From mom-and-pop cheese shop to sustainable e-commerce enterprise

Antonelli's Cheese Shop owners John and Kendall Antonelli share their secrets to business success

Summary

Husband and wife duo John and Kendall Antonelli believe in sustainability, supporting their community and spreading smiles – one cheese-y bite at a time.

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John and Kendall Antonelli are on a mission: Do good. Eat good. And as owners of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, they are fulfilling that noble and delicious intention every day.

It all began after their honeymoon when John announced that they should quit their jobs and “do something in cheese.” Kendall was game, so in 2010 the couple opened Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, Austin, Texas’s first cut-to-order cheese and specialty foods shop.

Out of all the products they could sell, why cheese? “Simply, it makes people happy,” says Kendall. “We are so grateful to have grown from a small mom-and-pop retail shop to a national e-commerce and wholesale program, sourcing and distributing artisanal cheese, charcuterie and pairings across Texas and hosting global virtual tasting experiences for over 17K folks. We love bringing people together for a shared experience.”

Opening such a retail store and keeping it running is no simple financial feat, however. Their Capital One credit card ensures that it’s a rewarding experience.

How confident were you that the business would thrive?

Thinking back, we’d imagined how we would feel if it didn’t work out. We really didn’t anticipate the success, but there was a line out the door on day one! Folks have rallied to support us, and it’s our goal to support our community in turn. Those first weeks, we could barely walk when we got home. One day, I fell out of the door and crawled home.

While owning a business together has been one of the best decisions of our lives, it’s also grueling, hard work.

And now you can relax and have fun, right?

When your name is on the wall, the work is never done! We can always improve, always be better. We often get asked how we balance work and play. For us? We put them all together in one big pot and stir (aggressively). We love what we do, and that makes it fun.

Our family vacations are to visit cheesemakers, and we’ve done so throughout the U.S. and internationally. John and I remind ourselves that family comes first. And when we get off balance, we communicate it to each other. We’re big fans of pushing the reset button. We love to live in extremes.

Last week, we were working 20-hour days to launch our new website. This week, we’re working 12-plus hour days for the holidays. And while our kids have taught our Cheese-y Kids classes, they haven’t worked a shift before. Well, our nine-year-old son was so helpful yesterday assembling gift boxes.

So there we are, working side by side, spending our holiday together. Retail life! But after a decade in small business – and thanks to an amazing team – we’ll swing back to the play side. Next up? A long-awaited return to the Himalayas to scatter my father’s ashes on the 20th anniversary of his passing. He took me when I was six, and now I’ll be taking my kids – sort of feels full circle. And yes, we plan to visit some yak cheesemakers too!

What are some of your largest expenses, and how are you managing them?

We’re in the hospitality business, and to give great service, you need great people. So, the one expense we knew we wanted to cover was health care costs for our employees, which unfortunately isn’t the standard in the food industry.

We’re both survivors of depression, so mental health is an important topic to us. We knew we needed our employees to feel supported. We partnered with Capital One and used our cash back rewards to help offset some of these costs; this is particularly important right now, given how tough it is to retain and hire staff.

So you’ve been using credit cards for the business?

Yes. Capital One has been our partner since 2016 and is one of the hardest-working team members we’ve ever had. We have the Capital One Spark Cash Plus and use the unlimited 2% cash back rewards to help offset the cost of our employees’ healthcare. We feel strongly about providing it to them, as our people are the most important part of our business.

This card has no preset spending limit, which is great. We’ve been able to scale with the spending that we have, rather than having to worry about where the next loan might come from.

What regular business costs do you charge?

All of them! Honestly, 11 of our team members have this card. It flexes with us and allows us to grow in the busy season. After all, if you don’t have it in stock, you can’t sell it! So, we’ve purchased a lot of cheese, charcuterie and artisanal sundries with our Spark Cash Plus card.

We’ve also invested in new equipment, like a pallet stacker (woohoo!). Anticipating an exciting holiday season thanks to being featured in the Capital One commercial, we’ve purchased boxes and other supplies. We’ve also used our card to purchase new software and to pay our large UPS bill.

Are you usually leveraged, or do you remain debt-free?

Debt plays a critical role in growing and expanding a business. As opportunity shows up, we need to be prepared and flexible to have the capital to maximize those opportunities. Debt helps you take advantage of opportunities when you might not have the capital to take advantage of them. The right amount of leverage is essential to growing a small business.

Any plans you can reveal?

Right now, we are full steam ahead on the holidays, which is our busiest time of the year. We’ve received two awards for our online events, and we’re focusing on that growth opportunity right now.

We are so excited to now ship nationwide and connect with people from all over the country through our virtual tastings, so we see a lot more of that in our future. Plus, we’ve been offering more global team-building events than ever before. It’s all about spreading joy one bite of cheese at a time.

Looking back, is there anything you’d like to do over?

We don’t have any regrets. We can confidently say we’ve always done the best we could with the resources we had at the time.

That said, we’re better people today than we were a decade ago. If we could start over with everything we’ve learned, of course, we’d do some things differently. But I guess that’s the beauty (and challenge) of the journey. You’re often making decisions with a combination of data and your gut. John regularly says to our team, “I make 100 decisions in a day that I’ve never had to make before.” Is it scary and daunting? Yes. But that’s also an act of leadership. And we have a lot of great leaders on our team.

As an owner, what have you learned about using credit cards?

Building and keeping good credit are essential as a small business owner. One of the biggest challenges for a small-business owner is access to capital, and a high credit score can be a gatekeeper to that capital.

Along the way, we’ve learned that we have to be intentional about choosing the right type of credit card or debt vehicle and that you have to be thoughtful about the timing and implications of using each. Ultimately, you can use it to your advantage to turn it into something positive – more business, more revenue, more margin and ultimately more profit.

Can you offer advice to hopeful entrepreneurs?

Identify your passion with purpose. While passion is what gets you out of bed each morning, purpose is why others will pay you to do it. And to all of the other entrepreneurs and small-business owners out there, stay resilient! You have already made it through over 18 months of challenges. Stay nimble and positive, and you can accomplish incredible things. We’re rooting for you!

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