THERE’S A CHINESE PROVERB ABOUT A JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND MILES THAT BEGINS WITH A SINGLE STEP. In this case, one young woman’s travels in France inspired the birth of Vermont Creamery, an iconic cheese company that helped shape America’s palate for goat cheese and cultured dairy products.
“It was the most improbable success,” declares Allison Hooper, with her straightforward New England clarity. The company she founded in 1983 with Bob Reese was a completely new concept, with no context in the American food world.
“Here I was, a 24-year-old woman in a predominantly male industry at a time when no self-respecting farmer would ever milk a goat,” she laughs. “All good cheese came from Europe and being an American artisanal cheesemaker was a joke. My college classmates thought it was really weird.”
The vision for the company’s pro-duct line reflects Hooper’s personal wanderings in France and her passion for the delicious potential of goat cheese. Over the last three decades, this pioneering company has ripened into a profitable, sustainable and well respected business whose products and ethos continue to revolutionize cheesemaking in America.
At the end of her junior year studying in Paris, Hooper wanted to stay on for an extra semester. Without money or working papers, she needed something to do over the summer. Inquiries through an organic farmers association led to a summer milking goats, fencing and haying, and making cheese on a dairy farm in Brittany in exchange for room and board.
“I had a certain adventurous desire but, at the same time, I was so not in the flow of what people my age were doing,” she says. “In 1981 when I graduated from college, there was a rush to graduate school, professional school and Wall Street. There was this rush for financial success and, not only did I not have the skills at all — I didn’t think I was smart enough to do any of those things — it didn’t suit me at all.”
Instead, she headed back to France for a different farm experience, this time in the Haute Alps in the Ardeche, home of Picodon, a little, round goat cheese with a ripened exterior.
The styles of cheese and cultured dairy products she encountered during these early travels made quite an impression that would influence the products she’d later recreate in Vermont: cultured butter, crème fraîche, fresh chèvre and ripened goat cheeses.
Goat Cheese In The USA
Shortly after her return to the U.S., she wandered up to Vermont. “I went to Shelburne Farms and suggested they get goats and they looked at me like I had two heads,” she laughs.
A county agriculture inspector told her about a small commercial goat dairy in nearby Brookfield, and soon she was milking the goats and working in the lab at the Agency of Agriculture in Montpelier during the day.
It was there that she met Bob Reese who, at the time, was marketing director for the Department of Ag. He was searching for goat cheese — which was practically unknown at the time — for the French chef preparing the Vermont Restaurateur of the Year dinner.
As luck would have it, someone at the agency knew Hooper had made goat cheese in France, and introduced the two. The cheese was served to great acclaim and, over dinner, Hooper and Reese discussed the possibility of making cheese commercially.
“It was great because he had all the business sense, an MBA, and was trolling for an idea in the food business and here I was with this cheesemaking idea. It was a great marriage of skillsets,” she recalls.
Each brought $1,200 to the table and they secured a few ag loans to get started. Looking back, Hooper calls it naive. They began with chèvre but sales at the local farmer’s market met with little success.
To service their loan monthly, they needed improved cash flow and added a cow’s milk product to the mix. “The easiest thing to do was to make fresh chèvre and crème fraîche — two very esoteric and specialized cheeses in those days.”
“It was a very small and targeted market,” she says. “At the time, people didn’t buy cheese at farmers markets and they certainly didn’t buy goat cheese. We were quickly going out of business and decided we had to go to New York where French chefs are going to know about these products.”
They sold just enough to squeak by, growing sales chef by chef, a little more each year. It would be six years before the company would turn a profit but there was no turning back.
“There was never a point we could say ‘oh well, this isn’t working’ because we had to pay the loans. We signed personally and Bob had a house and a mortgage and a family, so we rattled along,” recalls Hooper.
Through the ‘long slog’ as she calls it, they were guided by the belief in their products. “We knew people would eat them if they knew about them. I love this cheese and this fabulous butter and crème fraîche and just knew we were going to get there.”
The company grew slowly, adding a few key hires over time and bringing on a farm or two for increased milk supply. By the mid-1990s, the company was more established and had added their signature cultured butters to the product line.
In 1996, the creamery was awarded the Vermont Small Business of the Year award, putting the company and its products in front of a larger audience.
Around that same time, a small cheese festival was held at Shelburne Farms. As one of the organizers, Hooper recalls many people saying “Wow, we didn’t know people were making cheese in Vermont.” She realized she had to try and raise awareness about the creamery.
The timing couldn’t have been better, she says. “Lots of things were happening at the same time — cheese was just one aspect of the interest in artisanal production and interest in authentic food. We weren’t intentional and smart enough to think about our trajectory. It all kind of happened by accident.”
Even so, their business was guided by core beliefs of fairness and quality, which continue to reflect in the business today. “Bob and I approached our problem solving based on common sense, being decent to farmers and customers and trying to make the best cheese we could. Those were the principles that guided everything.”
