|Cowgirl Creamery founders Sue Conley (left) and Peggy Smith make their award-winning artisan cheeses from Straus Family Creamery's organic milk.
Like its neighbor and milk supplier Straus Family Creamery, Cowgirl Creamery believes in quality over quantity.
"Consumers want something delicious,” says Sue Conley, cofounder of the small but popular artisan cheese business.
"Our customers also want something very healthy,” Conley says. "They're not necessarily wealthy but they are educated and curious about the food they eat: where it comes from and how it's produced.”
California-based Cowgirl Creamery buys 90% of its milk from Straus Family Creamery, with whom it shares ecological values, a love of organic milk and a desire to preserve rural economies.
Conley and business partner Peggy Smith are former restaurateurs with roots in Washington, D.C. The two started making their artisan cheeses in California in 1997 after falling in love with European cheeses on trips abroad.
Conley's connection to Straus Family Creamery goes back more than a decade, when she helped sell Straus milk in the San Francisco Bay area. "I was passionate about their milk,” Conley says.
Today, Cowgirl Creamery produces its collection
of organic, farmstead cheeses in Point Reyes Station, Calif., and nearby Petaluma. Both locations, like Straus Family Creamery, sit in the mostly rural area north of San Francisco.
Conley and Smith employ 70 people and distribute cheese to 900 wholesale accounts through their Tomales Bay Foods wholesale division. Customers include restaurants and retail outlets. Cowgirl Creamery also operates three retail stores: one in San Francisco, one in Point Reyes and one in Washington, D.C. In addition, the company sells its cheeses through its Web site (www.cowgirlcreamery.com
Cowgirl Creamery processes about 3,000 gal. of milk a week and produces about 4,000 lb. of cheese weekly. Albert Straus, president of Straus Family Creamery, says Cowgirl Creamery is among his top 10 customers.
"Our relationship has been terrific,” Straus says. "We both care about where milk comes from and how the product is made.”
Cowgirl Creamery has seen steady growth
since 1997, averaging 20% to 30% per year, Conley says. But cash flow is a huge issue.
"If you start selling direct, you have to give a retailer or restaurant 30 days to pay,” she says. "They may not always pay on time. And as you grow, you need cash.”
Having a retail outlet also "takes a lot of attention and energy away from work,” she says. "It costs a lot of personal time.”
Conley advises those interested in direct selling to "be at a large enough size with enough employees for help with deliveries and on-site sales and farmers markets.”
Most of all, she says, "Be proud of how you make your product. If you're not, it's going to be hard to sell it.”