A Neighborhood Gem

Milkfarm, which opened its doors on April 7, 2014, in Eagle Rock, CA, is celebrating its 10th year in business. PHOTO COURTESY LEAH PARK

Celebrating its 10th anniversary, California retailer Milkfarm has surpassed owner Leah Park’s expectations.

When Leah Park was searching for the perfect place to open a cheese shop, she didn’t have to look far from home.

It turns out that Eagle Rock, CA, in northeast Los Angeles, just 10 miles from where Park was born and raised, was the perfect spot.

Milkfarm, which opened its doors on April 7, 2014, is currently celebrating its 10th year in business.

Getting Educated

Park set out on her foodie path right after high school in 1999, when she enrolled at San Francisco’s now-shuttered California Culinary Academy.

“I went straight to culinary school because I wanted to be a chef,” she says. “My mom was confused about my decision because at the time, being a chef was not a popular career choice. In the ’80s and ’90s, the cooking shows were pretty limited to Yan Can Cook, Baking with Julia (Child) and Two Hot Tamales; I absolutely loved watching those shows.”

Cheese Connoisseur Leah Park opened the artisan cheese shop, Milkfarm, 10 years ago in Eagle Rock, CA. PHOTO COURTESY LEAH PARK

After graduating, Park worked as a pastry chef for restaurants and luxury hotels, including the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton; but desired to explore the world while young. So, after seven years of working in hotels, she sold everything she had and took a year off to travel around the world.

“When I got back, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew it would be in the food industry,” she says, adding that she also knew luxury hotels were not a path she wanted to revisit.

Reminiscing about the multitude of bodegas and specialty shops found around the world during her travels, Park searched online for cheese stores in Los Angeles. One popped up in the neighborhood of Silver Lake that was of interest. Park called the Cheese Store of Silverlake, which has since closed, and was immediately hired as a cheesemonger.

“I had never been to a cheese store in Los Angeles, but visited some in Europe,” she says.

What Park expected to be a two-month stint at the store turned into six years, from 2007 and 2013, and her career in the cheese industry took off.

“During that time, I took entrepreneurial classes and attended every free seminar and business class I could find,” she says, adding that she also went back to community college to gain as much knowledge as she could. “I knew how to work in a cheese shop and in a variety of kitchens, but I didn’t know the first thing about opening and running a business. So, I educated myself on what I thought would be helpful.”

In early 2013, when Park began scouting the area for a spot to locate her business, she noticed the lack of specialty markets on the city’s east side.

“I spent almost a year driving around just about every night as well as my free time checking out different neighborhoods to see what was available and around,” she explains. “I knew I wanted to open a store in a place I was familiar with, and I knew there was an untapped market on the east side, where a business model like Milkfarm could survive.”

Park, who is Korean-American, was already familiar with the quaint Eagle Rock area, having visited it often in high school.

“I saw the neighborhood changing; it didn’t look the same as when I was in high school,” she says.

After about 10 months of pounding the pavement and talking to different people who could assist, Park found an 1,850-square-foot storefront in Eagle Rock, which was filled with small, independently-owned shops and restaurants.

Unfortunately, immersing herself in entrepreneurial classes did not prepare Park for dealing with commercial leases.

“When I went to a leasing agent, she tossed out all these real estate terms,” she recalls. “I never worked with a commercial lease and didn’t know what she was talking about.”

Park attempted to absorb the unfamiliar terms the leasing agent threw her way so she could search for them online after the meeting. It was all overwhelming at the time.

“I stood there, I was 30 or 31 years old, and said ‘Um, that sounds great!’” she says. “But I walked out of there almost in tears thinking, ‘I don’t know how to open a business or what I’m doing’; I was so embarrassed.”

To get more perspective and guidance, Park visited a friend who owned a successful local bakery to voice her frustrations.

“I told her I was so embarrassed and didn’t know what I was doing,” Park recalls. “She told me to let others know when I didn’t understand something and, if they gave me a hard time, I shouldn’t work with them.”

This conversation was the catalyst in making Park feel more confident and comfortable with not knowing what she was doing from the get-go.

“My friend helped me break through this ‘fake it till you make it’ mentality, and that helped,” she says. “Now I just ask a million questions and actually love telling people when I am uneducated on a topic. It helps me learn and grow. When I think back 10 years ago, I didn’t even know how to sign a commercial lease; it’s interesting to see where I am now.”

Becoming a Fixture

In the 10 years since Milkfarm opened, the business has evolved.

“It has surpassed all of my wildest dreams, aspirations and goals,” says Park. “I opened Milkfarm not even knowing the next step to growing this wonderful little business that is now an integral part of the community.”

This was an unexpected bonus of opening Milkfarm — becoming a big part of the neighborhood and the relationships that have been built with customers.

“We see the same people week after week,” says Park. “One of our dearest customers passed away, and the family wanted our sandwiches and cookies at the funeral gathering. I love how much a little cheese shop can be such a big part of someone’s life.”

Park is amazed at where she and her business are now from when she first dreamed about it 12 years ago.

“My goal was to open a shop that anyone (of any demographic) can shop in, without feeling intimidated or nervous,” she says. “Cheese could be a scary thing. I also wanted to support as many independent food producers as possible along the way, so now our shop is full of locally made products that we love and get to share with the community.”

