Black History 365: Glenn Harrell
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Glenn Harrell is the third owner of Say Cheese, a cheese shop in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. The business has been in Harrell’s hands since 1999 and he likes to call himself the longest-running fool of its three owners, though this bit belies his deep love of the work.
Born into a family of chefs and cooks, Harrell knew he wanted to be in the food industry at a young age, but his route to cheese shop owner wound a circuitous path through department store restaurant management and the European railway system before landing him in dairy territory. Harrell got his start at Say Cheese as a monger, a role he occupied for three years before getting a chance to run it himself. Read on to learn how he came to own one of LA’s longest-running (and most-beloved) cheese shops.
This interview has been edited for length.
culture: I like to start by asking people how they got into the wild world of cheese.
glen harrell: I had gone to Europe and lived in London for three months. And I tried to find work in London and couldn’t, so I decided I’m going to explore Europe! I took the coach from Dover, England, to France and just traveled throughout Switzerland, I went to Italy, I went to Prague, I went to Germany, I went all over and was floored by all the amazing, beautiful cheeses that I had… I think my destiny was not to really so much to explore Europe and historical landmarks, I think it was more to discover food and cheeses.
I love that!
GH: It’s so funny, in all the interviews that I have given, I have never said what I just said to you!
So, when I had come back to the States, I was raised in Silver Lake, grew up in Silver Lake, and always knew of this famous cheese shop [Say Cheese] here in Silver Lake. And it was the first place that I had honestly come to, to look for work. And my first-love cheese, the one cheese that I fell in love with, was this Swiss cheese called Vacherin Fribourgeois, and I had asked if they carried that cheese and they said yes, and I thought, oh my god I want a job here! They carried my cheese! And she [then-owner, Julie] was floored by my resume, she didn’t want to hire me. I used to work for Nordstrom’s in senior restaurant management and I had a really good resume, and I made a lot of money for Nordstrom’s.
Did you go to culinary school before that?
GH: You know, I didn’t. I really, really wanted to go to CIA [The Culinary Institute of America] in New York, it was really my dream. I graduated from high school in 1986. But you know, New York wasn’t safe. You would read in the papers and hear in the news all the time how the crime in New York was just so bad. I was terrified! And all of my family is all here in Los Angeles. I come from a big family, and I just could not see myself moving to New York to do that, as much as I really wanted to. And at that time, the big school on the West Coast to go to was up in Napa, but it didn’t have the reputation, and I was raised to always have the best of the best. So I said, I’m not doing that. I had been offered this amazing job at Nordstrom’s through a friend and I was made manager within a matter of weeks. I worked for the company for seven years and just had done really well. But getting back to Julie and working for her, she did not want to hire me. She was like, you’re not gonna last here.
Did she want to bring you on as a monger or as a chef?
GH: Cheesemonger. I just was so interested in it. One of the things I learned being in France was that in France alone, back then, there were over 5,000 cheeses just in that country. There were so many different types and styles and, you know, I’ve always been this big guy. I’ve always enjoyed eating. I come from a family of chefs and foodies, and I love cheese, but I never knew that cheese could be as gourmet or different as it was. And the only reason why I had known that and had learned that was through traveling. So, my direction had completely changed. And Julie, I had told her, I live with my parents, I just need gas money, and I need to pay my phone bill. I had to beg her for this job, I did all the right things, I wrote her a thank-you letter. When I had come back in to see her in person, she pointed her finger in my face and she said, I will hire you based on one condition. I was hired on October 17, and that was 1996, and she said, I will hire you only if you stay until the beginning of the year. And I just thought that was the strangest thing! Like, until January and it’s October? You don’t think that I’ll last that long?
GH: Well, Linni, let me tell you, after working here the first week, I understood why. It was a challenge for me! It was a challenging place to work because the volume was so intense and there was no other gourmet cheese shop in the city of Los Angeles. Everything was just hard, but it was so much fun because I was learning about cheese and flavors and taste and tasting things. I ended up working here for three years, and then I left to go work at Sweet Lady Jane’s. And then Julie was gonna be selling the business here [at Say Cheese], and she couldn’t give it away. She had asked me if I would come back and work until she sold, because she needed help managing. And so I said yes! I had planned on going to Europe that year and I needed the extra money. Needless to mention, I didn’t go to Europe that year! Because she had then offered the business to me.
I was working on catering for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was gonna be on the Jay Leno show, and I was putting together catering platters, and this gentleman who Julie had met with, she was excited because he was like the 30th person who was interested in her business, and he was very serious. I think she spoke to him for maybe 45 seconds on the floor. When she came back, she threw her pencil at the wall and she said, this business is yours. And I said what do you mean, it’s mine? And she said, you are talented, you’re gifted, and you deserve it. You have the drive and the energy for it, and I can’t sell this. And I would be willing to sell it to you at a price that’s affordable. And by golly, she did.
GH: Wow is right. And I had put my thinking cap on and got some investors and was so excited to get people to believe in me and my concept and my bright ideas. And I paid out my first investor within maybe 30 days… and paid my second investor within 90 days. I had taken over Say Cheese, November 15, 1999. And I had the opportunity to go through a really successful holiday and, you know, Silver Lake being Silver Lake, really open-minded, it’s a really free-spirited community that was not of color or anything else back in the day. It used to be the armpit of Los Angeles, and it’s [now] one of the top neighborhoods to live in the US. People…didn’t have issues, but I also didn’t let it be known that it was Black owned either. I always just told people that I managed it because I didn’t want any problems out of anyone, and my business had done so well. My point is, was that I was able to pay out my second investor. And then I don’t remember the year, but when I turned 40, which was 13 years ago, I had done a Visa commercial and I was able to pay out my third and final investor and had become the sole owner-proprietor of Say Cheese 13 years ago. And you know, there was just this liberty and this freedom of like, oh my god, what an accomplishment, that this is mine now. You know?
