Phase Four

Posted on July 24, 2009

The past few days have brought about, I think, the fourth stage of Alemar Cheese. Stage one was the idea that popped into my head in the last days of 2007, and began to increasingly occupy my thoughts, that it was time to strike out on my own again. If I haven’t confessed it yet, I’ll gladly do it now.

I have a number of friends in California who make wine for a living, notably Chris Dearden (an Alemar partner) from Benessere Vinyards, Craig MacDonald from Stryker Sonoma, and Rob Hunter of Bennett Lane & Hunter Three (Chris & Rob consult and are partners in too many ventures to name). My Dad, Bill, was the cross country coach at UC Davis of numerous winemakers, including Nils Venge, Mike McGrath, and Rob Davis, all of whom are now elder statesmen of California winemaking. I have had the pleasure of watching them all lead an enviable life of passion and, let’s face it, sanguinity.

Though wine is a growth industry in Minnesota, and in fact, one of my investor partners, Kent Schwickert, is now the lead proprietor of Chankaska Creek Winery just outside of town, I felt like I had neither the resources nor training to pursue a life in wine. But what else could I do to feed my desire to live some sort of similar lifestyle?

Well, there is plenty of milk in Minnesota, and cheese has always been a comfort and inspiration. I will forever remember searching Amazon in the waning days of 2007, looking for a book that would educate and inspire. Enter “American Farmstead Cheese” by Paul Kindstedt. I read it, cover-to-cover, in a matter of days. Most of it was far too technical for my amateur mind, but it gave me hope that I might just be on the right path.

Opportunity, or desperation, or more to the point, both, came next. I left my comfortable sales job, with benefits and stability, for a start up job offering more upside and, at least the promise of autonomy. I’ll save the gory details for later, but in short order, the new job evaporated.

On to phase two: plotting, planning, learning, and making connections–broaching the subject with longtime friends (the hands-down most excruciating part) of potential investment; writing a business plan, reading, taking a class, becoming somewhat knowledgeable.

Once funded, phase two continued. Ordering equipment, finding a space, and continuing my education proved a daunting yet heady challenge. You can’t fail if you haven’t done anything yet.

Now, after many months of putting things in place, I had to actually make cheese, phase three. The good news was that I truly enjoyed the routine and pace of what I was doing. Having observed my winemaking friends at work, I could see the similarities and pleasures of the labor. I slept better than I have in a long time after a hard day of cheesemaking. I have mentioned in previous posts my anxiety towards waiting for results. Five weeks? Unleash the hounds of neurosis. If they had tests for ADHD back in the day, I’m sure I’d be on some form of medication now.

Eventually, I found what I was looking for. The cheese was not only good, but by trial and error, consistent. I will always strive to get better, but I’d found a certain level of competence.

Which brings us to phase four. Mankato, mysteriously, has never been able to support a co-op for any duration. Our much smaller neighbor to the North, St. Peter, has had a thriving co-op for decades. Much credit goes to Margo, the driving force behind it.

On Wednesday, as I was headed to Cedar Summit for milk, I stopped off at the co-op and left a wheel of cheese. Having been in sales for much of my life, I know that you have to make the effort to secure a sale–the buyer has the leverage, and it’s incumbent on the seller to ask for the order.

To this point, the only messages on our voice mail at work have been telemarket related. But, last afternoon, Jim, the cheese buyer at the co-op left me a message asking for a call back with the likelihood of a sale. I missed him, but tried him again early this morning. A short time later, Jim returned the call. He asked if I could bring over a dozen wheels when time permitted. I mentioned that I was headed to the Cities on sales calls and could drop them by in a few hours. A chorus of Angels might have sung; I was a bit distracted at the time.

It is vital to note that the St. Peter co-op was, in fact, Alemar Cheese’s second sale. Tom Cook, now of Kansas City, has had a standing order for months now. Tom, your status as customer number one is secure.

I spent the rest of the day dropping samples off to cheese shops, the two Whole Foods Markets in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and a number of restaurants that focus on local and sustainable foods. To a person, they were gracious and welcoming. I took pictures, and will post them when someone shows me how.

I’m guessing phase five is the part where we go from spending money to making some. Profit is not a bad word. It’s the only way a business survives.

In keeping, I hope, with a healthy dose of humility, remind me later to tell you the story of shipping cheese to my partners, friends and family out West. Like I said, I’ll tell you later.

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