Boston ‘Mom and Pop’ Shops-Chapter 1: Formaggio Kitchen

By: Patrick Maguire

Book Chapter: Human-to-Human Service

Posted: 02/9/2016

As I announced in a blog post on 1/30/16, this series will celebrate ‘Mom and Pop’ shops in the Boston area, and possibly beyond. Over the next several months I will be dedicating blog posts to owners of restaurants and small businesses who contact me and respond to a questionnaire designed to capture their experiences of owning, working, and operating a business together.

The first person to email me with her tale and insight was Valerie Gurdal. Valerie is co-owner of Formaggio Kitchen with her husband, Ihsan Gurdal. I lived in the South End neighborhood of Boston for 13 years, and loved having Formaggio right around the corner. Their selection of cheeses, beer, wine, charcuterie, and specialty items are legendary in Boston, Cambridge, and the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Thanks to Valerie for sharing her story and launching this series.

Valerie: Formaggio Kitchen is three small retail specialty shops: Cambridge, Boston, NYC. We fondly refer to Cambridge‐FK as the mother ship, which was started in the late 70’s by Norma Wasserman. Ihsan, my husband started in 1982 and I started in 1984. We soon started a slow buyout of the business from Norma. Like most things at Formaggio, we have grown slowly and organically. So we didn’t start out with a mission statement we both started out as counter help who soon discovered we loved food retail. As time when on and we started taking on more responsibility, we wanted to know more about the source of the food, the producer, the farmer and we started traveling, which then led to our importing of the products we found.

SNS: What are your individual titles, roles, and responsibilities?

We are both co‐owners of all Formaggio operations. The Cambridge shop, South End, NYC and the Annex. The Annex is our warehouse where all the goods we import get delivered, mail order headquarters, and classroom facilities. I, Valerie, run the south End shop, Ihsan runs the Cambridge location and we have a great manager in NYC. (The NYC shop is only 250sq ft) Together we decide on the direction of the shops and areas where we need to improve. We choose the product lines that we import, and make staffing and travel decisions.

South End

South End


Where did you grow up and how did you end up in Boston?

I was born and raised in Miami and loved it. I came to Boston for college and never left. I still hate winter and I travel with food in my glove compartment out of fear of being stranded in a snowstorm, and I’m a loyal Miami Dolphins fan.

As a kid, what did you think you were going to be when you “grew up?”

As a kid I wanted to be an FBI agent, or a spy. I came to Boston to go to Northeastern to major in Criminal Justice and Accounting. I ended up graduating from BC instead.

What other jobs have you worked besides running your shops?

I always worked with food–waitress, prep cook, catering, and then Formaggio Kitchen.

What was your first restaurant‐related job and where was it?

94th Aero Squadron next to the Miami International Airport as a waitress. I loved the adrenaline rush and camaraderie of the staff. And I made enough money to send myself to Spain for 6 months.

How did you (and Ihsan) meet?

When I returned from Spain and moved to Boston for school I stumbled upon FK and decided I needed to get a job there so I could return home to Miami and open a shop like it. So I applied for a job. That was 1984 and Ihsan, my now husband, hired me. It was lust at first sight and I really did want to learn everything about the business. I kept daily notes and still have them. I was going to call my store in Miami, Sunset Corners. I think the location is still a good choice.

How long have you worked together?

We worked together daily from 1984‐1999 when we opened the South End location, and I now work in the South End location and Ihsan is in Cambridge.

How many hours a week do each of you work? (How many of those hours overlap when you’re both working together?)

Varies from season to season, anywhere from 8‐12 hours a day. We have been doing this going on 30+ years, so by now we have cultivated a great team around us.

Did anyone give you any advice before you started working together?

No, we didn’t even think about it. We dated while working together, got married, and still worked together. We really weren’t one of the couples that talked and planned things out, even though I am a planner. Guess love does that to you…

How would you describe your working relationship?

We are better at talking about the shops than working together daily in the shops. We are both opinionated, both always right, and stubborn–all those good qualities. But when we were in the same shop we each had different responsibilities and departments. That helped our relationship.

Is working together harder or easier than you anticipated?

When I first left to go to the South End, the shop was slow and I was used to the busy crazy pace of Cambridge, and I missed Ihsan. Soon I discovered I could never go back. I like having my own control. We work so differently. I am better at the big picture, Ihsan is better at negotiating with vendors, public speaking, the face of the shop, and teaching classes.

What do you like the most about working together?

I like that our overall vision is the same that we love to eat and drink so wherever we go we seek out restaurants, food shops, markets and of course, cheesemakers.


What do you like the least about working together?

Ihsan gets too intense and I have to voice my opinion and really the staff doesn’t need to witness our power plays.

How have you avoided killing each other?

A second shop.

What do you rely on Ihsan for that you would  hate doing?

Ihsan is better at the negotiating prices with vendors, not my strong suit.

What qualities do you value most in employees?

Honesty, commitment, passion, and being on time.

What do you enjoy doing most when you’re away from the business?