Park estimates that Milkfarm carries about 200 cheeses at any given time. The store doesn’t have walk-in refrigeration, as she is adamant about not having stagnant stock. For this reason, the store receives multiple cheese shipments — three to seven massive deliveries — each week.

After about eight years of wearing all hats, Park promoted one of Milkfarm’s long-time cheesemongers to be the first, official buyer, Rw McKenzie, who is sourcing all cheeses. Rather than rely on distributors, every effort is made to find and source new items from around the country as well as internationally. (See below for specific cheeses making waves in the shop.)

“Keeping an eye out for new cheeses is a lot like looking for new music to love — some things are so ubiquitous you can’t miss them! But the really exciting stuff, the deep cuts, those take a little more work,” says McKenzie. “Sometimes that means a chance encounter at a trade show or out on vacation; other times it’s more of a word-of-mouth. And of course, you end up spending a lot of time reading articles and watching stories to see what’s coming down the pipeline.”

The store, which has patio seating for a couple dozen, is also known for its sandwiches as well as gourmet food, beer and wine.

“When we started, we offered sandwiches, and we still do,” Park says. “But there were many times I felt like sandwiches were taking over the cheese store, so I had to temper that down; I didn’t want to be a sandwich shop, I wanted Milkfarm to be a cheese store that had sandwiches.”

For this reason, the sandwich menu rotates almost every day. These items are made in the morning and are not replenished after selling out. The most popular sandwich on the Milkfarm menu is called The HBB, which includes French ham, Brie, herbed butter and cracked pepper on freshly-baked Bub & Grandma’s baguette.

“What’s the hardest with our concept is we don’t always have the same offerings, and that took time for people to understand,” explains Park.

Points of Differentiation

Park has set Milkfarm apart in a number of ways.

Firstly, they source fresh bread every day on a rotating schedule from five local bakers. Secondly, Milkfarm is also well-known for its chocolate chip cookies, which Park developed herself.

“I worked hard on this recipe, which has sea salt sprinkled on top before baking” she says, adding that what makes the shop stand out is its non-cheese offerings. “We love to bring in items that pair a bit ‘outside of the box’ with cheese.”

In addition to the standard cheese accompaniments like crackers, membrillo and Marcona almonds, Park stocks the shelves with interesting items like banana jam and mustard pickles, for example.

“One of our most exciting products is Black Sesame Crunchy Butter from Rooted Fare” says Park. “The development of this product comes from the desire to expose the public to Rooted Fare’s Chinese heritage by sharing a family recipe inspired by generations past. It’s been fun watching these two, young Chinese-American girls fresh out of college create a company from scratch with their grandma’s recipe. It has been my pleasure to introduce this ‘Asian product’ as a pairing with cheese to the community.”

Every effort is made to taste all items that are brought in, and also to ensure everything goes well with cheese.

“We support as many small businesses as we can, and see what kind of trends pop up, which is fun,” Park says.

Milkfarm recently brought in locally baked focaccia and added Taralli (southern Italian crackers) to its offerings.

“Ever since we opened, we have collaborated with other local businesses, whether with classes or events,” says Park.

Milkfarm also is a part of RE: Her, a national nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the growth of women entrepreneurs and leaders in food and beverage.

This past March, Milkfarm participated in a Women’s History Month event by creating four week-long sandwich specials that incorporated ingredients or accompaniments from female-owned businesses.
Park is always looking ahead and for ways to take her business to the next level.

She recently went mobile with a 6-foot-by-9-foot towable trailer that is a replica of a Volkswagen bus with a drawbridge service counter and roof that raises on hydraulics.

“We finally started using it, after it was sitting out by our dumpster for a year. It was such a feat to get the trailer up and running in addition to running Milkfarm,” says Park. “Now, we’re going to farmers markets with it and hope to do festivals, events and weddings in the future. It’s Milkfarm on wheels because we’ve maxed out what we can do in the shop.”

In the middle of launching the trailer, Park also opened a 900-square-foot culinary gift shop and stationery store a block away from Milkfarm. The shop is called Parchment Paper and sells all things food related, but no actual food. “It’s a fun shop full of little gifts that bring big smiles,” she says.

“I’ve been in cheese for 15 years, and it’s interesting to see how much it has changed with availability and cheese producers in America,” says Park. “It also is fun to watch what is trending as far as retail food sales; we see it firsthand and live it.”

• • •

Exciting Offerings

What cheeses are making waves in LA?

Milkfarm cheese buyer Rw McKenzie notes, “With so many great cheeses coming through our shop, it’s honestly pretty hard to pick a favorite.”

Here are just a few recent standouts:

  • The return of Morbier AOC and Abbaye de Belloc
  • Jack’s Blue – Parish Hill Creamery
  • Face 2 Face Clothbound – Face Rock Creamery
  • Linedeline – Blakesville Creamery
  • Pépino – Rodolphe le Meunier
  • Big Sky Grana – Bleu Mont Dairy
  • Dorstone – Neal’s Yard Dairy
  • Finback – Mystic Cheese
  • Intergalactic – Perrystead Dairy
  • Zirben Königin – Käserei Guntensperger

“Some of these are still pretty new to the world at large, others are just new to us at the shop or haven’t been available to us for a long time, but what really matters is that all of them are incredibly delicious, truly special cheeses, made by masters of the craft,” McKenzie notes.

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