Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Small and Special

This afternoon was spent amongst a hundred or so fellow small business owners and budding entrepreneurs at the first Small and Special conference. The event was organized and hosted by Jackson Fish Market, which oddly enough has nothing to do with fish. They are a small group of ex-Microsofter's who banded together to do their own thing, and from what I gather they are still in the techie industry, however creating their own brands of consumer software solutions. That is lifted entirely from their, site, I don't really understand what it all means, but they guys were very nice and put together a fantastic panel of speakers from various areas of small business-dom.

I must say that this small business venture is incredibly isolating, as I'm sure anyone who has stuck their neck out as an entrepreneur can relate. In my particular situation, some of that inherent loneliness will become assuaged when I actually open my doors, and have daily contact with fellow cheese lovers. But for now, it's all me and just me, and any opportunity to mingle with a group of like-minded businessfolks is always welcome. I chatted with a few of the people around me; unfortunately the group was far too large to do any considerable conversational networking, but it was still good to meet people who were in their own various stages of business development, research, whathaveyou.

I always make notes of what I think I'm going to take away from an interview or event like this, and then look at them again in a couple of days and see how they jive with my thoughts after a few dozen hours of marinating in my head. So who knows if I'll agree with myself this weekend, but leaving this event I felt a little snowed. Speakers' professions ranged across the board, from flower shops to children's book publishing, to the groovy sex toy shop that has become a pride and joy of Seattle. All but one of them sang the praises of not making any concrete plans to start the business; of somehow just falling into it like they tripped over a crack in the sidewalk and suddenly poof! There's a business with my name on it!
I absolutely cannot deny the romance that these stories lend to small business ownership, but I had to sit on my own hands to keep myself from pumping a fist in the air for the sake of research and business plans and not rushing in!

I know that everyone does it their own way, and I know that no matter how much I plan, edit, re-edit my business plan, pick away at my financials, there are going to be many, many surprises along the way. Hell, I've already encountered so many little wrenches tossed into the mix that I can't even count them, but I always stop and think back to the very first conversation I had with anyone regarding my beloved cheese shop dream. Back in January of 2008, I sat down with friend and fellow small business owner Jason Legat of Model Remodel. I literally sat on the edge of my seat as I regaled him with my romantic version of opening a little cheese shop in less than six months, just in time to meet the holiday rush, it was a brilliant plan in my mind. He sat and listened patiently, and then very kindly advised me to take a few steps back and look at the bigger picture. He illustrated scenarios of starting with a bang and then falling short very quickly, of not having the proper funding to really head into a retail situation and what about working with cheese, of all basic things? Naturally my exuberant inner child was a little crushed at hearing this, but I knew I had to be open to the advice, after all, he had built his business from the ground up, made his share of mistakes along the way, and is now a very successful business owner. He spun a wise yarn about building the proper foundation (to use a contracting metaphor), and how that foundation will inevitably dictate the imminent success or failure of your budding business. I still hold onto that with every step I make, and also to his sage words to never stick to a rigid timeline, be flexible and always open to opportunities that may not be in your original plan but will make you more informed, experienced, and ever more ready to take the plunge when it does happen.

I thought of all that a lot today, listening to these panelists tell their tales of living on no income and barely breaking even after a full year. More than one person poo-pooed the notion of a loan, or even seed money for that matter. The idea of an organic transition into success was laid on thick, but to me it's like an incredibly hygenic Frenchman; it's a great idea but it is the extremely rare exception to the rule. The people who made it without money, marketing, small business loans, seemingly by the good nature of our community, they should consider themselves touched by angels. But me, I'm an atheist through and through. I'm not counting on anything but myself, my anal-retentive tendencies towards fine tuning my beloved P&L reports, my horse-like work ethic, and my deep, deep love of cheese to see me through this venture.


Friday, June 26, 2009

Sheep, Chehalis, and cheese!

Today I drove down to Chehalis to meet Brad and Meg of Black Sheep Creamery. They and many other farmers in the area were hit incredibly hard by the floods that wreaked havoc over southern Washington about two years ago, and they are now back up to a flock of about 70 sheep, who graze peacefully in pastures just a bit down the road from their farmhouse. They have a fairly small operation, and it is just magical to see where some of my favorite cheeses come from.

I met Meg, the lady of the farmstead, and their silly herding dogs. Then it was into the cheesemaking den for an hour or so observing Brad and their current intern Jess, as they worked on a batch of experimental pecorino. I had to hold myself back from just diving my hands into the sultry curds and gobbling them up by the mouthful. They kneaded and pounded the curds into 4 cheeseclothed wheels, then set them up to press, all the while patiently answering my every question. I got to walk through the cave and see wheels of Mopsy's Best and their fabulous Tomme in various stages of ageing, plus a few odds and ends that they are currently playing around with. Whether I'm at liberty to really say much more about them I'm unsure of, so I'll leave it at that.

