If some higher entity, Bacchus for instance, sat down and wrote out a recipe for a successful purveyor of wines, cheeses, and other things “gourmet” – a place with a decidedly French flair – he could not have come up with a better creation than Five Points’ Gourmet Shop. It seems that some cosmic force was at work when Dennis Hiltner bought the tiny Saluda Avenue Liquor Store in 1977. South Carolina law made him keep the wine section separate from the “hard stuff,” and that separation helped distinguish the wines, possibly fueling both Dennis and his wife Linda’s passion for wine and cheese pairings.
In 1979, they were able to open a small shop beside the liquor store that catered to those passions by offering fine wines, an array of imported cheeses, and fresh French baguettes and croissants. This happened at a time when Wolfgang Puck had yet to achieve stardom, only a handful of people had heard of Emeril Legasse, and The Food Network did not yet exist. But the Hiltners followed their hearts and listened to their customers. Linda would do her research and try new things like mozzarella di bufala, enlightening customers to the fact that mozzarella is not just a pizza topping. She stuffed chilled glass cases with cheeses from across Europe. Wine tasting events became common in the shop as the Hiltners and their clients explored, experimented, and learned.
Putting cheese and meat on bread seemed like a natural progression, and the shop began offering sandwiches for lunch. A few tables appeared, and customers could shop for wines and cheeses to entertain at home while noshing on one of Linda’s handmade all-breast chicken salad sandwiches. Linda cautions that she doesn’t consider her café a deli in the traditional sense of a New York deli, with an overabundance of spice-packed meats and oily sandwiches. Instead, the café is exactly that: a café in the Parisian tradition with consistent quality, a relaxed atmosphere, an amiable staff, and run in a hands-on manner by an owner/proprietor.
Back when Starbucks sold only beans and equipment, the Hiltners once again merged their tastes with customer demands and bought a coffee bean roaster – one of the first in Columbia. They had to make room in the shop for the big burlap bags taut with beans. On roasting days the rich aroma wafted through Five Points.
Catering to more demands, Linda began attending the Fancy Food Show, table top and cookware trade exhibits, and conventions of the American Cheese Society in places like New York City, returning with exciting things to offer home chefs waiting in Columbia. The shop expanded and began carrying cookware and utensils. Linda has since added lines such as Riedel glassware and the popular Vietri Italian ceramics.
Growing pains. Over the years, wine and retail items have vied for precious space inside the shop. Café tables have been scooted close together, and eventually taken over new space as the Hiltners expanded. Patrons benefited when the café section spilled outside onto the sidewalk of Saluda Avenue – at the time, one of the few Columbia eateries offering outdoor seating. Employees were hired as the café established itself as a hit. One of the shop’s former retail managers returned after starting a family and suggested that the shop offer catering. Columbia’s business community responded and now enjoys café assortments and box lunches from the shop’s cornucopia.
Despite founding their business primarily on European wines and cheeses, the Hiltners have kept pace with what America has to offer. Early on, they learned about exciting new California varietals just as wine tasting awards began to shower on Napa and Sonoma. Over the years, American cheese artisans have followed suit and have gained Linda’s respect. It seems that popular culture has finally caught up to the Hiltner’s expectations. Linda’s motto says all you need to know about how the Gourmet Shop has grown and led Columbia: “Give the customer slightly more than they demand.”
On a recent visit to Paris, I found a place just like Columbia’s Gourmet Shop, only smaller as are most things in Europe. A solitary, smiling proprietor flitted around, asking Mesdames et messieurs if he could help them with a selection. I recall leaning my umbrella against the counter and asking (in broken French) for a vin de maison (house wine) and the assiette de fromages (cheese plate), which was advertised on a little chalkboard. The fresh bread was free – you simply had to cut what you wanted from the baguettes stacked near the register.
A.E. Hotchner once suggested to Ernest Hemmingway, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Your moveable feast can be whatever you want. Whether you’re kicking back with friends listening to music in Finlay Park, or making a day of it in your own backyard, these are some essentials that Linda suggests you bring along:
Always have a baguette of fresh French bread – it travels well and, depending on how you cut it, can go a long way.
The options here are nearly infinite, but Linda has narrowed it down to a few of her favorites: English Stilton, Fromager d’Affinois, and Cypress Grove Bermuda Triangle.
A fresh mozzarella stack is simple to carry and can be assembled on the spot without a lot of fuss. Take a bite-sized piece of mozzarella di bufala, top with a leaf of fresh basil, and a grape tomato. Spear all three with a toothpick (or skewer of your choosing), and drizzle the stacks with a little extra virgin olive oil.
For the carnivores in your crowd, a couple of choice selections from the charcuterie will be all you need. Pate de Campagne can be applied to a slice of bread. A section of dry salami can be sliced as needed.
Other succulent items that won’t need much prep work include: seasonal fruit like fresh strawberries, grapes, raw almonds, nicoise olives, cornichons (tiny gherkin pickles), and John Wm. Macy’s Cheese Sticks.
Accompany your assortment with the best summer wine: a dry rose chilled lightly to cellar temperature. “In the south of France, everyone drinks rose in the summertime.”