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Cowgirl Creamery Merges With Swiss Dairy Company, Emmi

Cowgirl Creamery Merges With Swiss Dairy Company, Emmi

Partnership will allow Cowgirl Creamery to increase production and bring back its fan-favorite cottage cheese

Founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith launched Cowgirl Creamery in 1997.

Artisanal cheese manufacturer Cowgirl Creamery has announced that it is merging with Emmi, a much larger Swiss dairy company.

Since it was founded in 1997 in Point Reyes, California, founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith have expanded their local dairy business to become a nationally distributed artisan brand, reports The San Francisco Chronicle. The company has approximately 95 employees, nearly a dozen cheeses in its product line, two retail outposts, two cheesemaking facilities, and a Ferry Building restaurant.

With the merger, Conley and Smith will continue to operate their business as vice president and president, respectively. George Geis, faculty director for the mergers and acquisitions executive program at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, says that this kind of merger may benefit a smaller company like Cowgirl Creamery with capital infusions and increased distribution capacity. He says, “When a large company buys a small company that has a loyal customer base, they have to be very careful that the loyal customers don't get scared off.”

On the merger, Smith says, “For us it’s been a little bit of a journey. Getting older, Sue and I are looking at the future. We want Cowgirl Creamery to remain in Sonoma and Marin. This will help provide that platform for the future.” Conley notes that the partnership will give them the capital needed to open a facility in Petaluma to increase production, bring back their fan-favorite cottage cheese, and develop new products.

“We invented the way we make cheese without the benefit of engineers and dairy scientists. These are traditions that started in Europe, and now we will actually have experts who can help us refine some of our processes and help us create new cheeses,” said Conley.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


The Cowgirls' Next Act

Last week, Cowgirl Creamery co-founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith announced the sale of their business to Swiss dairy giant Emmi. Emmi bought everything: the two retail cheese shops (in San Francisco and Point Reyes Station) the two creameries that turn out Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and the rest of the Cowgirl repertoire and Tomales Bay Foods, the affiliated distribution company. Conley and Smith will continue to run the enterprise.

Coming so soon after Emmi’s purchase of Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery late last year, the transaction rattled some cheese fans. (Emmi also bought Cypress Grove Chevre, makers of Humboldt Fog, in 2010.) What the hey?

I spoke to Conley last week about why she and Smith sold their 20-year-old business, why they chose a Swiss buyer and what they plan to do next.

Two days after the announcement, how are you feeling?

Really positive. I did read your comment about Redwood Hill, and I agree: Isn’t there another solution besides a foreign company? But honestly, this is the best company I know in our field, and they have proven to be good partners for Mary Keehn (at Cypress Grove). We watched the way she’s been able to continue to grow her business with nothing but support and never interference.

Is this purchase good or bad for American cheese lovers?

I think it’s good because we want the company to continue to grow and offer opportunities for cheesemakers and cheesemongers. Peggy and I are at an age where we’re not willing to take the risk of borrowing large amounts of money. For the last 20 years, we’ve financed everything by mortgaging our homes and pouring everything into our business. And as the company grows, it’s becoming more complicated. We need a higher level of financial management and human resources. So it’s kind of beyond our skill set.

Looking back at 20 years of building these businesses, what were some of the personal high points?

We’re in every part of the business—distribution, retail, cheesemaking—so we’ve touched almost every cheesemaker and monger in the country in one way or the other and that’s been fantastic. Secondly, the opportunity to open a store in the Ferry Building was key to our growth because that gave us access not only to San Franciscans but to visitors from all over the world. So it developed our name, which is a fun name, into an internationally known brand. It was incredibly risky, but the landlord did not look at our books we were very fragile. We’re lucky that (the landlord) liked us.

I know you love all your “children” equally, but which Cowgirl Creamery cheese are you most proud of? Which one comes closest to what you want it to be?

The cheesemakers we have now are better than I ever was. They continue to improve all the cheeses. But with this investment, the first thing we’re going to work on is bringing our cottage cheese back. (In the past) we made only 60 pounds a week, so maybe 120 people bought it, but they ask me every week at the farmers’ market when we’re bringing it back. It’s a water hog, but with new technology, we can make a better system for saving water.

With the expansion, do you anticipate just making more of your current lineup, or do you expect to add new cheeses?

Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel | Meg Smith Photography

We want to work on Wagon Wheel. We haven’t had enough aging room for it. Right now we can only make about 16 a week. We’ll also make a little more Mt. Tam, but we won’t be a Mt. Tam factory. We want to keep it as handmade and precious as it is. Then we’ll begin to work on new cheeses.

Do you expect to use Emmi’s expertise to modify your processes?

Only in one area and that would be brining. There might be a better way to brine Mt. Tam. The way we do it now, it gets a bit knocked around. But we won’t change the batch size or the way we form the cheese.

Why do you think American companies have not stepped forward to purchase businesses like yours, Cypress Grove and Redwood Hill?

I don’t know an American company focused on the artisan cheese sector. American companies seem to be focused on fast growth or on building to sell. Emmi is in it for the long term. They are interested in growing businesses slowly and sustainably and focusing on milk and farmers.

So your values lined up.

Correct. And maybe it’s just that our part of the industry is so new that no company is large enough to take it on.

With this new parent, what’s the likelihood of Cowgirl cheeses being exported to Europe?

That’s not in the plan, although Matthias (Kunz, an Emmi executive) thinks a more logical place to export would be Canada or Mexico. Emmi has a distribution company in each of those countries. That would be interesting to me, but right now we don’t have enough cheese to supply California.


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