As retailer Sweet Freedom celebrates its fifth anniversary, it focuses on what it does best.
Northwest Arkansas’ first cut-to-order cheese shop, Sweet Freedom in Bentonville can be held up as an example of a retailer that has done everything right.
Owner Jessica Keahey was able to turn her passion into a lucrative business, but it took research and perseverance.
Cheese wasn’t yet on her radar when she pursued a degree in engineering at the University of Arkansas. After graduating, Keahey served as a consultant in the engineering field for 14 years, before she decided to make a big change. Wanting a career that brought herself and others joy, she decided to shift gears in a major way.
“I always had a love of cheese, like many in this industry,” she says. “But I grew up in southern Arkansas during the ’80s and early ’90s when there were no fancy cheeses. My idea of upscale cheese was a cheese ball at the holidays, which I thought was the best thing ever.”
Eventually, Keahey became exposed to artisan cheeses, and her palate changed for the better.
She then took her new venture to the next level and began making cheese in her home kitchen.
“I love to cook, ferment and create all things culinary, so I got into making cheese thinking I could transition this into a cheesemaking career,” she explains.
Keahey jumped into it wholeheartedly, traveling around the U.S. taking cheesemaking courses and receiving certifications, including the American Cheese Society’s coveted Certified Cheese Professional designation.
Her initial business model had two parts — make cheese and then sell it.
“Upon exploring my options, I realized how much money it takes to be an entrepreneur in the cheesemaking community,” she says. “After talking to cheese monger friends, a lightbulb came on; I can still sell cheese and not have to build the infrastructure to produce it.”
During this time, a number of U.S. cheesemakers let Keahey tour their creameries and cheese shops and provided advice on what works and what doesn’t.
“I came into this business on the shoulders of cheese experts and found you do what you can to learn from the cheese community; it’s half the fun of building a business,” says Keahey. “I’m very grateful for folks who have given me advice and support. It’s a unique industry where people help each other out.”
It was following this extensive research that her plan to open a cheese shop came to fruition. Now, five years later, Keahey has not looked back.
Sweet Freedom is located in Bentonville’s 8th Street Market’s South Market Food Hall. Described as “a community-focused food hub, where a spirit of creativity meets entrepreneurship,” the market includes a microbrewery, chocolatier, food trucks with international fare, a ramen eatery and an independent bookstore. James Beard-nominated restaurants are also in the vicinity.
“Being the area’s first cut-to-order cheese shop brought with it a lot of responsibility to show our community what we were about, which is great cheeses and customer service,” says Keahey. “People will come in for our grilled cheese not knowing about our overwhelming cheese case.”
Although small in size at 1,000 square feet, there is no shortage of fromage. Sweet Freedom has several hundred types of cheese on display, from cheddars to Goudas, blues to bloomies. Alpines are a big seller in the cooler months. Although it does focus on the cut-to-order program, the shop also sells cured meats and other complementary items for charcuterie boards, along with local beer and specialty wine.
“People come here who are used to seeing a few cheeses on display and can get overwhelmed, so we engage with them and encourage them to try new things,” says Keahey. “We do a good job of incorporating a wide variety of cheeses into our cheese case, with some functional for cooking as well as items for creating amazing cheese boards.”
Its selection is curated from large and small producers, some of whom Keahey works with directly, such as Capriole, Green Dirt Farm, Boxcarr and Sequatchie Cove.
“We have some access to cheese producers in the Midwest and South, but of course, the concentration of cheese production is in Wisconsin and California,” she says. “It’s nice to highlight cheeses from the South that people in our region maybe haven’t heard about.”
Sweet Freedom also features seasonal cheeses.
“We just started getting in port-washed Harbison,” Keahey notes. “Rogue River Blue is another favorite, and Alpine styles are popular in the winter for making fondue or incorporating in casseroles.”
Artikaas Truffle Gouda is a bestseller, as are truffle cheeses in general.
