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Cowgirl Creamery's founders blend traits

SF Gate
The San Francisco Chronicle SF Gate

Knowing that Cowgirl Creamery's Sue Conley and Peggy Smith spend their days traveling the pastoral roads of West Marin dairy country, it's easy to imagine them as undergrads tooling around the country in the early 1970s.

It's a little harder, perhaps, to picture these stewards of the state's artisan cheese movement flipping burgers at a greasy college dive.

"We shared a bad job at this bar," remembers Smith, 60, chuckling as her light gray ponytail bobs gently behind her. For a measly $2.35 an hour, she said, they stuck around mostly for the free grub.

"She'd go to class while I worked," Smith said of Conley, 59. "And then she'd come back and I could go."

Four decades later, those collaborative skills have proven quite beneficial.

As the founders of Cowgirl Creamery, Conley and Smith have turned a small dairy business - a passion project, initially - into a multifaceted enterprise. Two cheese making facilities, three retail cheese shops spanning both coasts and a distribution arm mark the company's exponential growth since the women opened in 1997.

Cowgirl produces seven aged cheeses, two fresh cheeses and creme fraiche, which together account for about a third of their retail offerings. The remaining two-thirds is made up of cheeses from other small producers.

With cheese makers and dairy farmers continuing to draw on their expertise, Conley and Smith's original mission - to preserve local food and help sustain family farms - is going strong.

"We were always very sincere in our motive," said Conley, who moved to Point Reyes in 1989.

"It was the first dairy region in California because it was serving the Gold Rush population," Conley said, referring to the bucolic West Marin landscape of lush green grass. "It was kind of cut off from the world."

Distinctive personas

In the mid-1990s, just a handful of cheese makers were taking advantage of this "terroir." Now, there are more than two dozen.

Sitting across from one another in their Petaluma offices on a recent afternoon, Conley and Smith reflected on how the local cheese community - and their company - has flourished over the past 15 years.

They divide duties in the day-to-day operation. Conley handles the cheese making and marketing, while Smith oversees wholesale and retail. They overlap as necessary, both advocating for producers and educating young farmers and cheese makers.

But it's their distinctive personas that have gotten them this far. Conley, with her feathered cap of dark gray hair, is the more excitable risk-taker; Smith evens her out with a more conservative approach and an ability to think things through. They build off of - and correct - one another's sentences and stories. It's as if these roles were established a lifetime ago, solidified in a green Dodge Dart that swallowed miles as it crossed state lines.

Conley spent the first part of her life in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., one of six siblings born to Irish-Catholic parents. Smith was also raised in a large family - she is one of five children - in nearby Virginia. They met at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and would drive back and forth together.

But it was a road trip west after graduation in 1976 that led them to their career path. Their route included a stop in San Francisco.

"It was kind of exciting what was happening in the Bay Area, with Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters," said Smith. "Everybody knew each other then, and it wasn't competitive."

"There was a real movement afoot to cook in a more European style," Conley adds.

Though neither had a deep-seated passion for cooking, they came back a year later, eager to get involved in the restaurant industry.

For Conley, that meant school at San Francisco City College's restaurant program, working nights at a Basque restaurant and pensione in Chinatown called Obrero.

Diner an instant success

Later, Conley took a job at Fourth Street Grill in Berkeley, working under former Chez Panisse alums Mark Miller and Susie Nelson. But it was Bette Kroening, who trained her on the salad station, who would have the biggest impact.

"She and her husband, Manfred, had an idea for a restaurant, and they asked me if I would help," Conley recalled.

That "idea" turned into Bette's Oceanview Diner, a breakfast and lunch place on Berkeley's Fourth Street that bought directly from farmers and made everything by hand. It was an instant success, and Conley stayed there for 11 years before moving to Point Reyes.

Not surprisingly, Smith's path was much more focused.

"I only wanted to work at Chez Panisse," she said.

While Conley was hopping around the Bay Area, Smith was fervently trying to get a foot in the door at Alice Waters' culinary temple.

"I was just applying, applying, applying," Smith said.

Cheese company idea

When Chez Panisse's upstairs cafe opened in 1980, Smith finally got her chance. She stayed for the next 17 years - until an excited Conley pulled her away with an idea for a cheese company.

In Point Reyes, Conley had hooked up with Albert Straus, who was in the process of transitioning his family's dairy company to organic.

