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Originally published March 30, 2010 at 7:50 PM | Page modified March 31, 2010 at 11:51 AM

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Seattle cheesemaker Beecher's takes Manhattan

Beecher's Handmade Cheese, the popular Seattle artisan cheesemaker, will open a factory and shop 3,000 miles east of its Pike Place Market location.

Seattle Times business reporter

Beecher's Handmade Cheese, meet the Big Apple.

Seattle's popular artisan cheesemaker is taking a great big bite, with a factory and shop opening next winter 3,000 miles east of its only other location, in Pike Place Market.

The space on the southeast corner of Broadway and East 20th Street in Manhattan is more than twice the size of Beecher's current spot. Its 8,000 square feet will include a below-ground wine bar and a cheese cave for aging cheeses that are made on the premises.

Founder and owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier got the idea for a Manhattan store a couple of years ago, when he visited New York to be on "The Martha Stewart Show."

His business case goes like this: "We sell the bulk of our cheese within a three-hour drive of Pike Place Market, and there are about 2 million people in a three-hour radius of Pike Place Market. There are about 20 million people in a three-hour radius of Manhattan. My simple math says if we can be one-tenth as successful there, we're going to do great."

Beecher's will use its retail outlet in Manhattan as a marketing vehicle, like it does in Seattle, where only about 10 percent of sales come from the store. Most sales are through grocery and specialty markets that sell its cheeses — particularly its Flagship cheese, a cross between cheddar and Gruyere — and other products like frozen macaroni and cheese.

It sells cheese in about 35 states and a handful of other countries, but 70 percent of its sales are local.

People see cheese being made at its glassed-in Pike Place Market factory and remember that experience when they see Beecher's products in their stores. Even tourists get hooked.

"The window is what got us at first," said Annie Nguyen, a visitor from Las Vegas lunching at Beecher's on Tuesday afternoon. Her friend, Yesenia Palma, thinks the cheese-making room should have a microphone so people can hear what the cheesemakers say.

Lucy Wilma, a guide for Seattle Food Tours who eats lunch at Beecher's daily, thinks New Yorkers will be drawn to the cheese-making aspect as well.

"I think of New York as being a real foodie city. Having a new proprietor of old-world craftsmanship will intrigue them," Wilma said.

Beecher's is among a handful of Northwest retailers setting up shop in Manhattan. Nordstrom Rack is opening there this spring, glass votive maker Glassybaby of Seattle opened a shop last year, and Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters opened last fall in the Manhattan location of Ace Hotel, itself a Northwest brand.

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Dammeier said Beecher's Manhattan store will be similar to the one in Seattle, "but maybe not so farmhouse-y, maybe more turn-of-the-century industrial-looking on the ground floor."

He expects the expansion to more than double his employee count from 35 people now, including cheesemakers, retail and wholesale workers.

He does not expect to open a third store for Beecher's, which he founded in late 2003.

"I'd guess this is going to be it," he said. "We needed something that would not feel outclassed by Pike Place Market, and when you start using that bar, it eliminates most places from consideration."

The new place, a few blocks north of Union Square, isn't expected to open until February. That's because Dammeier is constructing a cheese factory in the space — and he'll be busy for the next few months co-chairing the 27th Annual American Cheese Society Conference that Seattle will host in August.

"It's a four-day conference and competition with 1,000 attendees, 1,300 to 1,400 cheeses and like a $1 million budget," he said. "I can't even focus on this thing until that's done."

But he can be excited.

"New Yorkers are cheese crazy, and New York is just where it all is," Dammeier said. "If you want to go to the top, that's where you go. They love cheese in New York. Love, love, love cheese."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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