I'm scheduled to head back down and start putting my nose to the cheesestone, so to speak, on July 6th. I'll have a few days to work with Jess before she's off for a week and then I'll get to be the one heaving and hefting buckets of whey and wheels of glorious cheese for about 10 days. There is so much for me to learn, and I'm so grateful that these great folks are giving me the opportunity to get up close and personal with their operations. And hopefully I'll get to work a little sheep canoodling in there as well. I can't wait!!!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Reflections from cheese camp

It's hard to believe that just one week ago I was ensconced in the electric energy of a small gaggle of fellow cheese lovers. But now it's back to reality and a lot of re-figuring of plans.

Meeting Steve Jones was not only invaluable because he's just awesome, but it was a very honest reality check. His operation is about as small as they come; inhabiting about 300 sqft. inside a wine shop, he started it all for less than $50K and a lot of blood, sweat and tears. I realized after meeting him and hearing his story, that the other two cheese shop owners I've interviewed have had the financial latitude to make a go of it without borrowing anything. Although they both have very different shops, they make each one happen in a monetary comfort zone that I simply don't have. In short, I came the easy conclusion that I need to start out much, much smaller than I was originally intending, and I'm thanking my lucky stars I figured this out now rather than 6 months in when I still have yet to break even and I'm staring at inventory that isn't moving. Fortunately, I'm one who sets her sights high, so it was a no brainer to eliminate the wine and beer element from the shop. I've already been stressing out over the inane licensing in WA state for selling bottled alcohol yet offering it as samples for tastings. Not to mention the hike in space, therefore rent, and start up inventory it would cost me. Brush that aside and I start smaller, concentrating solely on cheese and a few accouterments to go with it. This of course changes a lot of my business plan, so I've been crunching new numbers and editing like a fiend over the past week getting it up to date.

The other essential element that never crossed my mind was interning at a local creamery. Naturally I've been thinking of shops where I might intern to work behind the counter and get a good taste for day to day operations, but I never knew that creameries/dairies hosted interns, nor did I think about how it would benefit my self-education to do more than visit one or several. So I sent out some feelers, and lo and behold, one of my local faves has been responsive, the lovely folks at Black Sheep Creamery have agreed to meet with me next week to discuss a potential internship in July.

I fell in love with sheep's milk cheese years and years ago when I tasted my first Manchego. It was a little unlike anything I'd tried before, and something about the flaky, savory texture and slightly tangy flavor just sent me soaring. Since then I've always sought out sheep's milk cheese and have become incredibly biased towards it. I swooned over Black Sheep's Tomme a few years back, and this past year their Mopsy's Best has elicited an uncontrollable physical shudder of delight every time I taste it. Of course, I could say that about a lot of cheese, but still.

So there you have it, ladies and gents. I'm currently looking down the road at early fall for opening, and in the meantime I'll be panhandling for airfare to attend the American Cheese Society Annual Conference in Austin, TX. Donations are gladly accepted.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cheesemonger Boot Camp!

Just back from a jam-packed 4 days of cheesemongering in Portland, and all I can say is WOW. This was the first event hosted by Food By Hand, the newest pet project of esteemed Heidi Yorkshire. She teamed up with Steve Jones of Steve's Cheese, and together they brought 15 of America's budding cheese geeks to the lovely city of Portland for a long weekend of cheese, cheese, and more cheese. It was a whirlwind of an event, and it's an understatement to say that it exceeded my expectations by leaps and bounds.

We all arrived at Steve's Cheese on Wednesday afternoon to meet and greet, and of course, taste some cheese! That evening Steve treated us to a wine and cheese pairing, followed by one of his famous Farmstead dinners. I don't think any of us knew quite what to expect, but everything fell into place without a hitch as plate after glorious plate of cheese and charcuterie passed around the table. There were no less than 14 kinds of cheese, a good smattering of cured meats, and the flow of conversation quickly overtook that of the wine. Now that's the sign of a fantastic group. People ranged from those on a purely information seeking mission, to current cheesemongers, to wine experts and food brokers, and a few like myself who were gregariously looking forward to opening their own shops in the very near future. It was heaven.

The following days were packed with talk of business plans and taxes, business entities and legal matters, visits to a neighboring Portland cheese shop and local distribution warehouse, with regular intermissions for cheese tastings. Steve let us run rampant in his tiny outfit, and we regularly sampled from the counter, stuck our heads into the reach-in fridges, and got up close and personal with day to day operations. He sacrificed a quarter wedge of luscious Comte for our slicing and wrapping pleasure, and showed us how to deal with soft molds, cheese mites, and a dozen other little intricacies of general cheese care. My head was reeling on a constant protein high and so much information to take in.

I have to take a minute here to wax poetic over the amazing personalities who took us by the hand through this adventure. Steve himself is just the most friendly, easygoing, down-to-earth character, and that is what I want to see more of (myself included of course) in contemporary cheesemongers. He was just an open book about everything that he's learned in his experience, and the willingness to share all of it was a huge comfort. Heidi Yorkshire is just a card; she's got that great dry humor that I love, and her jokes never conceal her intense level of knowledge in the industry. It was clear from the get-go that we were being taught by experts in this field.

The rest may take another post, since just this much is like a longwinded manifesto of my love of cheese, blah blah blah. I will continue to regale you readers tomorrow.

signing off - vive la fromage!