the morning and at night.
This library of knowledge helps the store regularly update its offerings. New cheeses appear in the coolers all the time, including a recent wave of Southern cheeses like Cherokee Rose from Georgia, or soft cheeses from the Vermont-based Jasper Hill company.
"The American artisanal cheese-making movement has exploded," Sutton says. "There are so many more good American cheeses now than there were when we opened eight years ago."
In addition to selling gourmet cheese by the ounce or in bulk, St. James Cheese Company functions as a bustling Uptown lunch spot. Diners frequently crowd the patio and small cluster of tables to enjoy a glass of wine and a sandwich, salad or cheese plate. Executive chef Jessica DeVay crafts the lunch menu from seasonal or house-made ingredients, in addition to curing meats and making pates. She often takes suggestions from guests or employees who fall in love with a cheese.
When they aren't weighing out a piece of Midnight Moon or Field of Creams, the company's staff participates in American cheese industry events. In July, St. James will send a representative to New York to compete in the Cheesemonger Invitational, which features competitive elements like weighing, pairing and blind tasting. The shop regularly has a table at local events, like the upcoming Bastille Day festival, which takes place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 12 at the Spanish Plaza, and St. James will open a new location in the Warehouse District in 2015.
"We thought we'd take a gamble that [the store] would work," Sutton says.