Rewards & Challenges Mark Path to Artisan Cheese
With the ever-increasing variety of handcrafted, innovative and flavorful artisan cheeses available at retail today, making a good specialty cheese might appear to be a fun, profitable career. While those with the passion certainly find the job rewarding, behind the scenes are myriad financial, production, logistical and regulatory challenges cheesemakers face to get their product off the ground.
Before beginning to make cheese, aspiring artisans need to do their research, experts say.
Location is a primary factor. Selecting a good plant location and doing the homework on how to dispose of waste and wastewater is important, says Jim Dimataris, director of processor relations for the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB).
“This is a requirement anywhere you operate and plays into having good sustainable practices,” he says. “Next, make sure to get it approved by your department of food and agriculture.”
Dimataris recommends cheesemakers develop a working relationship with their state inspector.
“They will assist you in understanding the construction guidelines, sanitation requirements and standards of identity, including where equipment should be located, where walls are required, etc.,” he says.
Ansally Stuyt, co-owner of Stuyt Dairy Farmstead Cheese Co. LLC, is familiar with the challenges of plant layout. Stuyt and her husband, Rick, own a dairy farm and adjacent cheese plant in Escalon, California, and milk 500 Holsteins. They made their first batch of cheese last fall and sold it in late December last year. The company already is in the process of expanding due to increasing demand as well as logistical issues.
“Our processing room is large, but our aging room is too small,” Ansally Stuyt says, noting she originally planned on doing cut-and-wrap in the plant’s processing room before an inspector told her that wasn’t allowed. She also is facing challenges with cold storage space.
“We’re having to cut and wrap in our aging room, which is much smaller,” she says. “We were so focused on making cheese when we started that we didn’t think of that. We looked at some other cheese operations, but they were larger, so we thought, ‘Oh, we’re small, we don’t need that much space!’”
With the expansion — which will bring the existing 800-square-foot plant to 1,200 square feet — the aging room will be about one-third larger, and the former aging room space will be designated for cut-and-wrap, Stuyt says.
In Wisconsin, Anna Landmark and Anna Thomas Bates, co-owners of Landmark Creamery, currently are circumventing some of these issues by partnering with existing operations to utilize their production space. The two-woman operation — Landmark is a licensed cheesemaker while Thomas Bates handles sales and marketing — primarily makes sheep’s milk cheeses in addition to some cow’s milk cheese and has rented space at Clock Shadow Creamery and Cedar Grove Cheese, both owned by Bob Wills. Now the duo is making cheese at Thuli Family Creamery in Darlington, Wisconsin.
Landmark and Thomas Bates both moved to Albany, Wisconsin, in 2009 but didn’t meet until they found themselves at a potluck for Green County Women in Sustainable Agriculture three years later. The two quickly became friends. After earning a $2,500 scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals in 2012, Landmark plunged into full-time cheesemaking in August 2013 and the two decided to partner on Landmark Creamery, with Thomas Bates overseeing the marketing and sales side.
Thomas Bates notes their decision to rent space in existing operations has its pros and cons.
“It’s a great way to get started,” she says, “but we’re finding as we grow, it’s challenging to become more efficient because we’re not close to home, so it’s a goal to get our own aging and production space.”
In addition to factors such as location and equipment, up-and-coming cheesemakers should be familiar with the market they are trying to sell in.
Tom Johnson, manager of the Master of Professional Studies in Dairy Products Technology program at California Polytechnic State University, is a former cheese company owner. He and his wife, Kristi, started the now-defunct Bingham Hill Cheese Co. in 1999.
“I think many people view artisan cheesemaking as a noble pursuit; you’re providing good, clean products to the community,” Johnson says. “But at the end of the day, it’s about making and selling a product, packaging, distribution — it’s a very complicated affair.”
Johnson says aspiring cheesemakers should keep in mind that the retail cheese case is already full.
“You need to ask yourself why someone would choose your product over what’s already there,” he says. “Think about who would buy your product and why.”
Johnson notes when he and his wife originally wrote the business plan for their cheese operation, they planned on making Cheddar and Monterey Jack.
“We realized there was no way to compete on price with the larger manufacturers,” he says. “We started with Blue cheese. It had a high price point in the market. I urge aspiring cheesemakers to look at high-priced niches where they can be rewarded for doing something by hand.”
Johnson recommends cheesemakers take a close look at the existing products in the retail cheese case for the category they want to compete in.
“Note what stands out to you and why,” he says. “Purchase some of your top picks. Get together with trusted family and friends and discuss what appeals to you from the flavor to the packaging. Compare the quality of the product and packaging to its price point.”
Johnson, like many specialty cheesemakers, started making aged cheese, which led to a major realization.
“If you’re making a cheese that’s aged for six months, you’re waiting at least that long to put it on the market to make a profit, and you need to keep the business running until then,” he says.
Johnson says when he made his first batch of low-moisture Blue, Rustic Blue, he entered it into the American Cheese Society (ACS) annual competition, and it won best in its category.
“We thought this would set us on a path to growth,” he says. “We didn’t think about how we would need to stockpile cheese for six months.”
He adds that for cheesemakers making a longer-hold cheese, it can be beneficial to diversify the product line with a shorter-hold cheese for a quicker sales turnaround.
“We started making fresh cheese as well, and that helped to balance things out,” he says.
However, it’s important not to try to make too many products and attempt to be “all things to all people,” says Margaret Peters-Morris, owner and cheesemaker at Glengarry Fine Cheese in Lancaster, Ontario, and a longtime consultant to cheesemakers across the United States and Canada.
