Food Entrepreneur Friday: Cowgirl Creamery
Happy Foodie Friday! This is the second installment of our series on successful female food entrepreneurs. If you missed it, check out last week’s interview with Coolhaus founder Natasha Case. Enjoy!
The Veterans: Cowgirl Creamery
Peggy Smith, a chef who earned her sustainable stripes holding down Alice Water’s famous restaurant Chez Panisse, and Sue Conley, a chef and restaurateur, met in college. Forty years later, they’re still friends, they’re still a team, and they’re known throughout the foodie world as pioneers in American artisan cheese making.
So how did they get there? In 1997, the duo “beautified an old barn” in Point Reyes Station, California (a coastal community near San Francisco best known for wine grapes, oysters, and rolling fog), installed a small plant for making cheese, and founded the now-famous Cowgirl Creamery. Their goal: to create handcrafted artisan cheese using a product they believe in—organic milk from their neighbor, The Straus Family Farm (also the first certified organic dairy farm west of the Mississippi). Today, their award-winning cheeses are sold at their creameries and stores in Point Reyes Station, Petaluma, San Francisco, Washington D.C., and to over 60 distributors in the U.S. and Europe.
Co-cowgirl Peggy Smith sat down with us to offer entrepreneurial inspiration and chat about the company that has churned out 15 years of triple-cream goodness (and the incredible ingredients for the meanest mac and cheese ever).
Being able to work with a pure ingredient and trying to make something that we felt was both delicious and a contribution to the sustainable age.
How did you know that Sue was the right match as a business partner?
We share a lot of the same values and have a lot of the same friends. Even if objectives change, having the same core values is a must in a partnership.
Did being a female founder ever present an obstacle?
I wish I could say no. We would often get comments like “what are ‘you two girls’ up to now?” Sue had already owned a well-respected business, but it was still hard to get people to give us as much credence as we wished they would have.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned striking out on your own?
The single most important thing is to love what you’re doing. We loved what we were doing and it still wasn’t always easy—so if you don’t have passion, it will make it that much harder.
And it helps to understand finance. Business school is probably good, but I don’t think it’s necessary if you can teach yourself the basics. We both understood business, but we continued to learn and we still continue to learn about it. So often, you have a great idea or product, but if you don’t have the business part down, it might not do as well as it could.
If you can, find a mentor, which Sue and I both had. Find someone that you feel is good at business. And don’t be afraid to ask them questions or seek their advice.
The decisions you make need to be practical as well as emotional—you need to blend the two.
Any parting words of entrepreneurial encouragement?
You have to be a little fearless and trust in yourself and your product. People make mistakes—so what if it doesn’t work? But you think your idea is good, go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to make it work.
I think if what you’re creating is a really good product, in most instances you’ll be successful. That doesn’t mean you’ll be a hit right off the bat—it does take hard work. But through perseverance and getting out there and letting people know what you have, you will.
Photos courtesy of Cowgirl Creamery and Sara Remington.
Varci Vartanian is a jack (er, Jill) of all trades. After a successful career in healthcare, she traded her lab coat for her current position as chief temper tantrum tamer/play date consultant for her two-year-old. She also enjoys writing short stories, freelance magazine work, and carbohydrates.More from this Author