When we asked Patrick Coleff how he got into cheese and ultimately opened Reliable Cheese, he says he just “fell into it.”
It all started when he was working in Cleveland as a legal publishing selling assistant. At night, Patrick worked as a line cook to make some extra money. “I hated my day job so much and loved my night job,” Patrick recalls. “I knew I wanted to get into the food business.”
Soon enough he was moving his wife and three cats to New York City, where he started culinary school. After working in a catering kitchen and a gourmet sandwich shop, he took a part-time job at Murray’s, where he discovered his love for high-end cheeses.
Did you always want to start a business? Probably not. I mean, I had the idea that I would like to own my own cheese shop. While living in New York, I was working at this small cheese complex, but when I moved here, I found there was nothing like that. All the cheese counters were in these large places, and I don’t like working at big, corporate places. I was either going to open a shop or get out of the cheese business altogether. But selling cheese is something I’ve proved to be good at.
Do you/did you have other ideas of businesses you want/wanted to start or that you think someone else should start? Any that you’d be willing to share? The one idea that I had that seems like it will be happening is an old-school butcher counter. People come in here and say that we have cheese and bread here in Durham, but no old-school butcher. There is a place that is opening that is going to be a butcher counter and sweet shop. They’ve been doing events at The Cookery recently. I don’t think they have a space yet, but they are at least making motions to make that happen.
I would also love to see an actual neighborhood grocery. I know the Durham Co-Op is supposed to be open in forever and a day. There are a lot of people that shop here and work and live in downtown Durham, but there’s nothing downtown if you need to get produce. When we first opened, people would come and ask for vegetables, but I said no – we are sticking to meats and cheeses.
What’s the best thing about owning a business? One of my favorite things is not only helping customers but also meeting a lot of cheese producers. I would say that is my number one favorite thing. And meeting all the people whose products I carry at the shop. Then, also being a business owner.
Any failure or hardship that you’d be willing to share? The biggest hardship for this place was definitely finding start-up money. Food businesses are inherently risky. We don’t have a lot of collateral, so we weren’t able to get bank loans. We had to get very creative with funding the business from the start. You’re supposed to start with a year of capital, and we definitely didn’t have that.
We’ve been open a year now and it’s all thanks to our customers and the people around here that have come to support this type of business.
Our current hardship: balancing prepared foods and the cheese counter. We are separating these. I was recently in delis in New York examining how they did it. They have different stations: cheese stations and prepared foods stations. Here at Reliable Cheese, it’s tough because we were doing everything on two small cutting boards.
The first time people said they wanted tables, we said no. But at the end of the day, it’s hard, if not impossible, to make a business work off of just cheese sales. There’s very little mark-up for a perishable product. Prepared foods like sandwiches are great for us; it’s what keeps the business going when cheese sales aren’t as great sometimes. If that means adding a few tables, we will add a few tables.
What’s the best piece or two of advice you would give to entrepreneurs just starting out? Shoot. I mean, a lot of people come in here from other businesses, and I’ll talk to them and offer advice. I think probably the thing I’ve learned with the shop is to be flexible. Your perfect vision of what you want is probably not going to happen. You have to adapt to what you want and what people expect from you. And a good space is always important. We purposely chose this space because it was bigger than what we needed so we would have room to grow. I’m really we did that.
What do you like best about owning a business in the Triangle? In Durham, specifically, it has been the support of all the local business owners. Before we opened, Fullsteam agreed to start offering our cheese plates. Phoebe from Scratch let us use our kitchen. Rue Cler helped me moved my deli case into the store. All the help form the other local business owners has been great.
We are working with Dos Perros on collaborating. I really like the collaborative spirit. There’s not that sense of competition, but rather a sense that one of us succeeding is all of us succeeding. We know downtown Durham is on the upswing. As these new businesses come, their success is success for all of us.
What is your biggest challenge? Just having enough time in the day. I’m looking into having a business manager. Right now, it’s just me, from filing taxes to selling cheese and working behind the counter.
The hardest part is making enough time. I have to balance the time I spend here with seeing my wife and kids at home. I don’t see them as nearly as much as I’m used to. Things don’t get done as quickly as I’d like them to get done.
Anything else you would like to share? It’s been a crazy experience for us in the year we’ve been open; I am continually surprised by the support we’ve received.