“Make a few good products, and make them well,” she says.
Other factors can impact an operation’s bottom line, such as experimentation in the make process.
“In the development stages, we threw away a lot of product,” Johnson says. “You really need to build that into your financial plan, and we didn’t.”
Stuyt notes sampling to get the product into consumers’ mouths also is important.
“You need to be ready to give away a lot of your product so people can try it,” Stuyt says. She notes sampling also takes time because it’s important for consumers to put a face to the cheese they are trying, so Stuyt herself likes to be present to sample her own cheese.
Peters-Morris recommends artisan cheesemakers do a combination of direct-to-consumer sales and also try to partner on wider distribution.
Meanwhile, while success and growth are obvious goals for aspiring cheesemakers, increasing demand can be tricky to navigate.
Johnson says there comes an awkward point in the growth of a cheese company between being a small, local startup and a company with national distribution — one that some operations may not survive.
“You may do well on a small, local scale, selling to local stores and restaurants, or on a larger scale across the U.S.,” he says. “In between, there are many cheesemakers who are making too much product for the local market but not yet enough for widely expanded distribution. This is a no man’s land. I’ve found it’s easier to either be smaller or larger but difficult to be in the middle.”
Thomas Bates says running the operation with just two people can be very challenging and takes much more time than she first realized.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” she says.
She adds Landmark Creamery is not yet to a point where it can afford to hire additional employees.
For those who are ready, bringing the right people into the operation is important, Dimataris says.
“A processing plant is only as good as its people, so hiring good and experienced employees that have clean work habits will help ensure success,” he says. “Develop a solid plan for dealing with crisis management, including product recalls. Have this in place from day one and make sure your entire team is fully trained on execution and, more importantly, preventative measures to avoid any potential crises from occurring.”
At the same time, don’t underestimate the time and expense it takes to satisfy regulators, Johnson notes.
“The regulatory authorities are not your friends,” he says. “They’re there to protect the public health, and your interests are not at the top of their list.”
Developing a distribution plan and knowing the costs also is critical to a successful operation.
“You must understand the cost of using a distributor, as it will increase your retail pricing substantially,” Dimataris notes. “Before quoting your wholesale price to the distributor, know what your cost for their services are first, then make sure you have built in enough margin to deal with various retail issues that can and do come up.”
Johnson agrees, noting some things that are paramount when working with a distributor include product consistency, supply, transportation and the ability to support the distributor’s sales efforts, such as offering sampling and promotions.
In the midst of all of these startup challenges, aspiring cheesemakers are not alone.
Thomas Bates says Landmark Creamery occasionally pairs up with other cheesemakers — such as Hook’s Cheese — in order to meet a product quota for distribution.
“We’re in an area that is rich with artisan cheesemaking, and everyone is really helpful,” she says. “We view each other as colleagues more than competitors.”
Proximity to research areas and universities also is helpful, Peters-Morris notes. Short courses offered by academic institutions can help to keep cheesemakers current on the latest technologies, regulations and strategies for their business.
In addition to partnering with existing producers, industry organizations and other resources are available for assistance.
Nora Weiser, executive director, ACS, notes the organization this year released a Best Practices Guide for Cheesemakers as an easy reference for busy cheesemakers — especially small to mid-size producers — that can be readily accessed.
“Regulatory agencies and academics provide information in great detail, but it is often buried within volumes of text,” Weiser says.
The Best Practices Guide for Cheesemakers gleans the key requirements, suggestions and practices from a vast sea of information and attempts to condense them into a more easily digestible format written in more accessible language.
Weiser adds the guide is not a static document and will continually grow and change based on feedback from members, academics, regulators and others.
Interested parties either can purchase a printed copy online or download the guide for free on ACS’s website.
Meanwhile, state organizations like CMAB, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute (WSCI) and others also can provide insight, resources and peer-to-peer networking and collaboration.
“WMMB supports adding the Wisconsin Cheese logo on packaging and marketing materials, demo support for retail sampling, trade show booth support and couponing,” says Abby Despins, director of national product communications, WMMB.
WMMB also provides Wisconsin cheese companies with access to retail promotion materials, market information, a cheese and dairy photo library, dairy product safety information, food labeling resources and more.
Meanwhile, WSCI is an organization for artisan and specialty cheese producers based on networking and sharing member resources and information that is valuable for startup companies.
Weiser says the artisan cheesemaking business is not for the faint of heart, and a passion for the craft is essential.
“It takes time. There are a lot of steps and a lot of information you need to know,” she says. “It’s not an easy thing to do well and successfully.”
ACS’s annual conference and competition will take place next week in Des Moines. Weiser notes the industry collaboration and information provided at the conference is invaluable, particularly to small and mid-size producers.
“Even though there are competitors, there’s a lot more collaboration than competition,” she says.
She adds the annual ACS Judging & Competition is a great way for up-and-coming cheesemakers to get feedback on their products.
“Aside from the award aspect, you can get meaningful feedback from the judges to improve your product,” she says.
Peters-Morris says aspiring artisans should keep in mind that getting a specialty cheese operation off the ground will take more time, planning and money than expected.
“Do your homework so you get it right the first time,” she says. “It’s very costly to try to undo something.”
She adds getting on-the-ground experience in an existing plant also can be helpful.
“Learn from others — and never stop networking!” she says.
Source: Cheese Market News