A New Kind Of Goat Cheese
Around the year 2000, Hooper began experimenting with a signature line of cheeses and one that she loved: a wrinkly, lactic goat cheese that was unlike anything else being done at the time.
“These are the cheeses we made on the farm in France. When you make a fresh goat cheese with raw milk and you put it in an aging room, it’s going to grow a wrinkly, geotrichum rind.”
“They’re delicious. I love that yeasty, wonderful flavor. It really stuck with me,” she says. “They’re hard to make and there’s no way we could have done those from the get go. There was no context for selling something like that in the states.”
She made a couple of trips to France to learn and had some early success, including an award at the American Cheese Society in 2001. Long-term success would remain elusive for some time.
“I played around and got them to the point where I felt like we had something and people wanted to buy them, but it was the rigor that Adeline brought to the operation that allowed us to perfect them and get them into the market in the way we wanted to.”
Adeline Druart, a French cheese technician, joined the company as an intern in 2003. For her master’s project, she designed a small addition to the creamery to make the cheeses, a project that took three years to plan, finance and build.
When production began in 2006, they “ran into all kinds of problems with the recipe. It took us six years to perfect the cheese and packaging. We battled blue mold and the American market just couldn’t deal with blue mold at the time. Finally we got it all figured out and the cheese really started to take off.”
The line has been so well received that the original aging room was packed to the gills. In summer 2014, a 14,000-square-foot annex was added to fulfill growing demand.
Three or four years ago, with the demand for goat cheese growing and the milk supply not keeping up, the idea for Ayers Brook Goat Dairy was born. “While we were doing well in the business,” recalls Hooper, “our farmers were absolutely struggling.”
They decided to get into the dairy game, buying an old cow dairy on a beautiful piece of land about 30 minutes from the creamery and got started with a herd of goats. Hooper’s son Miles is one of the managers of the farm.
Cheese With A Mission
“We want to do it right and be an open book to show farmers who are interested in getting into this: this is what the capital costs are, this is what these animals eat, this is how we increase milk production,” she says.
A partnership with a feed co-op in France provides technical advice on everything from crop production to rations to breed-ing programs. “We’d like to see another 10 farms in Vermont do this same thing. If we can show an enterprise budget and model that works, I think we will get investors who care about working land to help young farmers get into business.
“If you come out of college today and want to farm, forget about it, unless you inherit a farm from your parents. We’ve got to try to put the whole picture together for the next generation who is passionate about agriculture that’s done right.”
As the company looks forward, leaving a legacy to the next generation of leaders led to reorganization as a B Corp, or benefit corporation. This forward-looking corporate structure looks beyond profit as a sole motive; in a B Corp, positive social and environmental impact is given equal weight.
“It was important to both Bob and I that we don’t let EBITA drive all our business decisions. Now that we are feeling some success, we needed to circle back and say, okay, what is a living wage? We should pay that. We need to provide paid maternity and paternity leave. If we are building new, we need to do things with renewables. We have to make long-term investments and measure our carbon. We have to do all this because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s a branding opportunity.”
“Becoming a B Corp is a compass that keeps us focused and drives us to think about these things,” she observes. Each year, recertification becomes more difficult and requires companies to think of new ways to improve and do more.
“Now we have a committee that meets regularly. It’s great because the people on the committee are pushing the envelope. It’s the kind of leadership we want to develop in the business. We want people who are always thinking about the mission and being thoughtful about everything we do.”
Awareness and Awards
Through the years, the company has won dozens of ribbons and awards for its products. In the past 15 years, in particular, there have been many new arrivals to the playing field. The goat cheese category has grown from unheard of to stratospheric heights, supported by a rising tide of consumer awareness, driven in large measure by the Millennials who really “get” it.
The years of touting the benefits of artisanal cheeses, made from high quality ingredients and using traditional techniques has been part of the younger generation in their formative years.
“This generation of customers who love what we do, where have they been all these years?” she laughs. “They swoon over artisanal foods, have an appreciation of high value and care about environment and social justice and all the things that we do every day.”
“When we interview new employees, I feel they’re interview-ing me, to make sure that our business is good enough, that we are doing all the right things. It’s like — ‘wait a minute, who’s getting the job here?’ — which is great. These young people absolutely keep you honest.”
When asked about the awards that have meant the most to her, she points to two: The 2nd Best of Show for Bonne Bouche at the American Cheese Society (ACS) in 2010, and the 2015 Good Food Award for their aged series: Coupole, Cremont and Bonne Bouche.
Top honors at ACS brought a groundswell of community support. “We felt such warmth in the industry, that people in the trade were really cheering for us. It was nice because you could really tell that customers saw how hard we worked on the cheese.”
The Good Food Award resonates with her because “it’s an award that looks at our whole business. It’s not based only on the taste of the cheese, but looks at our philosophy and approach to the food, farm and employees.”
It’s fitting that she would single out these awards as they represent the twin ethos of community and social responsibility at the heart of the business from the beginning.
As the company sets sail into the next 30 years, it is clear that the “improbable success” which grew from those early wander-ings in France will continue to inspire more cheese lovers with whatever comes next! CC