I first encountered Olsson’s Fine Foods, a staple at the Trenton Farmers Market for a quarter century, when the business was taken over by Bob and Loraine Merkle of Lawrenceville in 1995. The tiny space in the farmers market soon became a mecca for area gourmands, due mostly to its astonishing rotation of about 150 cheeses (and Bob Merkle’s encyclopedic knowledge of them), as well as its premium coffees, European grocery staples beloved by ex-pats (like Bovril and Marmite), and the area’s largest stockpile of gluten-free products. After a series of personal health setbacks, Bob Merkle sold the business in April, 2007, to Jennifer and Rudie Smit.
The Smits kept the cheese focus — after all, Rudie Smit, 52, is Dutch, and often returns to Goor, the little town where he grew up, to visit his parents and check out the cheese business. They even expanded the cheese selection to 200 and added local meats and a large selection of olives into the mix.
As of April 1 it will have a new home on Princeton’s Palmer Square. I asked Jennifer Smit, 43, how the idea for the move came about. “Last January, Rudie and I were discussing how the shop had been in the Trenton Farmers Market for 25 years. We asked ourselves, what is it we most want to do with the business? One answer was, we wanted to expand to seven days a week,” she says. In the growing season the market is open six days a week; the rest of the year it is open Thursday through Saturday. “Another answer was, we want to be the cheese experts; we love the education part. So we looked at how we could take what we do in that regard to the next level. We had tried other things. We’ve participated in outside farmers markets. We’ve done wine tastings.”
The couple looked at about 15 locations before settling on 53 Palmer Square West, which formerly housed the Pawtisserie. “We listened to what our customers were telling us,” Smit says. “Palmer Square has foot traffic, it’s beautiful, customers can walk to the store.” They looked into the site of the former Kokopelli Fitness on Spring Street, but found the space too big. The Palmer Square space is about 900 square feet. Another plus is storage in the basement, which the other places did not have.
As for leaving the Trenton Farmers Market, as opposed to staying there and adding the Palmer Square space, Smit says, “Our thinking is, we want to do one thing well, as opposed to two things badly.”
Olsson’s is all about cheese, and there will be even more cheese — up to 250 kinds — at the Palmer Square location. “Plus,” Smit says, “we have a huge olive selection, which I consider to be the finest in the area.” They will still carry local meats, as well as coffee and teas, and expand the products they carry with limited shelf life because being open seven days a week increases traffic and product turnaround time. In addition, they will offer some prepared foods (not a lot), and items like grab-and-go cheese platters that customers can take to eat on the green at Palmer Square.
Smit says the move is “a huge step. You know, Rudie and I have corporate backgrounds, not retail backgrounds.” The couple met about 13 years ago, when they both worked for Southco, an international manufacturer of industrial locks, latches, hinges, and fasteners. It is headquartered in Concordville, PA, where Jennifer worked, and has an office in Worcester, England, where Rudie was located “We met at a company function at a beer garden in Germany,” says Smit. For years afterwards, they were what she calls “friendly co-workers” who would have dinner together whenever he came to the States on business.
Jennifer Smit grew up in Metuchen, and says she has been “circling around these parts for years.” That includes living in South Philly. Years ago, she bought a handyman’s special in Hopewell, not realizing that she would then marry someone she calls “a real handyman” — Rudie. They are in the process of building an addition to the Hopewell house.
“Then,” she says, “after several years, something changed. We met for dinner as usual, but something felt different.” Long story short, they have been married for nine years. Rudie has three daughters from a previous marriage. Two of them, Lauren, 13, and Niamh, 12, live in England but come to the States twice a year. Jennifer and Rudie travel to England to visit them every six to eight weeks. In addition, Rudie and Jennifer have two children together: Charlton, 2, and Analice, 8 months.
The two older girls work at the store when they’re on this side of the Atlantic. “It’s important for us, and for people to know, that this is first and foremost a family-run business,” Smit says. “The girls run the register and help out when they’re in town. Our current customers have been great in letting them learn the business of scooping olives, handling the money, etc. And both of the babies have been in the shop enough that they have created their own ‘regulars.’ We’re all in this together.”
In fact, one of the decision factors for having a full-time store was in answer to another question the Smits asked themselves. “We asked, how can we contain the babies but still have fun,” she says. “It’s personal for us, and we want it to be a personal experience for our customers, too.”
Up until now, Olsson’s has had four employees, whom the Smits consider family as well. Among them are two college students. Anna Bosted, a Lawrenceville resident, is a full time student at Mercer County Community College who has been with them for 18 months. “Anna loves food and has an interest in learning and tasting anything,” says Smit. Bosted has taught mozzerella-making classes and oversees the cheese that Olsson’s provides for the opening receptions at Trenton City Museum throughout the year. “And Desiree Macey has helped us for years,” says Smit. “She is currently student teaching and graduates from Rowan in May. She is a delight. She helps to keep everything moving — kind of the expert in the back of the house. She plans to come with us (to Palmer Square) and work summers and weekends.”
Of course, with their expanded hours the Smits will be expanding their workforce. “We’re a little nervous about the new people we’re bringing in. That they get what we’re about; that we’re a family.” She needn’t worry. Smit mentions a recent meal they and the new employees shared while getting the Palmer Square space into shape. “We were all together, having wings and beer. They were all over-the-moon happy.” The Smits keep a book in the shop where everyone writes down their ideas, and, Smit reports, at the end of each workday, “when the employees leave, a lot of ‘I love you’s’ are exchanged.”
As for competition, Smit says, “In our mind, we compete only against ourselves.” When I mention Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center, she says, “Our thinking is, they’ve been there for 1,000 years. We want our reputation to be as big as, and to emulate, leading cheese shops in New York.” I mention Murray’s (two locations at 254 Bleecker Street and the Grand Central Station market), and she responds, “Exactly! Rudie and I have taken cheese classes there.”
Jack Ball, manager of the Trenton Farmers Market, already has lined up a new tenant for the former Olsson’s space: Frescafe. Proprietor John Hemmings says that Frescafe will specialize in coffees — everything from green beans ready to be custom roasted, to roasted beans, ground coffee, brewed coffee, baked treats, and handmade candies. The emphasis, according to Hemmings’ description, will be on organic, gluten-free, and free-trade products.
Olsson’s Fine Foods participated in Princeton’s Taste of the Nation for the first time last year. But the Smits weren’t happy with how they presented themselves. “This year,” Smit says, “we’re going to knock it out of the park.” The event takes place on Monday, April 11, at the Westin in Forrestal Village.
Olsson’s Fine Foods, 53 Palmer Square West. Owners: Jennifer and Rudie Smit. 609-924-2210.