“Truffle is a heavy hitter for us in the community, we dare not run out of it,” says Keahey. “We really listen to what our customers want.”
However, Keahey’s cheesemaking knowledge did not go to waste. She currently conducts hands-on cheesemaking courses at the shop.
“We train our cheese mongers to answer customer questions on a higher level,” she says. “I have a great staff who are culinary grads, many from Brightwater (a local culinary school and center for the study of food) and our manager, Laura Cochran, also is a Certified Cheese Professional. Our motivation is to make sure our staff is educated.”
Sweet Freedom has partnered with local microbreweries, wine shops and sommeliers to hold cheese-tasting events.
It also conducts cheesemaking classes in partnership with the University of Arkansas food and animal science departments and Midwest Dairy, which represents farms in the Midwest. Some of the more recent and upcoming hands-on classes include making ricotta for lasagna and creating paneer for paneer masala.
“This is low-key cheesemaking that people can do in their homes and use in dishes in their own kitchens,” says Keahey.
During the pandemic, Keahey pursued a sommelier career through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and she teaches wine pairing classes and beverage management at Brightwater, as well.
As its owner’s career evolved, so has Sweet Freedom’s cheese selection.
“I brought in cheeses I thought would sell well when we opened five years ago, but these were not moving. So today, we have a different case,” says Keahey. “Some varieties remained big sellers and fan favorites, and we also revisited some cheeses for those with more adventurous palates looking to try something they wouldn’t have five years ago.”
Although Sweet Freedom is in a transitional period within the space and market, the plan is to expand in the future.
“We’re holding our breath that we can do that over time,” says Keahey. “The things we did prior to the pandemic and after have really changed.”
For example, the shop reinstituted more in-person gatherings, and requests to do private events and catering are still on the rise.
“We saw that coming back in 2022, but we’re really seeing it ramp up this holiday season,” says Keahey. “We had the wildest Halloween ever, with more people purchasing cheese and cheese platters for parties.”
After offering pantry boxes during the pandemic by partnering with a local milk supplier and bread maker, this has transitioned into a monthly cheese club featuring smaller U.S. producers.
“We like to help other local businesses and try to be mindful where we’re putting our money,” says Keahey.
Sweet Freedom also does a big wholesale business.
“In northwest Arkansas, there is an incredible culinary scene that’s burgeoning,” says Keahey. “There are amazing chefs in the area who have traveled the world and come back to the state to start families or their own businesses.”
The shop holds its own with larger cheese wholesalers, as it doesn’t require minimums for orders.
“Chefs can purchase an ounce or 10 pounds of cheese,” says Keahey. “It’s nice to be a part of these wonderful dishes and cheese boards across northwest Arkansas and help guide chefs and introduce them to interesting cheeses.”
Keahey says the cheese industry is so versatile, those interested in becoming a part of it have many options. In addition to being a cheese monger, it’s possible to make a career out of being a cheese scientist, chef or writer.
“There are loads of ways to get into the industry; you just need a love of cheese and good humor, because people in the cheese industry are the kindest-hearted and some of the most fun folks out there,” says Keahey. “At the heart of it, my biggest advice to anyone thinking about following their dreams into cheese or otherwise is do it! Don’t bet your happiness in the here and now on the hopes you’ll always have the chance at sweet freedom in the distant future. Ideally, have a plan, do your research and be aware of the hard work and challenges involved, but don’t be haunted by the what ifs.”
For those interested in the retail side of the business, she recommends doing the research, finding a good location and understanding the wholesale and distribution sides.
“Running a cheese shop, one would think you’re at the case talking cheese with people and feeding them all day, but I spend more time doing everything from our complicated monthly sales tax reporting to P&Ls. While that’s a bit overwhelming, it also has been important to keeping the boat about water through a turbulent five years,” says Keahey. “There are many moving parts.”
She adds that it has been a privilege to evolve over time to meet the needs of the community and customers, and she is grateful to the cheese community at large.
“I’m excited to see what next year holds, as we have a few fun things in store,” says Keahey.