Four Fat Fowl is a family of maniacal cheese lovers with a commitment to making locally sourced, handcrafted cheeses in Stephentown, NY.
The genesis of the company goes back 10 years to 2013 when husband and wife Willy and Shaleena Bridgham decided to put their long-term dream of making cheese in motion.
“Four Fat Fowl started as a pipe dream thought up at a kitchen table during family dinners,” says Shaleena. “We dreamed and spitballed and laughed and eventually we actually pulled the trigger. Ten years later, it seems to have worked out pretty well. We’re still dreaming, spitballing and laughing.”
Willy, the master cheesemaker, has more than 25 years of artisanal cheese-making experience, while Shaleena, Four Fat Fowl’s sales director, has equal experience in her field and is a master of getting cheese in the mouths of cheese lovers around the U.S.
The couple got their start in the specialty cheese industry at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in 2000, working with sheep milk cheese.
A third crucial member of the team is Willy’s sister, Josie Madison, who serves as operations and finance director, handling everything from daily operations to strategic planning.
“Operating a family business has been one of the great joys and challenges of my life,” says Madison. “There are the business dynamics and there are the family dynamics, and both are extremely important. You simply can’t choose one over the other. I think we have each grown tremendously as business owners, but also as people and as siblings.”
Getting Up and Running
As a business, Four Fat Fowl started out small, and the family wondered if they would ever make a full vat of cheese.
“It was a 200-gallon vat at the beginning, and we only made about 60 gallons once or sometimes twice a week,” says Shaleena. “We were very excited the first time we were able to fill the vat, and to our astonishment, it was only about six months in. After about a year we were filling that vat twice a week.”
As the company grew, so did the days per week it made full vats of cheese. Now, 10 years later, they operate out of a 500-gallon vat.
“We are still amazed every day that we are lucky enough to be able to do this,” says Shaleena.
One of the big challenges from the beginning was finding and creating the space needed to operate.
“Our first space was a former pizza place that we rented,” says Madison. “We thought that space would last 10 years, and we were out of room in three. So then there was a building purchase and a renovation, which was a huge project to manage while also trying to make all the cheese we possibly could. And every time we expanded our space, we could make a little more cheese.”
The family members learned that scaling up a craft operation is a tricky business as there is a balance between quality and volume.
“We are very conscious of erring on the side of quality, even if it means less volume,” says Madison.
Over the years, the company added a few employees and are thrilled at the level it’s reached.
“We are a small team of six and care about each other, and have a hard-working, quirky, caring team and because of that we have a happy work environment,” says Shaleena. “We are a funky bunch. Each of us has our own quirkiness and brings something different to the table, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Since the company is committed to making locally sourced cheese that it can be proud of, it was only fitting that the name be locally sourced as well. The city of Stephentown has a rich history going back to the Colonial era. In the 17th century, the Dutch colonized the Hudson Valley and established a system of landholding called patroonship.
The patroon acted as the landlord to tenants who rented land to live on and farm. Stephentown was named after Stephen Van Rensselaer, the last patroon of the patroonship that now comprises Rensselaer County. His tenants called him the “Good Patroon” because he was lenient in collecting rent, which included a day’s labor, 10-20 bushels of wheat per hundred acres, and “four fat fowl.” This history gave the company the perfect name for their group.
Cheese of Choice
Four Fat Fowl’s first entry into the cheese realm was its St. Stephen, a delicious triple cream using local milk and cream.
“It was our one and only cheese for six or seven years and brought a great big smile to the face of many cheese lovers,” says Shaleena. “In its first year on the market, it won a SOFI award and took first place at the New York State Fair. Just recently, it took grand championship at the New York State Fair and gold in its category.”
Today, the company makes two cheeses, with CamemBertha hitting the market about three years ago. In 2013, it took first place at the American Cheese Society conference and won a silver at the New York State Fair.
“We are very proud of both cheeses and are looking forward to developing a new cheese in the future,” says Shaleena. “We recently implemented some new equipment on our creamery floor which created some changes with our processes and the wheel size, but change is necessary to keep up in the industry and we’ve gotten better over the years and handling them.”
The company has attracted a loyal following and a strong reputation for its award-winning cheeses.
“We are known primarily for really badass cheese,” says Madison. “But I think we are also known as a business that does business well. We interact personally with our customers, and we take customer service really seriously. We made a commitment very early on to never let anyone have a less-than-perfect experience with our products, and I think we have made good on that promise.”
There is also a certain amount of quirk that those running Four Fat Fowl are known for and that has added to its popularity.
“Each of us is quite a character in real life, and I think that comes out in the way we market our products and operate our business,” says Madison.
For Love of Family
For Madison, joining the venture is one of the greatest decisions she ever made, as being part of a family business is a joy.
“Every year when Willy and Shaleena go on vacation, I cover for them,” she says. “So this means that, on top of my own work, I also have to work on the production floor and fill all the orders for the week. It’s a lot to manage, but I actually look forward to it because it reminds me how much goes on here and what a tremendous amount of work we all do to keep it running.”
Madison recalls one year when they were away when there was a lot of flooding in the area, so the creamery basement was knee-deep with water.
“I had to do all of it while also researching, purchasing, and operating a variety of sump pumps, calling in help from our family, friends, community and local businesses,” she says. “At the time, it was like an actual nightmare. But when I look back on it now, it brings me so much happiness to think of the way so many people pitched in to help and the fact that I learned quite a bit about plumbing. And it was in service of my brother and sister-in-law taking a much-needed vacation. To me, it’s like a little snapshot of what a family business is, the values it holds dear, and the way it brings people together to figure things out.”
A Thriving Business
The secret of the company’s success, Shaleena says, can be boiled down to “a busload of stick-to-it-ivness and a cart-full of crazy,” and she credits the commitment of the owners to each other and the business during the good times and bad times as keeping it thriving through its first decade.
“We work every day toward sustainability and reducing our carbon footprint,” she says. “As we grow, it is our goal to make sure we are doing everything we can to be responsible to the environment.”
Madison adds that to be a success, it takes hard work, “but more than that, it takes a commitment to yourself and to the people you work with to do your very best. I think it takes values to succeed.”
Thinking back to those dinners discussing the possibility of opening a cheese business, Shaleena shares that she’s so glad that they took a chance and followed their dream.
“Cheese makes people happy,” she says. “It brings us joy to make people happy with our cheese. We love what we do and when we see people enjoying the fruits of our labor, it makes our day brighter.”
Looking ahead, the company plans on doing more of the same to keep its customers happy.
“As a business, our goal has always been to make really good cheese that we want to eat ourselves,” says Madison. “So, we’d like to keep doing more of that. We have also made it a goal to work toward increasing sustainability in the way we operate. We are always exploring ways to reduce our carbon footprint and to take responsibility for doing whatever we can to combat global warming. We think it’s really important for businesses to take that responsibility on and take it seriously.”
And, as a family business, the goals for the future very much include the health and happiness of all involved — both themselves and the people who work for them.
“It was all for nothing if we can’t take care of that,” says Madison. “At the end of the day, we love what we do. Cheese brings people together, and we could use more of that in the world.”