Four shops, four different sets of owners and more than 365 different types of cheeses have led the Springbank Cheese Company to success in Calgary
Photo by Laura Lushington
When the Springbank Cheese Company arrived in Calgary in 1989, its founders, the Hemsworth family, had almost 30 years of experience in the cheese business. Originating in Woodstock, Ontario, patriarch Frank Hemsworth had bought a railroad building in June 1960 and rechristened it a cheese storage facility — even though he barely knew the difference between Cheddar and Gouda.
Hemsworth began to learn all aspects of the cheese business from grading and importing to wholesale and retail, passing his growing passion for cheese onto his children.
Fast-forward to the late ‘80s and Hemsworth’s daughter, Jane had moved to Calgary and was looking to start her own store. Together, father and daughter decided that a storefront on 14 Street NW in Capitol Hill was to be the Springbank Cheese Company’s flagship Calgary location. Today, son Tom Hemsworth owns the Capitol Hill location and oversees the business.
After noticing how popular the northwest store was (and is), husband and wife team, Carie Lee and Adrian Watters approached the Hemsworth family about opening their own Springbank Cheese Company on the opposite side of town. In 2006, the first independently owned Springbank Cheese Company opened its doors in Willow Park Village.
“We decided to look at owning our own business and we both had been in the food industry (Earls Restaurants) for quite a long time,” says Adrian, who has a degree in nutrition and food science, and has also been specially trained on the nuances of palates. “I was already selling cheese wholesale, so one of our first thoughts was to approach Springbank Cheese.”
That the cheese business built on skills and knowledge the two already had, and allowed them to build relationships with customers, also sold the idea to the pair. But then came the hard work and “School of Cheese Knocks”, as Carie Lee calls it.
“It was a question of excitement and chaos,” she says. “We first opened the store exhausted; Adrian had laid the floors with help from friends and trades, we got our first shipments of cheese, loaded them into the coolers, and began to cut, prepare and taste as we went.”
With his distinguishable palate (as Carie Lee gushes), Adrian logged notes about each cheese’s flavours and profiles.
“In those early days we were tasting a lot, and alongside our customers. That’s how we learned — pounding back the cheese and exploring with it,” laughs Carie Lee.
Adrian and Carie Lee Watters, owners of the Springbank Cheese Company’s Willow Park location.
The Watters’ and Springbank Cheese Company made a big enough impression on Willow Park part-time employee Linda Kurytnik that she then opened the company’s Crowfoot location in 2010. Capitol Hill employee Shawn McDonald soon followed and opened the city’s fourth Springbank Cheese location in Marda Loop in 2011. Along with the family of four retail locations, Springbank Cheese products are also found throughout the city at markets and specialty grocery stores.
Each independently owned location imports cheeses from around the world including France, England and Spain. They are constantly on the hunt for new varieties but if you can’t find the cheese you tasted on your latest trip, ask one of the “cheeseheads” and they’ll try to bring it in for you.
“Our customers are becoming more aware of all the different cheeses of the world because of their travels,” says Carie Lee. “We learn about new cheeses from them too.”
“We never get bored,” adds Adrian. “There’s so much out there to taste and try. I always go back to some favourites time and time again but I’m always looking for the next great flavour, texture and experience.”
At each of the four Springbank Cheese Company locations, you’ll find different cheeses to catering to the palates of the customers in each neighbourhood. For example, the Crowfoot location sells more traditional cheeses like Cheddar and Havarti; the Willow Park outlet caters to more unique cheeses, and Marda Loop serves a large French community. That said, all locations carry a wide variety of cheeses that will satisfy most tastes, so there’s no need to drive across town.
“We’re responsive to our customer base,” says Carie Lee. “We want to provide products our customers get excited about. I love having the ability to connect directly with our customers and find out about their background and what they’re looking for.”
The four stores have also been keeping up with Calgary’s ever-growing food culture and have seen many trends in cheese pop up. Matching cheeses to craft beers, raclette (a type of cheese and way of cooking where the cheese is scraped/poured on top of grilled veggies and meats) and fondue are on the rise right now.
On the wholesale side of things, the Springbank Cheese Company has also seen a change in Calgary chefs becoming more involved in their restaurant’s cheese selections. According to Carie Lee, there’s been a huge transition towards chefs not only shopping for cheeses they cook with but for creating dessert plates or cheese courses as part of their menu.
“Overall, people are looking beyond the Cheddars,” she says.
So, the next time you’re thinking about picking up that brick of marble, try heading to the Springbank Cheese Company instead. From the fun coconut Gouda (It tastes just like a pina colada) to the simply delicious French Morbier, there’s something for everyone.
Top Cheeses in Calgary
Cave Aged Gruyere – Switzerland
Consistently a top seller, this raw milk cheese is aged in caves outside of Lucerne.
Smoked Applewood Cheddar – England
Canadian’s love their Cheddar and this creamy British version that is dusted with paprika hits the spot.
Bellavitano Flavoured Cheeses – USA
Try this rich, creamy merlot-flavoured cheese similar to an asiago, to curb your wine craving.
Blue St. Agur – France
A decadently soft, creamy blue cheese that is great on crackers or bread.
Top 3 Cheeses for Newbies
Frere Jacques – Quebec
This Swiss-style mild cheese is made from cow’s milk.
Double Cream Brie – France/Canada
A classic cheese, brie is a staple on cheese plates and comes in many sizes that are perfect for entertaining.
Manchego – Spain
Aged for six months, this pasteurized sheep’s milk cheese is easy to eat.