“Organic” Growth

Posted on March 8, 2011

It’s been about a year-and-a-half since the first wheel of Bent River reached a retail shelf. Since then, we’ve seen a slow but steady increase in sales. Somewhere in the back of my head, I had prepared myself for a moment when things would catch fire, and sales would double overnight. That’s been the case a few times, for instance when an article appeared in the Star Tribune. Lots of orders poured in over the next few weeks, but it didn’t dramatically change demand over the long haul.

When I started Alemar Cheese, I made a number of projections laid out in impressive, spreadsheet form. Much of my projections were based on advice from those with far more industry knowledge than I, but in the end, it was mostly an educated guess.

Revisiting these spreadsheets, it appears I got it half-right. We’ve grown about half as fast as I projected. The good news, after these many months, is that we’ve reached a point where even in the slow months, we are at or near the break-even point. Unless you have access to unlimited funds, this is a very good thing. You can’t make cheese in the dark.

When I’ve been asked what my dreams are for the business, I’ve always replied that I’d like to make a living and enjoy the work, that I’d like to see the company grow in an–forgive me–organic fashion. Which sounds nice, doesn’t it?

Except, growth does not happen by accident, unless you are incredibly lucky. Someone has to actually promote the business, make the sales calls and work demonstrations (in-store visits). Since I am largely a one-man band, that’s my job as well.

I have a background in sales. I know that success depends on finding enough people to say yes, and that there will be a certain percentage, usually a large number, of nos. At Alemar Cheese, fortunately, the yeses have far outweighed the nos. The problem in this case, however, is that I’ve never sold something this personal before. I make the cheese, after all. My identity is wrapped up in that package, too.

I can’t bring myself to shout from the hilltops how great my product is. I want it to speak for itself, and that’s the great thing about making something edible, a taster can tell in short order whether s/he likes it or not. Most buyers like the cheese–a few haven’t. I’ve developed a thicker skin as time goes on, and I also acknowledge that I’m still learning, and hope always to, be a better cheesemaker.

Some of our newest accounts have been most gratifying. In December, we started delivering to the Willy Street Co-ops in Madison, Wisconsin. Madison is Mecca when you’re talking about cheese in the Midwest. Stuart and Michelle, the cheese buyers at, respectively, the East and West locations, have been really enthusiastic about our cheese. This led to Ben Hunter from the Underground Food Collective discovering, and adding us to their menu, which looks terrific.

Finally, Steve Young-Burns from Pastureland introduced me to Lydia Burns (no relation) of the Marion Street Cheese Market in Chicago. She’s been ordering for about a month now. I’m thrilled to know our little company is making a bit of headway in the Windy City.

There is no road map, nothing exactly, specifically the same for guiding any one business. When I started this blog, I used the word “journey” front and center. It’s been just that, and with a bit of luck, I hope it will last a good long while.

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