America's Artisan Cheesemakers Are in Trouble

With restaurants closed and shops shuttered, cheesemakers and 'mongers are looking for new ways to survive

America's Artisan Cheesemakers Are in Trouble
Jeremy Little of Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy, which lost more than 65 percent of sales virtually overnight (Andrew Thomas Lee)
Apr 27, 2020

The business of fine cheese is powered by small firms—the majority of them family farms, artisan creameries and mom-and-pop shops—all of which have been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. With restaurants closed, many have lost a majority of their business. Almost immediately after shelter-in-place orders were issued across much of the United States, the specialty cheese sector experienced sales declines of anywhere from 30 to 75 percent. With such heavy declines in cheese demand, some dairy farmers supplying cheesemakers are actually dumping milk.

Businesses across the sector that were able to pivot quickly and efficiently should survive, though possibly in diminished form. Some of the country’s best artisan producers, however, are threatened with extinction.

Most vulnerable

On the production side, those suffering the most are makers of fresh, soft-ripened and blue cheeses, which are more fragile and have a shorter shelf life. They're also the ones most reliant on restaurants and other food-service customers, most of which are at least temporarily closed.

The virus could not have attacked at a worse time for farmstead goat and sheep cheesemakers—they're right in the midst of their animals' kidding and lambing seasons. "We're alive right now, but the depth of this situation has finally sunk in," said Judy Schad of Capriole in Greenville, Ind. "It was so fast: It took me two weeks to realize what happened in one week." Eighty percent of Capriole's customers are restaurants and small specialty shops. Schad saw orders drop by 75 percent in mid-March and was forced to cut her output accordingly.

Other than cheesemaking, there's virtually no outlet for farmstead goat and sheep milk; absent her orders, Schad's two suppliers have no choice but to throw out their milk. Schad said she was considering the heretofore unthinkable step of freezing curd for future use if and when demand returns. For now, she's shifting production from fresh chèvres to aged types and trying to stay afloat at a quarter of capacity.

Ray Bair
Ray Bair of San Francisco's Cheese Plus has expanded his offerings of grocery staples. (Photo by Dylan Dasher)

"There's a real existential dilemma in the dairy industry," said Beecher's Handmade Cheese founder Kurt Dammeier. He paused cheesemaking at his New York City location—suppliers there can sell to a co-op. But the dairy farms supplying his Seattle location have no secondary outlet for their milk. "If we stopped buying from them, we'd be giving them death sentences. Every business, every cheesemaker has to try to survive. We're having to make these kinds of Sophie's choices." Dammeier cut his cheese output by 60 percent and laid off 350 of 425 workers in his restaurant businesses.

Dark days for cafés and restaurants

For industry pillars like Cowgirl Creamery in the San Francisco Bay Area, DiBruno Bros. in Philadelphia and Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., food service sales represent at least a quarter of the bottom line, and in March they plummeted to almost nothing.

Georgia's Sweet Grass Dairy lost 65 to 70 percent of its business. "Our accountant told us we have less than three months to survive without any government help," said Jessica Little, owner and operator along with her husband, Jeremy. "It felt like a terminal diagnosis." Like all of the more than 30 industry players interviewed for this article, Sweet Grass applied for emergency government loans; as of now, just a few have received any money.

At Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vt, the sudden revenue drop necessitated some gut-wrenching decisions. To minimize staff layoffs, owner Mateo Kehler instead chose to furlough his cows, sending them to other farms for now; his cost of growing feed alone is $500,000 per summer. "It's been a pretty rough month," said Kehler, who sold the Jasper Hill herd, at least temporarily, to two neighboring farms. "We leveraged the production of that herd to build our cellars. It's unlikely they'll come back. If not, hopefully their daughters will. We're going to survive this, but only if we can figure out the cash flow through the summer."

Businesses such as Crown Finish Caves, a Brooklyn, N.Y.–based affineur and wholesaler, rely heavily on sales to restaurants such as Momofuku, Flora Bar, Estela, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Eleven Madison Park. Crown Finish lost half its orders but was able to partner with a local catering company, the Pixie and the Scout, which has pivoted to provide no-contact pickup and delivery. Crown Finish also donated unsold inventory to the non-profit soup kitchen Rethink Food NYC, as has Michele Buster at Queens, N.Y.–based importer Forever Cheese and others.

Pivot's the word

"Food service, which is about half our bottom line, is shattered," said David Gremmels, president of Oregon's Rogue Creamery. "We're so fortunate to have a robust web presence; it's been rocketing. Online sales are up 20 percent since mid-March and they're accelerating."

