Lessons from Mystic Cheese
Last year, I came across a term that’s been orbiting my mind: rural entrepreneur. It’s a term that Heather Paxton uses in The Life of Cheese when she describes visiting artisan cheesemakers as an anthropologist to document the growing cheese renaissance in the U.S.
I adore Paxton’s book, and I love the idea that curds are part of a new entrepreneurial counterculture. Forget Silicon Valley, hello hillsides!
Brian Civitello of Mystic Cheese is one such rural entrepreneur. You may remember, I wrote about Sea Change, his “English major cheese,” earlier this year (it’s named after a Shakespeare quote). I’ve also written about Melville — after Moby Dick. After eating so many literary allusions, it was time to visit the source.
Where to begin? I was fascinated by so many aspects of Brian’s enterprise. By his business model. By his spaceship-like “cheese pod” (pictured above) which he built out of shipping containers. By his off-road approach to marketing.
Brian’s thinking is unlike any cheesemaker I’ve interviewed. His ideas are culled from 17 years of making cheese in the U.S. and Italy before launching his own business — a one-man cheese making operation sited on a Connecticut dairy farm, where he rents space next to 500 cows.
“Last month, we moved 5,500 pieces of cheese out of 320 square feet,” he told me when I visited in August. Amazing.
Lessons from Brian Civitello
1. If you’re a start-up, consider launching with a fresh cheese.
Brian says: “Our Melville can be out the door in 3 days.” While many cheesemakers want to start out making aged cheeses, Brian points out that sales in fresh cheese can help a dairy start-up get off the ground. Fresh cheeses also require less space since they don’t require long aging times.
2. Don’t overlook non-cheese retailers — like country stores.
One of Brian’s best accounts is a country store on I-95, where the owner loves to shoot the breeze with his customers about Brian’s cheese — the only cheese in the shop. Now, locals and tourists make a special stop for Brian’s cheese — which is good for the store and for Brian’s business.
3. Reconsider being a cheese-plate-only cheese.
Brian sells to both pubs and high-end restaurants. “I want to be on a menu, but I never want to be on a cheese plate — I’m the opposite of everyone else,” he laughs. Cheese plates at restaurants change all the time, he explains, but gastropubs tend to stick by cheeses and turn them into fan favorites. To grow his business, Brian reaches out to a wide range of restaurants and offers up recipes and menu ideas that he’s devised in his own kitchen. He also gives chefs a discount if they mention his brand on the menu.
The upshot: Brian’s approach to cheese making strikes me as an intriguing model for aspiring cheese makers. He’s worked hard to make his operation as economical and efficient as possible. He also knows how to create a market for his cheeses — reaching out to retailers that might be off the map for other makers. I look forward to following his entrepreneurial footsteps.