Some artisan cheesemakers have seen revenues decline by 80 percent. Victory Cheese is part of the movement to reverse the tides.

By Andy Wang
September 08, 2020
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Cowgirl Creamery

On Friday, August 28, Cowgirl Creamery managing director Amanda Parker spent the afternoon determining what the air quality index needed to be for her Point Reyes cheese shop to operate. The Woodward Fire in California’s Marin County had been raging nearby at Point Reyes National Seashore, and Cowgirl had closed its store the weekend before.

“It’s one thing on top of another, and we’re all getting a lot more resilient,” said Parker, who reopened the shop on August 28. “We’re looking at air sensors. Can the team work if the doors are closed? Can the team work if the doors are open? Is it smoky in the building? Is it not smoky in the building? It’s the new normal, unfortunately, fire season.”

Is there even a phrase for the business ramifications of a natural disaster layered atop a global pandemic? Let’s just call it “America in 2020.”

The specialty cheese industry in the United States is in peril. Some artisan cheesemakers have seen revenues decline by 80 percent. Even powerhouses like Cowgirl, whose sales in Whole Foods and other stores have grown, are reeling because they’ve lost business due to restaurant closures and event cancellations.

So cheese professionals around the country banded together to form Victory Cheese, which in May started offering cheese boxes that support their industry. Cowgirl’s Good Neighbors Victory Cheese collection includes its signature Mt Tam triple-cream cheese and selections from Northern California’s Valley Ford Cheese Company, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, and Bivalve Dairy. Cowgirl plans to rotate the cheeses in this box. (Cowgirl Creamery includes a distribution company, Tomales Bay Foods, with a portfolio of artisan products.) The idea, of course, is to raise awareness of specialty cheese, and $10 from the sale of each $100 Cowgirl-curated box is donated to the California Artisan Cheese Guild.

Acclaimed chef Dan Barber and prominent cheesemakers like Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm and New York’s Saxelby Cheese created inaugural Victory Cheese boxes. There are now about 50 different boxes for sale, with many more in development. The boxes are inspired by wartime Victory Gardens that fed the community and boosted morale.

Victory Cheese is also building its own online food marketplace, Yourmaker.direct, which will launch this month and sell cheese and other gourmet food items like crackers and jam. Plus, Whole Foods will sell Victory Cheese-branded boxes at East Coast stores in the fourth quarter of this year. Victory Cheese is in talks with other major grocery-store chains about similar pilot programs.

“At Whole Foods, there will be beautiful gift packaging and messaging about the need to choose American cheese during the holiday season,” said Victory Cheese co-founder Molly Browne, education manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

It’s a crucial message because, as Browne points out, the cheese industry in some European countries benefit from financial and marketing support from the government. In America, cheesemakers are fighting for survival without this kind of help.

“We obviously don’t have that safety net for cheesemakers,” Browne said. “Our safety net is the consumer. We want to continue to amplify the message that we have some incredible, unique, innovative cheeses that are vulnerable during times of crisis.”

Browne and fellow Victory Cheese co-founders, including Stephanie Skinner and Greg O’Neill, originally hoped to find 20 retailers who would sell the boxes. Victory Cheese got more than 80 inquiries from distributors, restaurants, cheese shops, and other stores that wanted to carry the boxes within the first ten days of launching its website. Now it’s time to think bigger, and the co-founders have been heartened by the discussions they’ve had with supermarket chains.

When you support American-made cheese, you support multiple sectors of the food industry. Cowgirl Creamery, which former restaurant chefs Sue Conley and Peggy Smith founded in 1994, buys organic milk from California businesses like Straus Family Creamery and Bivalve Dairy. Cowgirl’s cheeses, which include the beautifully pungent and rich triple-cream Red Hawk, are beloved by chefs. Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt use Cowgirl’s Wagon Wheel cheese for their grilled cheese at San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory. Artisan cheese is clearly an important part of an ecosystem.

“We wanted Victory Cheese to be a positive message that you could be part of the solution for this vital part of the American economy,” said Skinner, co-founder and publisher of Culture, a magazine about cheese. “Some people were actually having to sell their cows or dry off their herds. The whole system was in jeopardy. So it’s very much an American story of farms being in trouble.”

One problem at the beginning of the pandemic is that specialty cheese became an afterthought at grocery stores, which were scrambling to stock items that customers were hoarding. This wasn’t a time for supermarkets to focus on artisan items with limited shelf life.

“Remember the wonderful time we all spent buying canned beans and toilet paper and commodity products because the zombie apocalypse was upon us?” Skinner said. “Specialty cheese counters were not getting the kind of traffic they were normally getting.”

Retail cheese sales have since picked up, but that doesn’t make up for everything that cheesemakers have lost. Despite Cowgirl Creamery’s strong supermarket presence, its successful pivot to curbside pickup, and its growing online business, revenues still aren’t nearly what they were before Covid-19. With many fine-dining restaurants struggling to stay afloat and with restrictions at wineries, Cowgirl and other California cheesemakers have seen their usual customer base crumble.

“We’re basically looking at ending the year about 25 percent from where we expected to be,” Parker said. “That’s about 20 percent down from last year. It’s those direct customers through our direct distribution here in the Bay Area that have really just been terrible.”

So Cowgirl Creamery, which quickly built a new e-commerce platform after the pandemic hit, continues to adapt. Cowgirl has turned the random-weight Mt Tam cheese it sends to supermarkets into a fixed-weight product with a barcode. Doing this saves stores time because they don’t have to weigh and price each individual piece.

“When seconds and pennies count, it really matters,” Parker said. “We were able to pull a project like that off in a short amount of time, and I think things like this are just going to have to continue. We’re definitely not going back to the way things were.”

Even after the pandemic ends, the ways that cheesemakers have become more nimble during Covid-19 will be key to their future success. And the spirit of Victory Cheese will continue to be necessary.

“For us, we’re a part of this community and it’s really scary to see so many of our beloved community partners suffering, even if it’s just temporary, we hope,” Parker said. “Victory Cheese is a win-win situation. Buying cheese from these producers and reselling it does good for them and does good for us. I think the hope here is to just continue to expose more Americans to really good artisan cheese. If Victory Cheese is one way that we can do this during a time of crisis, then it accomplishes its mission.”

You can order the Cowgirl Victory Cheese Box here.