Fred Chesman, Vice President of Atalanta Corporation Reflects on a Storied Career
For our summer issue, editor in chief Elaine Khosrova interviewed Fred Chesman, Vice President of Atalanta Corporation, a multinational food importer. These are a few of many notable quotes:
“Fred pioneered the import of countless crucial cheeses, and he let me take credit for every one of them.” — Steven Jenkins
My father was stationed in France during the First World War . . . he spoke several languages, so he was charged with interrogating the prisoners. He noticed that the French had a lot of great things over there that we didn’t have in the States—especially the food—so he got the idea to import specialty products. Charles Chesman & Co. was started in 1915.
I built up the business on Brie, real French Brie, cut and wrapped in my home kitchen. Most of it was made with raw milk...It was the way Brie is supposed to be, with a runny core...you’d cut into it and the middle would start to ooze out. Now the pasteurized ones last longer, but it’s not the good ol’ Brie we used to have. Today it’s almost like a processed item.
I always say that today there is more and more of less and less. Meaning that there are fewer companies; companies have merged, so the business is really allocated to a few.
I joined my dad’s business in 1956, after serving in the Korean war. I was an only child; it was an easy decision.
Back then everything came by ship, a big passenger ship like the Normandie or the Ile de France. There was no such thing as refrigerated transportation; all the cheeses were stored as loose freight in the bottom of the ship’s hull, where it was cooler.
When the ship docked, the cheese would be moved up on deck in huge thousand-pound tubs, then rolled onto unrefrigerated trucks—with solid rubber tires and canvas covers. Everything had to be done by hand. At the warehouse we would drop the tubs of cheese off the truck onto a pile of tires, to cushion the fall. Then we’d cut them by hand with a wire and a rope. Everything was prehistoric
In those early days there was no such thing as an import license in the United States; anyone could bring in anything. Licensing started around 1947.[My father] got in on the ground floor...Having a license meant you could do business; we had multiple licenses. That became our strong point.
My father’s company was one of the first producers of “American” cheese, with a product called Sunnette. It was a cheese made right downtown in New York City—we took all the stuff we couldn’t sell and cooked it up, packaged it, and called it American cheese. You never had two pieces that were identical . . . that’s how it was done in those days.
My strength is the ability to negotiate with foreigners, get a good deal. And I think I have good instincts about what to bring in. Retailers want new things, too. Because if you stand still, you go backward.
I think I’ve fulfilled my task of what I could do, and what I could do best.
Thirty years ago—as today, too—your business had to be either very small and hands-on or very big with many possibilities. We were neither. I was having all kinds of problems. so in 1982 I joined Atalanta, which was mostly bringing in swiss emmentaler. I brought along my “dowry,” my import licenses and relationships with cheese producers throughout Europe—some dating back more than 50 years.