Bizwomen: Sisters return to family farm to craft artisan cheese

Todd Johnson | San Francisco Business Times
From left: Diana, Jill and Lynn Giacomini, owners of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company.

by Alisha Green, Reporter – San Francisco Business Times | Oct 12, 2018

Joining the world of cheesemaking was a big change for the Giacomini sisters — even though they grew up on a dairy farm where they returned to run as a cheese company for their parents.

The level of cameraderie surprised them. The specialty cheese business was having a rebirth at the time, with the rise of cheesemakers like Cowgirl Creamery and Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery. Rather than facing rivalry, the Giacomini sisters found abundant support among the other women-led cheese businesses in Northern California.

“The environment in the artisan cheese community was so supportive of young cheesemakers getting started and joining in that it was really kind of extraordinary for us, especially coming from our different business backgrounds where we hadn’t been used to that non-competitive nature,” said Jill Giacomini Basch, who serves as chief marketing officer for Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co in California. Lynn Giacomini Stray is the company’s chief operating officer, and Diana Giacomini Hagan is the chief financial officer.

The sisters knew they could call on the women leading other cheese businesses to talk about everything from purchasing equipment to which distributors and retailers to meet with.

“All of these women were really inspirational to us, and some of them became mentors of ours and now dear friends,” Giacomini Basch said.

The Giacominis have supported other women entering the business, with women making up more than half of their company’s staff of around 90 people.

Before starting Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. in 1999, none of the sisters had experience in the specialty food industry. So when they found their way back to the farm from their different career paths, they had to learn about cheesemaking, distribution and marketing at a time when the industry was “really just on the verge of exploding,” as Giacomini Stray said.

“That was about 18 months of work before we filled our vat with milk and made our first batch of Original Blue,” she said.

That blue cheese was the only thing the company sold for its first nine years, but it was a huge hit that helped Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. make a name for itself in the specialty cheese business. With a line of several cheeses now, including gouda and mozzarella, the company reached $11 million in revenue in the 2017 fiscal year.

Juliana Uruburu, retail director of Market Hall Foods in Oakland and Berkeley, remembered Giacomini Basch coming in to learn more about the existing range of blue cheeses as the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. worked to make sure its contribution would fill a niche. The resulting Original Blue, with its vibrant, tangy flavor, has always been a top seller in Market Hall Food’s blue cheese offerings, Uruburu said.

Sellers of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co.’s offerings point to the sisters’ personal style of business as a key to the company’s success.

In 2010, for example, the sisters launched The Fork as a culinary education center on the farm where chefs, retailers, distributors and now individual consumers can learn about the cheesemaking process and the company’s ethos.

Being able to visit The Fork has “countless” benefits as a retailer, said Sam Mogannam, founding partner of the Bi-Rite Family of Businesses, which has two markets in San Francisco.

“It becomes this pretty awesome synergy between the maker, the retailer and the consumer,” he said.

“They are a model in my opinion,” he added. “I have so much admiration for them.”

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. is on a growth streak, too: The sisters added a second creamery in January in nearby Petaluma, and they’re expanding the international reach of their cheeses by selling in Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. They’re working on bringing the products to other countries where they’re seeing growing demand.

That has retailers excited. As Uruburu put it: “Food like this just makes people happy.”