A Cheese Calling

Kurt Beecher Dammeier, founder, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, Seattle

Sometimes it is a particular destination that determines an entrepreneur’s journey. Such was the case for Seattle’s Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Even before having a business plan, founder Kurt Beecher Dammeier knew where he wanted his cheese company to be based.

“I decided I wanted to start a cheese company, and it was the day before Christmas in 2002 as I was doing extensive shopping at Seattle’s Pike Place Market when I saw the empty space available,” he recalls. “I had an epiphany, got in my car and called to lease the space right away.”

He knew that the market, which had a special place in his heart, would be a cool place to make cheese. He was right, and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese opened its doors in 2003.

“I had been thinking we’d open a cheese company in Woodinville or on a farm but I decided to do it in the market since it’s so central,” Dammeier says. “Spaces like that don’t become available often.”

It paid off. Beecher’s Flagship Reserve cheese has become iconic, winning numerous American Cheese Society Awards, with five of Beecher’s entries being honored in 2019.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Dammeiere about his background, the history of Beecher’s and the artisan cheese industry as a whole.

CC: How did you start your
cheesemaking journey?

KBD: I went to Washington State University, which is an agriculture school that makes Cougar Gold cheese. I called and signed up for the three-day short course on cheesemaking. At the lunch break on the first day, I went up to the class organizer and said the class has been really valuable but I learned all that I could learn and that was that I was not going to be the one making the cheese. It is far different than cooking and involves way more chemistry, is technical and needs far more specialized training. Then and there, my thoughts that I would be a cheesemaker were dashed.

CC: How did you go about creating the company?

KBD: After I realized I wouldn’t be making the cheese myself, I found a recruiter and hired an experienced cheesemaker. Then it was time to find milk, which I thought would be the easy part but it was the hardest. All milk in this area was being sold to coops, and they wouldn’t sell us milk. There was one little dairy farm in Monroe, WA, called Cherry Valley Farms that was willing to sell us milk. The farm had to drop out of the coop to do so and, therefore, it was a risk for them. But it had an upside, too, because they were food pioneer type people who thought what we were doing was cool. Once we had our milk, we had to decide what type of cheese we’d make.

CC: Your process was a bit unorthodox in developing your signature cheese.

KBD: We went all around the Seattle area and bought all the cheeses we could find, then sat down with our cheesemaker. With a conference table filled with cheese, we tried them all, talked about the pluses and minuses, along with the difficulty in making it and how we’d do it. We centered on Cougar Gold, and this was not intentional, but it was an interesting blend of clearly premium but ubiquitously likeable cheese; and that’s what we modeled our flagship cheese after.

CC: Describe Beecher’s main cheese.

KBD: We are known for Flagship, which is patterned after Washington State’s Cougar Gold. It’s a cheddar-style cheese that has adjunct Swiss cultures. Our cheese ultimately has a signature flavor of browned butter. This is a cheddared cheese made from our proprietary, signature blend of Jersey and Holstein milk, which we think makes a big difference. It’s aged two years. Even though our cheese is technically a cheddar, it has adjunct cultures that make it like Swiss or Gruyére so it’s really a cross between a rich cheddar and a nutty finish reminiscent of Gruyére. It’s short in the parlance of cheesemaking so it is super crumbly. And because of the Swiss cultures, Flagship expresses a great deal of calcium. It also has really awesome and frequent tyrosine crystal formations. This cheese has a lower acidity than typical cheddar, which makes it ideal for cooking, and it is really wine friendly. Cheddars typically aren’t good wine pairing cheeses but our Flagship is probably the best for wine pairing.

CC: But the cheese and shop didn’t catch on right away.

KBD: It was slow going at first. We made 20,000 pounds of cheese the first year, and people did not throng to our store. It was slow the first couple years and took a while for people to understand what we were. There was a big boom in artisan cheese that began after we started the business. The years from 2006 to 2016 were booming days of artisan cheese, with sales growing 15-20% a year. When we first went into Seattle grocery stores, the fanciest cheese was Jarlsberg. Now it’s a vastly different landscape but also not growing anymore. It’s a mature market and won’t expand until it’s in more geographies for people to love it. Typical coasts and places where foodies are is where it’s happening, but the trend hasn’t gone into the general public yet. There may be a second wave of artisan cheese if that happens, like with coffee.

CC: You have a unique approach to cheesemaking. How does it differ?

KBD: I had gone into cheesemaking with the idea to approach it in a less fussy way, looking at it more like beer than wine. What I was trying to do was show people they should be interested in a better cheese for everyday use rather than a fancy cheese they eat on a Friday night cheese board. The truth is, in the Seattle area, if you had asked anyone at the time what’s the local cheese they’d say Tillamook, which is from southern Oregon. When I was growing up, Tillamook made cheese in small, open vats. It had character, was more crumbly and shorter but now the company has morphed into more of being a commodity cheesemaker. To make it in the emotional heart of Seattle, you have to convince Seattleites they would be interested in your product. They’ve embraced locally-made bread, coffee and beer, and I was convinced they’d embrace artisan cheese, which was just taking off at the time.

CC: What is your marketing strategy for your cheeses?

KBD: From the start, one of the things we did was show people how to use our cheese since this wasn’t the type to eat in little bites. We started making mac and cheese and grilled cheese to sell hot. This wasn’t a grand strategy, but we sell more mac and cheese now than we do cheese. Our company’s basic idea in food is premiumization: to find something where we can make an entry into a category, something that is demonstrably better, and something people will pay more for. Our company is about using no chemicals, and the other part is we make things as good as we can and charge what it takes to do that rather than the other way around. We do this rather than setting a price point and seeing what we can do with that. It has been a successful strategy for us.