Anything in the sun. Lots of travel, cooking, eating, horseback riding, boating, trying my hand at gardening, so far not so good.

Any issues you care deeply about that you want to share?

One of the things I love about the South End location is there are so many independently-owned businesses. If people don’t want every neighborhood or every town to look and feel the same, Gap, Pottery Barn, Starbucks, etc…, then the consumer needs to support the independent shops. These shops give character and individuality to neighborhoods. I don’t want to visit a new city and walk around and see the same shops I see at home. I want to experience something unique in each section of the city. The big stores can out purchase us, but in my opinion, they can leave the neighborhoods soulless.

'Mom and Pop'

‘Mom and Pop’

Do you cook at home?

We do cook together at home. During the week dinner is very simple usually a piece of grilled fish with what we call ‘razzle dazzle’, basically a salsa which can be chopped tomatoes with hot peppers, lots of herbs, citrus or a caper-based one or bread crumb-based, whatever we have around, and a salad, maybe a vegetable. We always have lots of dried hot peppers on hand. We have a large group of friends in Westport MA where we have a house and over the weekends we entertain a lot, anywhere from 6 to26.  Our group of friends all like to cook together and we tend to grill and eat more meat and drink more wine. Since our weekend groups tend to be large, we started doing potluck which works out great since everyone has their specialties. When we go to someone’s house we usually bring the cheese and charcuterie platter, go figure… During the weekdays we wake up early around 5‐5:30, walk the dogs or unload a ‘file’ shipment from Europe and go either to the gym or directly to work so I consider having coffee at home on the weekends a luxury. Ihsan makes the coffee, toasted Pain Poilane with fresh goat cheese and simiit toasted with cheese and turkish anise seed and fresh squeezed orange and pomegranate juice.

Do you schedule ‘date nights’? How often? What did you do on your last ‘date’?

We always find a night to be alone. Fridays when we get to Westport, we almost never go out and spend the night cooking at home just the two of us. Date night during the week can be as simple as a night at home‐‐good food, good wine, good company. One of our last formal ‘lets go out on a date night’ was in the summer we drove to Al Forno in Providence and ate for about 3+ hours. The waiter was perfect. We ordered so much food and he paced it perfectly. He didn’t bring out all the food at once crowding the table–oysters and martinis, rose with the next four plates and a grilled pizza, and then we were still hungry so we ordered the rib eye steak.

What are some of your favorite Boston area restaurants?

Our go-to restaurants in the neighborhood are Coppa, The Butcher Shop, Row 34, and Branchline in Watertown.

Any dreams\fantasies about opening a restaurant completely different than your current shop?

As you grow in a business you tend to stop doing the things that you loved in the beginning‐‐helping customers, doing the little things. You tend to end up doing a lot of admin work, which I like. I am lucky to have a good balance of both. We aren’t a restaurant, so a fantasy would be a small neighborhood (Cambridge) wine bar that we could walk to with really simple food from our travels‐‐combining all our favorite tapas bars in Spain and mezes in Turkey, bistros….

What characterizes your favorite type of customers?

Polite. we have customers who come in every day, some two or three times, and while we can’t always please everyone and sometimes run out of things, it’s so refreshing when the customer is polite. We pride ourselves on our customer service.

What are you most proud of about your shops?

We’ve been doing this job for 30+ years and still love most parts of the business. I love our product selection, the staff’s knowledge of the products, and our customer service. Our tastings and classes are a great way to share information with our customers. I am extremely fortunate here in the South End to have a very supportive core staff, but at the same time dealing with staff is also one of the most challenging aspects of the business.

Any advice for couples thinking about working together in a restaurant/small biz?

Have different roles and responsibilities. Try to remain calm and don’t take the work home with you‐‐easier said than done…


If you’d like to participate in this series, please email me at And please forward this blog post to ‘Mom and Pop’ Shop business owners who might enjoy sharing their story. I’m also seeking a Boston media partner to share these posts. Thank you.

Disclosure: This is not a sponsored post. No compensation was exchanged between Formaggio Kithcen and Patrick Maguire/Server Not Servant in exchange for publication of this post. Social media sharing of this post by Valerie and Ihsan Gurdal,  Formaggio Kitchen and affiliates is anticipated but not required. Thank you.


4 Responses to “Boston ‘Mom and Pop’ Shops-Chapter 1: Formaggio Kitchen”

  1. Renee K Barrera says:

    This was a refreshing insight into the world of a culturally aware owner of a small business.
    It’s not just the value she brings to herself, but the value she gives to her employees and her
    Community. Brilliant, love this blog and will be sharing! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Clevo says:

    I just want to say that the Ham and Butter Roll from FK is one of the greatest things you can eat in Boston.

  3. Mark says:

    I really like this series. Have you considered hosting a podcast?

  4. Craig says:

    My favorite shop in Boston. I was a weekly customer when I lived there (for 11 years). Now its once a year..but it’s a great day when I walk in that door.

Leave a Reply

Permalink | Posted in Human-to-Human Service | 4 Comments »