The dreamer on the telephone pole
They told Chris Pride that he was insane.
He heard it from everyone, the same message in stereo, from his friends, and most particularly his family, most of whom worked for Verizon all their lives like Pride did and could not believe that he was about to leave the comfort of security after 25 years at the company. “Chris, how can you throw away the safety of a corporate job, a great salary, a pension, medical coverage, paid vacations?” they asked him. “To open a cheese shop?”
But they weren't listening to him. They weren't hearing about his dreams. For a quarter century, Pride climbed telephone poles, often braving inclement weather, or visited people's homes and installed internet, television or phone service, and after all the wires were plugged in, he would play the company shill and try to convince homeowners to bump up their cable package. Day after day, he'd wedge his way up poles or drive the company truck in a seemingly never-ending punch list, and every time he would see a doctor he would hear how much the job was taking a toll on his body – his knees were wrecked – and every time he looked in the mirror he would see the face of a man comfortable but wholly undefined. It was if the corporate logo had been unceremoniously burned into his conscience. He found he was living a life starved of Difference. Passion. Indulgence.
He'd been to Rome and Venice in 2005 with his now ex-wife. “It was a culinary adventure,” he said. “We took a cooking class, and stayed with a woman in an apartment in a section of Rome called the Jewish Ghetto. Every day, we would go across the street to the outdoor food markets. Everything was fresh – fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses. We would buy what we needed and then go back to the apartment and prepare our meals. I thought, 'This is so incredible. Why can't I incorporate that in my life, and maybe in others as well?' People need to enjoy their journey through life through food, not just stuff their face and move on.”
After living in Delaware County, Pa. for most of his life, Pride moved to Middletown a few years ago, and after a long day on the job, he would occasionally stop by for a beer at Sullivan's on Main Street. Once, while sitting on the outdoor patio, he noticed an abandoned storefront on Cochran Square. On subsequent visits to Sully's, he continued to stare. “I would sit ten feet away from it and say to myself that this place would be perfect for a cheese shop, similar to the ones I had seen in Italy,” Pride said. “I thought, I could really play a role in revitalizing downtown Middletown. The universe is supposed to unfold the way its supposed to, and for me, it did.”
He began to dream about what he wanted his business to look like, from the colors to the colored chalk signage to the store's inventory. He left Verizon. Investing his own money to purchase the location, Pride got the keys to the closed-down shop and began converting a dream into his reality. He re-painted walls. He installed side windows. Using his other skills, he re-wired the shop's electrical system. On Sept. 23, 2011, Fromage went live in Middletown.
Patterned after European-like cheese boutiques, Fromage regularly offers customers more than 170 varieties of cheese, from Applewood smoked cheddar to Bellavitano espresso, gold and raspberry, to White Stilton with pear and apple. In true bistro fashion, there are a few outdoor tables for those looking to nibble on cheese, tuck into fresh-baked bread, or sample the many specialty meats, spreads and vinegars Pride has in the store. The largest evidence in Pride's dream to open a cheese boutique, however, is see in the casual, European flavor of customers he's gotten to know, who come by the shop in a steady, continuous stream and ask him questions about pungency and sweetness and origins, pointing in the large display case at the counter.
In the year it's been opened, Fromage customers have come to know that they'll not only get an answer, but a conversation and a sample. “I have a passion for the food,” said Pride, 44. “I truly love cheese. Even cheese I don't like, I love. It has history of how its made. Cheese has been around for 1,500 years. It encompasses all this history and has elements of Europe. There are about 800 varieties of cheese in the world. Fromage helps to open the door to that world and invite people to come in.”
They've been coming. A tour of the shop's Facebook page reveals close to 500 “Fromage Fanatics,” who have posted such compliments as, “Love this place,” “Fromage is awesome,” and “Best selection of cheese around.” The accolades don't end with the written word or in the cozy shop; Pride regularly creates specialty trays that accompany special events such as wine and cheese parties.
Pride said that part of the inspiration to open Fromage stemmed from his love of old French films, that romanticized the Corner Cafe life of Paris. Perhaps the best crystallization of Pride's vision is seen in a mural, currently mounted on the exterior side wall of the shop and painted by Florida artist Marilyn Dunlap, one that depicts a street scene in Paris. In the mural, a cheese chalet stands beside a wine shop, which stands beside a bistro, and so on.
“Everything is clean and geared toward to the experience of being in one place for three hours, where you can get desserts and a sandwich and a bottle of wine,” all within a few feet of each other,” he said. “ Its important to keep people in downtown Middletown. In European countries, cheese is a staple, and it plays into the culture of how the people there approach food. In contrast, we Americans are of the opinion that we need everything five minutes ago. This shop is part of the maturation process of the local culture.”
Growing up in Italian and Irish-English family near Springfield, Pa., the only cheeses Pride said he knew as a child were square, round and oblong: American, Provolone and Swiss. After his father died when he was still a young boy, preparation for the family meal was done by his older sister Linda, and although what was served was typical of American families in the 70s, it was the union of his siblings and mother beside him that Pride considered to be the most important aspect of his upbringing. Even after he left to attend Villanova University and then after college, Pride would still attend Tuesday night dinners at his mother's, or Sunday dinners at Linda's.
“I found out at a very early age that there could be a social aspect to food, because everything in my house was focused around eating,” he said. “Even at Christmas time, it was nice to get, say, a new pair of shoes, but I also loved getting gifts like English crackers you couldn't find anywhere in the states, or a chocolate-covered apple.”
Ask anyone who turns the key that opens his or her small business every day and they are sure to explain the vast differences between learning how to start a small business and the reality of operating one. The moments of sheer joy, seen in happy customers popping in and out with purchases, are often tempered by slow periods that question the owner's resolve. There are libraries on how to start businesses, but few primers on how to keep it all afloat, scant literature that offers tips on how to explain to a customer that the reason that particular variety of cheese is more expensive than the same brand offered at the Acme is due to the fact that it was hand-rolled by a man named Mario in a small Italian village. In the year Pride has owned Fromage, he's experienced all of the above, every high and low end result of trading in the sure thing of a corporate life for the roll-of-the-dice life of a shop keeper.
The truest words Chris Pride has ever read about that slippery slope came, ironically, from a book he read when he was taking a business course at Villanova more than 20 years ago. “It said that in business, if you follow something you love, the money will eventually follow, because the passion will show through,” Pride said. “I don't miss climbing a telephone pole in 12-degree weather and stringing a strand across Route 72, but I can't imagine not being here.
“When I first began to dream of this shop, I had an idea that people would come here if they saw that someone was educated and passionate about what he was doing. It's fully prepared me for what what I would eventually do with my life.”
To check out the many varieties of cheese at Fromage, as well as a list of other items, visit www.fromagemiddletown.com.