CC: Talk about the expansion of Beecher’s.

KBD: As we sold more cheese, we realized we needed more production due to demand. I am in love with New York City, so I had this crazy idea to check into whether it would work for us to make cheese in the middle of New York like we do in Seattle. We did the math, and it did work, even though rent is super high. There is a marketing benefit to making our cheese in front of people. It made sense so we did it. In 2010, we built a cheese factory bigger than the one at Pike Place Market, at 20th and Broadway in Manhattan. From there, we opened our store at Sea-Tac Airport in 2012, then we built a site at Bellevue Square Mall in Bellevue, WA, six years ago. About three years ago, we opened a retail site at Paine Field Airport in Everett, WA. And in 2021, we expanded to a site at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. We now have six retail stores including Pike Place, with four in the Seattle area and two in New York. All are retail and foodservice, but we don’t have cookie cutter locations so items sold are slightly different as well as the stores themselves. And Pike Place Market is strict on what we can sell. For example, we can’t sell t-shirts with our name on it since we have to be strictly what we are, a cheese shop.

CC: Your New York City site on 20th and Broadway also includes a restaurant.

KBD: That is our only site with a full-service restaurant, and it also has a cocktail lounge called The Cellar. It’s a big deal. We offer a full cheese-centric tapas menu with items like fish, steak, salad and cheese plates, in addition to our grilled cheese and mac and cheese.

CC: Beecher’s has expanded into frozen foods, as well. What was the process for this?

KBD: In the early 2000s, local grocers asked us to sell our mac and cheese in their stores. So, in 2007, we went into supermarkets with our mac and cheese. It is a high price point compared to everything else but people bought it and loved it. We were already geared for making this move using our prepared food manufacturing facility. It was popular right out of the gate. I wrote a cookbook and went on Martha Stewart’s show, doing a cooking segment with her twice. Then we were chosen as one of Oprah’s favorite things for her last show. It was very good for business; our mac and cheese blew up. COVID was beneficial for our company, as people were spending more and stocking up on restaurant-quality foods to eat at home. Today, our mac and cheese is sold in supermarkets in every state in stores like Whole Foods and Target. This side of the business is growing rapidly. We offer 12 different frozen entrées or side dishes. Beecher’s mac and cheese is the number-one-selling product in the natural/organic grocery freezer category. Much of our growth is on that side.

CC: What are you most optimistic about with American artisan cheeses?

KBD: From the beginning in 2003, I had this idea that I wanted to promote American cheeses, which were not thought well of in 2003. If you went to the American Cheese Society Conference and tasted cheeses, these weren’t that impressive. But today American cheesemaking is equal to or better than Europe; we came of age. When I opened Beecher’s, I wanted to elevate ours and others’ cheeses. Early on, I had 100 cheeses for sale and 75 of them were not ours. They were all made west of the Mississippi and as local as they could be. In 2003, it was hard to find 75 cheeses that we wanted to sell, but by 2012, it was the opposite where it was difficult to pick between the awesome cheeses. So many cheesemakers started up making amazing cheeses. While in the beginning I picked the cheeses, now I have a lead cheesemonger that chooses them.

CC: What is the foundation of a good cheese shop?

KBD: One of the things we talk about is really what we’re selling and that is trust. You have to create trust and earn it, because consumers trust that their next purchase will be what you say it is. We keep that front and center and work hard to be very transparent about our business practices and who and what we are. We hold trust sacred and don’t make decisions to put that trust at risk. I think of my company as a 100-year company because any short-term gain pales over the value of trust over 100 years. My kids may not work for Beecher’s but they’ll own it. I would bet a lot of money that Beecher’s will be just like it is with multiple generations of my family owning it. That’s what I set out to create. I grew up in a family business, and they are great ownership structures and tend to deliver value to all stakeholders, whether owners, customers or the community.

CC:  You’ve set up a foundation under the company’s name. How does that work?

KBD: We designate 1% of our sales to the Beecher’s Foundation. This is a curriculum for fourth graders that educates them on our food system. We enlighten and educate students about the fact that labels aren’t always true. We’ve had 180,000 kids go through the class. During the pandemic, we pivoted to doing it partially online and partially in person. Our goal is to get to every fourth grader in the U.S. with our program, as 25% of kids that go through our class make a substantial change in their eating habits. They read labels and pay better attention to what they put in their bodies. It’s something we’re proud of at Beecher’s.

CC: Did your plan for Beecher’s come to fruition?

KBD: Ultimately, we became the cornerstone of Pike Place Market. Much of the traffic going there is going to see Beecher’s, and it warms my heart. Operating in that prominent location feels personally to me like a sacred trust, like I’m borrowing it from the public. It is a place that is revered, and I take that seriously. We care that we’re operating in a place that is so central.

CC: What is your plan moving forward? KBD: The goal is to be proud of our product, and we stated our mission is to change the way Americans eat. This was a novel idea in 2003, and that conversation has come so far. It was strange then and isn’t now. We’d like to open more cafés but don’t have a plan to do it. We really like airports, since you get a constant stream of new people you’re exposing your brand to, but we don’t yet have a strategic plan. Our base plan is to continue to do fun things and make awesome food that we’re really proud of. Our mantra is if we can’t make it better than others in that category then we shouldn’t do it. We want to be the best and move the ball forward.

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