Though it's taxingly difficult, many smaller businesses like Connecticut's Fairfield Cheese Co., where more than half the revenues come from handselling cut-to-order cheese to walk-in customers, have been able to execute nimble pirouettes. Owner Laura Downey rebuilt her website for e-commerce within a week and converted to pickup only on March 23.

Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill Farm
Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm chose to disperse his farm’s herd of cows to cut costs. (Photo by Herb Swenson)

"I'm keeping a daily eye on the bottom line," said Downey, who will draw on savings from the previous holiday season three months early this year. "I wouldn't say it's good, but it's enough to stay open and not fire people. Our cash situation is going to get worse the longer this goes on."

In Portland, Ore., Steve Jones pivoted his Cheese Bar almost 180 degrees in a matter of days. "We've become what I jokingly call a cheese bodega," said Jones, who had a lively café business with seating for up to 50 in the summer. "We're the only ones in about a 20-block radius selling milk, eggs, flour, rice and beans." Asked about government help, Jones said, "If we get it, we'll make it. If we don't get it, maybe we'll make it. With tenacity and good luck, we might push through."

Ray Bair of San Francisco's Cheese Plus exemplifies shop owners who've been able to adapt quickly and energetically. He had the foresight to order masks for his staff back in January. When Mayor London Breed issued her shelter-in-place order March 16, Bair was already adjusting course, adding staples like baking supplies to his inventory.

"Our local restaurant suppliers are in a world of hurt so I called and ordered a number of items in bulk for repacking," he said. "It's a low-risk proposition for us because a 50-pound bag of flour is about $15 a pound less than clothbound English cheddar."

Some of the larger specialty purveyors will likely weather the storm, though with some damage. At Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., the flagship deli and a dozen other spinoffs employ more than 700 people and generate $70 million in annual sales. "We furloughed probably close to 300 people," said co-founder Ari Weinzweig.

"For specialty foods, we're at about 30 percent of previous sales, but it's climbing because we're getting better at the online ordering," said Grace Singleton, one of Weinzweig's managing partners. She streamlined the menu, rearranged all work and shop spaces and converted the deli to takeout only.

DiBruno Bros. of Philadelphia, which approaches Zingerman's in size and scope, employed more than 400 people at its five retail locations; their staff has been reduced by more than 100. "Retail is down about 30 percent," said executive VP Emilio Mignucci. "Restaurant, catering and events are down to zero. E-commerce is up about 200 percent, which is not quite making up for other losses. It's hurting our bottom line gravely. Right now, it's not about profit, it's about being sustainable and turning product into dollars. We had a lot of inventory."

Searching for sales solutions

As they scrambled to reconfigure their shops and restaurants for safe commerce, retailers were also tasked with finding alternative outlets, creating clever promotions and ramping up their e-commerce and social media efforts.

At the cutting edge of cheesemongering on the web are Kendall and John Antonelli of Antonelli's Cheese Shop in Austin, Texas. Their recently upgraded website offers an array of virtual encounters including public and private tastings and parties. John created a real-time interface, Cheesemonger Live, and is making the proprietary software available to other cheesemongers. Other shops can be listed on his site and customers can click through to set up an appointment with a cheesemonger.

David Gremmels, Rogue Creamery
David Gremmels says Rogue Creamery's online sales are up 20 percent and he expects them to continue accelerating. (Photo by Daniel Lober)

Among other cheesemongers offering virtual classes are Murray's in New York, Venissimo in San Diego, Scardello in Dallas and Caputo's in Salt Lake City. Rachel Juhl of Essex Street Cheese has conducted virtual tasting "cheese university" classes in collaboration with Antonelli's, Fairfield Cheese Co. and Zingerman's Deli, with more to come.

In the initial wave of panic buying and hoarding, consumers gravitated toward supermarkets to stock up on commodity cheeses, but efforts are mounting throughout the industry to support smaller producers. The best path for consumers who want to help is to search for farmstead and artisan cheesemakers online and buy their products via mail-order.

"Fifty percent of food dollars in the U.S. are spent at restaurants," said Jasper Hill's Kehler. "Right now, we need consumers to take those dollars and spread them out to prop up the rest of us—all the cheesemakers and our retail partners."

Fine Cheeses at Your Doorstep

Staying home doesn't mean fine cheese is off the table. If you're missing your favorite cheese, many creameries will ship orders direct to your home, and check with your trusted cheese retailers as well. An ad hoc committee of industry figures has launched a grassroots save-our-cheesemakers initiative called Victory Cheese, compiling lists of purveyors who are actively shipping to consumers. Below are some additional online resources for sourcing fine cheeses.

American Cheese Society

California Artisan Cheese Guild

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin

Massachusetts Cheese Guild

Oregon Cheese Guild

Vermont Cheese Council

Washington State Cheesemakers Association

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