"It would be the first organic dairy in the West, and I thought that was really cool," Conley said. "Albert asked me if I could help him market the milk because I had this relationship with the food world of the Bay Area."

Realizing this wasn't enough to support herself, Conley collected a few other dairies in the area, and marketed the products as a group. She named it Tomales Bay Foods, pulling in Bellwether Farms, Redwood Hill and Matos, in addition to Straus.

When a barn in Point Reyes Station came up for sale, Conley turned to Smith to see if she wanted in.

"I called Peggy and said, 'It would be really cool to have Tomales Bay Foods actually in a place so people visiting out there, and our local people, would have access to local foods.' "

The building opened in 1997.

"We knew that we needed something to bring people in initially," Smith said, "and we could make good food." Also in the building were fresh local flowers from Peter Martinelli, a produce stand from Fresh Run farms, and bread from Tartine's Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt, who were living in Point Reyes at the time.

But with access to Straus' milk, Conley and Smith had even grander ideas.

"I think we both got caught up in the excitement of making something," said Conley, who acted as cheesemaker in the beginning.

Cowgirl Creamery was born, becoming the fifth element in the Tomales Bay Foods group.

"When they first started, I was supplying them with about 200 gallons a week," said Straus, president of his family's creamery. "Now it's closer to 5,000 gallons a week. That's a tenfold increase."

In addition to the creme fraiche, cottage cheese and fromage blanc that were Cowgirl's original products, the company now makes three aged varieties between their two facilities, in addition to a dedicated seasonal cheese.

Mistake becomes winner

They brought in a Dutch dairy scientist and cheese maker to build out the Point Reyes facility, where they began making a cheese they call Mt. Tam, modeled after a French triple cream with qualities of a young creamy Gouda.

Red Hawk came later by mistake, when a batch of Mt. Tam that wasn't working properly was put aside, only to emerge weeks later with a red-hued rind.

"Point Reyes has a specific bacteria called B. linens," said Michael Zilber, who runs the Point Reyes retail shop. "It's a specific cheese making bacteria, but it's prevalent in the air here."

So prevalent, in fact, that when Cowgirl grew to the point that a second - and much larger - facility opened in Petaluma, Point Reyes became the dedicated home for Red Hawk. It's the only cheese that's made at the original facility, and it can't be made elsewhere.

It's also the cheese that Conley and Smith believe put Cowgirl on the map when it won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society's annual conference in 2003 - the Academy Awards of cheese making.

Small producers a priority

Though Conley and Smith had previously only used Straus milk, the seasonal cheeses were created a few years ago as a way to help out local rancher John Taverna.

"I had just gotten certified organic, and it was bad timing," said Taverna, whose Jersey cows produce rich milk that's good for cheese. "The recession hit, and there was this flood of organic milk that people weren't buying."

Conley and Smith were the first to purchase his organic milk. They've taken me in like family," said Taverna, who talks about their visits to the farm to see the cows in action. "That's how they operate their company."

Helping smaller producers has been a priority since day one. It's why Conley and Smith started a distribution and wholesale arm to promote other producers. In 1998, they opened a small shop in San Francisco called Artisan Cheese, then closed that to open Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building about five years later. They've since opened a shop in Washington, D.C. - an East Coast hub that gives a greater presence to that region's small producers.

Most recently, they launched Sidekick in the Ferry Building - a fast-casual outlet that serves sandwiches and other cheese-based foods.

Artisan cheese expansion

Now, Cowgirl Creamery has more than 800 wholesale accounts, including restaurants and other retail shops. They stock 80 to 100 cheeses from other producers at their own stores, which has been instrumental in expanding the artisan cheese movement overall.

"Sue and Peg had a vision that made this all happen," Zilber said. "They believe in a rising tide raising all boats."

The women now live two blocks from one another in Petaluma, Conley with partner Nan Haynes, a retired park ranger who works in the Ferry Building cheese shop three days a week; and Smith with partner Sheryl Dobbins, a therapist who also spends one day working for Cowgirl. Also in the neighborhood is Cowgirl's head cheese maker Maureen Cunnie.

Though they live within walking distance of the Petaluma facility, neither would say life has slowed down much. They're working on a cookbook to be released next fall, and Conley is at her office in Point Reyes much of each week.

With such a large agenda, they're hardly ever in one place anymore. They may not be together in a beat up Dodge, but they wouldn't have it any other way.

By Amanda Gold