GH: But you know, ironically, as much as I wanted to go to CIA so that I could learn more about food… my food experience has been through my grandfather, who was a professionally trained chef in the Navy, and he taught my mom very well. I’ve been saying to my mom for years that she should have been a chef, I learned so much from her. People ask me all the time, you could go to Europe to learn how to cook. And I’m like, no, there was just a bar in my family where, you know, we didn’t eat like my good friends did, where they ate at McDonald’s half the nights of the week. My mother cooked, there was a meal on the table at least minimum five nights a week.
Yeah, I had planned to ask if you were from a foodie household, but it sounds like it’s a definite yes!
GH: Yes, for sure. My best critic is my mother, and I love my family because they’re not biased people. And so, they let me know when I’m right and they tell me when I’m wrong.
So, you learned from a combination of family and eating your way through Europe!
GH: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. And I feel that when I first worked here at Say Cheese, that first year was my training course, and I ate so much cheese. I must have gained 30 pounds that year, I kid you not. But you know what I learned the most? Was that certain cheeses taste differently certain times of the year. And that was my biggest question that I had asked people once I owned my own business, why does this taste so much better during the spring and the summer, or the fall in the winter? And they’re like, it’s better then because of what the animals are eating!
Your shop has the feel of an old-world cheese counter. Was it a choice to emphasize European classics? Do you also carry some of the newer American-made riffs on classic styles?
GH: So, we do, I don’t carry them all the time, but I love American cheeses. I haven’t been exposed to as many as I would like to… I sometimes have a little bit of a hard time with some of the American cheeses that are so expensive. I am the type of buyer that buys product that you feel like you’re getting a good bang for your buck. And I’m not knocking it at all, but you know—
You can only carry a few at a time, because you’re not going to be going through a $36-a-pound wheel that fast.
GH: Exactly. And it’s so interesting because there are so many European cheeses that we carry that are like, for instance, there’s the Stinking Bishop, that’s $35 a pound, and we do exceptionally well with that. There’s a gorgeous blue cheese that comes from, I believe it’s Oregon. And they only carry it during—
GH: Yes, thank you! Yeah, so there’s those kinds, like that cheese? That’s a phenomenal cheese!
Yeah, that cheese is so special.
GH: But it’s, when I say expensive, I mean expensive in a good way, like it’s worth every penny of what you pay. But then like, we’re one of the top, if not the top cheese shop here in Los Angeles, and we have such a hard time getting that cheese! Like I was allocated one wheel last year. So, I’m not on the radar for being the go-to place to go and get an American cheese, people don’t go out of their way to send things to me. I do know that there are other cheese shops in town that specialize more in American cheeses and so I assume that people are going to those spots where they can get those items, where my name is more like 90 percent European and 10 percent American.
Your shop is in Silver Lake, which has changed pretty much completely over the past two decades or so. I’m curious how that’s affected the business.
GH: Oh, it’s affected the business tremendously. I mean, we were the place to go to for so many years. Say Cheese has been here since 1972, and we’re still standing. The community has grown so much, food has become more important to people. We really add value to this neighborhood.
I have to admit, I read your Yelp reviews, and it sounds like people just, they always say how much thought and care you put into every single personalized basket or platter, and that you’re just a pleasure to work with.
GH: Yes. And that’s what really sets us apart. I mean, we are literally, I am not lying, 30 feet away from the door of Trader Joe’s. We are about 120 feet away from Gelson’s. Both of those supermarkets have stepped their games up with ordering product that we have always carried. Obviously they’re doing their research and homework. And, you know, I’m constantly stepping my game up because I have to, and what really sets us aside from those places is the attention to detail, the sampling, for instance. We’re still in a pandemic, right? In business you have to be creative.
I want to ask you about the past few years. It’s been a weird time to own a brick-and-mortar storefront! How has your business changed in light of the pandemic?
GH: I have to be honest with you. And this is, it’s kind of almost embarrassing, because, COVID has been fantastic for me. Business has come to me where, I don’t wanna say I didn’t have to run after it, I have run after my business for years, this year will be 23 years. But business has finally come to me, because of Black Lives Matter, and being African American. I don’t like for people to support me because I’m Black. I like people to support me because of what we provide, because of the quality, that is what I stand behind… because the space is amazing, because the pricing is fair, and he happens to be African American, cool. But don’t support me because I’m Black. You know, people have sourced out this little business because they want to support a Black-owned business. It’s so sad that people had to be told to support a Black business. My business has thrived because people have sourced out during the pandemic to support Black-owned businesses so that they don’t go out of business. And so, my business went to another level because people did that. But I love the Silver Lake community, because there were so many people who have supported my business before they had to be told, because they haven’t looked at color. And because people have said to me, my regulars have said, oh my god, Glenn, we’re here to support you because we want Say Cheese to be around. And when these people have said that, they didn’t say it in a sense where we want you around because you’re Black owned. No, they want us around because they believe in what I provide to them.