Russ McCall, Atlanta’s cheese pioneer
We owe it all to the city’s first cheesemonger
Finding a decent English cheddar or a funky French triple-cream isn’t all that hard today. But back in the 1970s, Atlanta’s cheese culture was, well, fairly uncultured. In 1968, when a 90-pound Gruyère arrived at a new cheese shop on Pharr Road, it was such big news that Channel 5 invited the shop’s owner to crack the wheel open on live television. The person who did the cracking: Russ McCall, Atlanta’s original cheesemonger. “Coming from New York, which was an oasis for specialty and imported foods, Atlanta seemed like a desert,” says McCall. “The only specialty cheeses you could find were Port Salut and Brie.”
At 24, McCall already had some idea of how to run a cheese shop—and not just because he was attending Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Prior to moving to Atlanta, McCall had worked at one in Greenwich, Connecticut, and had helped his employer open franchises in the Northeast. In Atlanta, the Cheese Shop , as it was called, was just 1,000 square feet, stocked with upwards of 150 varieties never before seen in the metro area.
Within four years McCall had opened five more locations, including stores in Lenox Square, Phipps Plaza, and Cumberland Mall. In 1973 he started distributing to a handful of local restaurants on the side. Recognizing that wholesale was the future of his business, he pivoted from retail to distribution, and by 1978 he had closed his stores. The move paid off. Barely a year later, he got a phone call that forever changed his trajectory: The grocery giant Big Star wanted to install a cheese island, the first in Atlanta and possibly in the Southeast, at its store on Lenox Road, and the company wanted McCall to design the whole thing. That first invoice, McCall remembers, rang in at a whopping $2,000, roughly $7,000 in today’s dollars. Countless more cheese islands followed. “We sold to every major chain in the Southeast at one time or another: Kroger, Publix, A&P, Colonial, Winn-Dixie,” says McCall. “We basically ran the whole market.”
Today McCall’s company is Gourmet Foods International, a nationwide importer, distributor, and wholesaler that moves millions of pounds of cheese annually through grocery stores and restaurants. GFI also hosts the Atlanta Cheese Festival every fall. “In the mid-1970s, the only place I could get cheese was at McCall’s Cheese Shop,” says dining authority Christiane Lauterbach. “His name today still means only one thing to me: perfect cheeses!”
Photographs courtesy of Gourmet Foods International