“I would get cheeses every week to bring home for the weekend. If I didn’t get my cheese on Friday, I felt like my weekend wasn’t as good.”
by Bri Kilroy • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
When it comes to cheesy puns, Heather Zinn has heard some “grate” ones. The Cheese Lady Grand Rapids owner happily endures the supply of wordplay her employees and customers create to connect with her craft and expertise. Her cozy, yellow store brings over 100 varieties of world cheeses along with wines and specialty goods to Midtown.
Zinn, 43, grew up on the west side of Grand Rapids and attended Union High School before going to Michigan State to major in ancient studies. A year into her education, the major was dropped from the curriculum and Zinn was left with a year’s worth of credits that she refused to squander. She met with her academic advisor to find a degree that would allow a transfer and, the following semester, Zinn was majoring in interdisciplinary humanities.
“It left me with a well-rounded education,” said Zinn, who enjoyed studying philosophy and a diverse range of classes during her college career. Zinn graduated in 1995 and moved to Pentwater, Michigan were she frequented the beach and worked as a bartender before getting involved in radio selling. “I didn’t really have a direction [after graduation],” said Zinn. “It’s kind of been a ‘right place at the right time’ thing for me.”
The place was The Belly Up bar in Pentwater and the time was during one of Zinn’s shifts when a customer offered her a position in radio sales for a station he opened the area. Zinn agreed to check it out.
“I stopped by on the way to the beach and loved the flexibility of it with my lifestyle,” said Zinn. She began working as a radio sales rep for 94K-Rock and spent the next two years conversing with clients, getting into media sales and learning about different businesses.
Zinn continued a career in media sales in Deerfield, Illinois followed by Madison, Wisconsin, and in 2003 moved home to Grand Rapids, starting her career with Citadel Broadcasting.
In 2009, Zinn began commuting to Muskegon for Citadel. Not long after, her friend Jennifer introduced her to the original Cheese Lady shop, founded by Kathleen Fragan Reigler. Zinn immediately fell in love.
“I would get cheeses every week to bring home for the weekend,” said Zinn. “If I didn’t get my cheese on Friday, I felt like my weekend wasn’t as good.”
A testament to Zinn’s knack for being in the right place at the right time revealed itself again during one of her visits to The Cheese Lady in Muskegon. Changes that didn’t sit well with Zinn were happening in the radio industry, and she was on the lookout for a “plan B” when she overheard that The Cheese Lady had opened a Kalamazoo location.
Realizing there was a franchise opportunity, she met with Reigler’s husband, John, about opening a location in Grand Rapids and originally played with the idea of doing both The Cheese Lady and radio sales; but, once she became pregnant with her daughter shortly after, she decided to invest focus on The Cheese Lady. I suppose we Rapidians owe her now three-year-old daughter a “thank you” as well.
Zinn expressed gratitude to her job in radio and background in advertising for giving her a good foundation in business understanding. She further educated herself by registering for an introduction to business class at Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW). She met with a GROW advisor who responded with great positivity towards her plan.
“It was the final push I needed to go on with opening a cheese lady in GR,” said Zinn. Her friends and family were a little skeptical, but once they visited The Cheese Lady in Muskegon, they too fell head over wheels for the delicious world of cheese.
Zinn trained under Reigler, indulging in the education of cheeses by watching Reigler work, taking notes, learning origins, milk types, and classifications of cheeses and eating as many as 30 cheeses per day. She opened The Cheese Lady Grand Rapids in October 2012, ten weeks after giving birth to her daughter. Zinn continues to read, watch videos, research and learn from others to educate herself on the never-ending world of dairy delicacy.
Since leasing and transforming a vacant, former dog grooming business into a cheese and gourmet goods utopia, Zinn has filled The Cheese Lady with the country’s finest cheeses along with varieties from around the world, all cut fresh to order. Zinn invites you to come in and taste for yourself.
“You don’t have to be an expert on cheeses,” said Zinn when asked what she wants first-time shoppers to know about The Cheese Lady. Zinn and her passionate staff are on hand to guide and feed you through the four large chalkboards hanging behind the cheese counter, each filled with available cheeses from top to bottom. Please your palate further by visiting during Wine and Cheese Saturdays, a weekly sip and taste event from 1-3 p.m.
As you seize this month’s encouragement to eat, drink and be merry, discover the ability to knock out all three plus some holiday gift shopping at The Cheese Lady, 315 Fuller Avenue. Other than finding a cheese that will be the superstar of your Thanksgiving feast, you’ll find wine, Michigan craft beer, gourmet food items, culinary goods, kitchen wear and a fashion line of The Cheese Lady t-shirts and sweatshirts to showcase the turophile in all of us. In the meantime visit www.TheCheeseLady.net to browse products, gifts, recipes, and events.
Bri Kilroy is a Grand Valley and AmeriCorps alumna who learned to type through vigorous Mavis Beacon trainings. She also passes as an artist, illustrator and author of this bio.