Eco Inspirations: Greenista Chat with Sue Conley

Image Courtesy of www.cowgirlcreamery.com

If you a have a bottle of biodymanic vino lying around, grab it!  It’ll pair nicely with the final guest in my Greenista chat series: Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery –a Point Reyes-based company that makes delicious artisan cheese.

Sue is a restaurateur-turned-cheesemaker.  She opened the successful diner Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley in 1982 with her husband, and co-authored a cookbook featuring the restaurant’s menu. Eleven years later she decided to make the switch from pancakes to cheese.  She relocated to Point Reyes and started Cowgirl Creamery, which now has two stands in the San Francisco Ferry Building (I stop by frequently for their tasty and unique breakfast sandwiches) and sells a selection of their signature cheeses to Whole Foods and other Bay Area gourmet spots.  If you haven’t tried Cowgirl Creamery, you must!  It is the ultimate treat (their Mt. Tam cheese is a frequent indulgence in my household).

So whether you’re vying to be a small food producer or are curious about the life of a cheesemaker, read on for Sue’s insight into cooking up your own business.

Image Courtesy of www.cowgirlcreamery.com

What inspired you to start Cowgirl Creamery?  Have you always had a passion for cheese?

I have a passion for small food businesses, cooking and farmland preservation.  Cheese is the best vehicle for bringing these things together.

How would you describe the mission (or higher purpose) of Cowgirl Creamery?

Cowgirl Creamery is committed to the production, sale and distribution of artisan and farmstead cheese.  The higher purpose is to help small producers, including ourselves, survive and thrive in the marketplace.  This will help support small farms, which will help preserve agricultural lands in perpetuity.

In business, it’s important to find and nurture strong alliances and relationships.  How did you meet your business partner Peggy Smith and what is your team dynamic like?

Peggy and I met in college.  Our division of labor/responsibility is divided in the following way: Peggy is in charge of wholesale and retail sales, and is our de-facto COO.  I am in charge of production and marketing, and am the de-facto CEO.  One of my friends once described me as the “gas pedal” and Peggy as “the brakes.”

Starting a business, especially a food-related business, is hard.  What obstacles and challenges have you met and overcome?

Financing and compliance with permits and regulations have been our two biggest challenges.  We have financed this business with our own money, loans from friends, and family and bank loans.  Last year we took in equity money from individuals.

We have also developed good relationships with government officials and have used our county representatives and UC Davis Ag advisors as resources, along with non-profits including the American Cheese Society and the California Artisan Cheese Guild.

After you initially came up with the idea of Cowgirl Creamery, how long was it until you began producing and selling your cheese?

Three years…due to delays in bank financing and county permitting.

Now that you’ve seen tremendous growth, have the production methods and sourcing of ingredients for your cheese changed?  If so, how have they changed?

Not too much.  We built a new creamery in Petaluma that is closer to good roads and affordable housing.  The new creamery has larger vats and they are elevated, so we don’t have to lift the curds out of the vat and into the forms, but instead they flow with the help of gravity into the forms.  This saves backs, but the process is exactly the same as in our original creamery in Point Reyes.

Though we have slowly grown over the years, we are still a very small producer of artisan cheese.  We make approximately 1,000 pounds of cheese per day.  The largest commodity cheesemaker in America, Hillmar, produces 1 million pounds of cheese per day.

Your cheese is now sold all throughout San Francisco – at Whole Foods and even at my local bakery Arizmendi.  How many stores do you currently have contracts with?

We have no contracts with stores.  We sell to approximately 500 restaurants and 300 retail stores, primarily in the SF Bay Area.  The average value of a delivery is $100.

What’s a typical day like for you?

I work in Petaluma on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Point Reyes on Mondays and Wednesdays and San Francisco on Fridays and Saturdays. Once per quarter I travel to Washington DC to check on our store there.  My day usually entails 4 hours on my computer, 2 hours in meetings and 2 hours on marketing projects.  I also serve on the board of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the Sonoma County Agriculture and Open Space District.

Why is it important to source locally and how do you choose your suppliers?

It is important for quality control and consistency in supply.   It’s all about forging long, trusting relationships that are mutually beneficial.  We are distributors and producers of artisan cheese.  The other artisan cheese that we sell is sourced primarily from the US (80%) and 20% from small producers in Europe…Global/Local.  We know our dairies and our cheesemakers.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking to start their own artisanal food company?

Be prepared to work hard for small margins.  There will be a big return in satisfaction for a product that is delicious and well made.

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