by Mary Stokley, Photographs by Susan Ayer
Brie, Comte, Gruyere: It’s All About Cheese
The Cheese Shop of Saline, John and Ruth Loomis
98 North Ann Arbor Street, Saline, Michigan 48176
John and Ruth Loomis opened the doors of their new venture, The Cheese Shop of Saline in the fall of 2017.
“McPherson Local, Smokehouse 52, and Sweet Leilani’s Bakery all opened that same year, so we had a big, festive kickoff for that,” Ruth explained. “We were packed! Tons of people came. It was really great. And the people here in Saline seem to be receptive to our being here,” she continued. While the foot traffic isn’t what they were accustomed to from previous employment in Ann Arbor, it was obvious from the time that I was there that the Cheese Shop is catching on.
John is a native of the Rosedale Park area of Detroit. He studied journalism at Michigan State University before moving to Chicago for the next twelve years. According to Ruth, he wanted to be a journalist and a playwright, but advertising was what kept him going while in Chicago. Ruth, on the other hand, is from Bloomfield Hills, went to Cranbrook, and then later to Northwood Institute (now University) in Midland, Michigan.
John’s father, grandfather, and uncles were all in the dairy business. He told me, “In fact, my grandfather ran the Detroit creamery in 1917. Every summer job I had was working in some dairy field.” After spending a year and a half (1989 to 1990) in Wales, England studying with cheesemaker Leon Downey, John returned to Michigan and opened a cheese shop with his brother and sister on Felch Street in Ann Arbor, making cheese there for about four years. “We were the darlings of the agricultural department for a while,” John said. “They put us on their dairy and cheese factory tour because we were the smallest one.”
John was a managing partner and cheesemaker at Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor from 2001 until 2016. Ruth worked first with Zingerman’s Catering, then for the Creamery for a couple of years, as well, to launch the retail store. Ruth went on to work as a sidelines manager (purchasing jewelry, art, cards, and so on) at the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in 2008 after she’d been diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis.
“I remember when I first walked into the store, I wondered how I’d never known about it before,” she said. At that time, she’d already decided not to do the injectable that her doctor suggested to help control the multiple sclerosis, preferring a more holistic tack instead.
She worked in the bookstore for about a year before she had to back away due to health reasons, but being in the environment of Crazy Wisdom was exactly what she’d needed because it opened up her world to the realm of holistic medicine. “I want to try to integrate some of those ideas and practices in Saline,” Ruth said. “McPherson’s, across the street, has tarot card readings sometimes, and I thought, how fun it would be to, one evening, have a cheese and wine party with a palmistry reading.”
When John sold off his part of Zingerman’s Creamery due to Ruth’s deteriorating condition, they began to consider what might be next because John wasn’t ready to retire. “We missed the connection we made with customers, so we decided to open a cheese shop,” Ruth explained. John is really good at choosing cheeses, and “even though he doesn’t make cheese like he did at the Creamery, he does still make fresh mozzarella, liptauer, and pimento cheeses; and he makes the world’s best hummus.” He also made homemade fudgesicles, chocolate covered bananas (with and without nuts), and strawberry and cream popsicles, offered for the first time over the Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re always looking for alternatives for eating and how to utilize cheese,” Ruth said. “We run a special on Sunday called the ‘Honey, I Don’t Want To Cook Tonight’ tray which includes Sopressata Salami, prosciutto, aged Gouda or Cheddar, and d’Affinois brie with fig crisps and fig jam, and usually some Belly Beans or something fun.”
The cheese shop has grown into a sandwich shop, and a goal for the near future is to expand their licensing to include tables and chairs for eating inside. “We have tastings every other Thursday night featuring Spanish night, Fondue Night, or Cheddar and craft beer night. These go over fairly well, depending on what’s going on in town that night,” Ruth said. “You know, we’re still getting a feel for things and trying different things to see what works.”
Business seemed to be going well during my visit to the shop as the customers kept John on his toes while Ruth and I talked and nibbled on a variety of goodies. It’s a real family business. Ruth told me, “We tried to get our daughter to stay, but she decided she’d had enough work for today. She helps out here in the store and studies business at Washtenaw Community College.”
Is cheese making an art or craft, or is it a science? John stands firmly on the side of science. “It’s the process of attaining the right moisture level and texture that gives cheese its consistency,” he told me. “When you begin to get creative with the process, some crazy things can happen and they’re generally not good.”
There’s one other thing that’s at least as important to the taste of cheese as the process, and that’s the experience. John explained, “I’ve had someone come in and tell me that they had a certain cheese while on their honeymoon in Provence, and I stopped them right there and told them, we’re not going to have that cheese.” They may well have the cheese in the shop, but it isn’t going to taste like what it did on their honeymoon because that was a one-of-a-kind experience. “That experience and taste cannot be replicated.”
The Cheese Shop of Saline is in its infancy as a business, and the people of Saline are still learning its location. For John, the shop is about discovery. “I enjoy helping people discover the tastes of cheese.” While he’s an old hat at cheeses and doesn’t think he’ll ever taste another cheese that will “wow” him, he believes that many people in Saline can look forward to discovering really good cheese. “If you’re new to this type of cheese shop, there’s a good chance you’ve yet to discover your favorite cheese,” he said. Stop in and let John and Ruth help you discover and be “wowed” by their world of cheese.