Only after working their way through some of San Francisco’s most famous kitchens and borrowing money from friends and family could Cowgirl Creamery’s married lesbian owners have ever achieved today’s success.
Cowgirl Creamery, owned by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, makes cheeses that are now sold to more than 500 stores, independent cheese shops, farmers' markets and restaurants, and nationally through Whole Foods Markets. The women also own and operate two creameries as well as four retail stores.
In 1976, after both completed degrees at the University of Tennessee, Conley and Smith took a trip to San Francisco. Smith was inspired and kept her eye on Chez Panisse while developing her cooking skills at places such as Noe Valley Bar and Grill in San Francisco, and Mount View Hotel in Calistoga. She had to submit her résumé a dozen times, but her persistence paid off. In 1979 she was hired to cook at Chez Panisse’s new upstairs Café.
Then for the next 17 years, Smith worked the stove, preparing dishes made from vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. Over time, she managed the Café kitchen with Catherine Brandel and cooked with Jean Pierre Mouile, Paul Bertoli, and David Tanis in the downstairs restaurant.
Meanwhile, Conley made her way into the kitchen, first under Bambi McDonald at Hotel Obrero in Chinatown and later, 4th Street Grill in Berkeley under Paul Bertoli. That’s where she met Bette, the namesake of their joint business venture, Bette’s Oceanview Diner. After 11 years of serving delicious everyday meals to an eclectic mix of Berkeley students, workers and neighbors, she sought a quieter pace, migrating to Point Reyes Station, with Smith along for the journey.
By the early 1990s, Conley and Smith launched Tomales Bay Foods, a marketing vehicle to help West Marin’s farms and dairies get their products into the hands of the Bay Area’s finest chefs. Their first location in downtown Point Reyes, featured a small cheese-making room at the entrance to the building. This was where the relationship with Ellen and Bill Straus materialized. Soon after, the idea of using milk from neighboring Straus Family Creamery came to be, and they began making delicious fresh cheeses.
Conley, 59, and Smith, 60, who are legally married in California and “happily out,” still prefer to keep their private lives private. “We are fortunate to live in a community that is open-minded and supportive of same-sex relationships, so being open about who we love was not an issue in starting our business,” said Conley.
The women had to overcome financing obstacles to start their business. Finding conventional financing was a major hurdle, but friends and family loaned them start-up money during the first few years. Later they were able to bring on investors in order to build a new creamery. After 10 years, Conley said, “Banks began to court us and we have been able to finance growth with bank loans.” They presently hold 80% of shares in their company. In addition to financing, the women had to deal with waiting on permits from two counties and the city of Petaluma. The average wait time according to Conley was three years.
Conley was introduced to StartOut after being invited to speak on a panel of food entrepreneurs at one of its San Francisco events. “The room was packed with engaged entrepreneurs and people with a dream to get started in the food business,” she said. They have both been engaged in events and networking ever since. “We have made a few new friends who might help us in the future,” she said. Networking and meeting others who can offer advice is one of the benefits of attending a StartOut event. “Go to an event and find a mentor or two to review your business plan,” suggested Conley to aspiring LGBT entrepreneurs.
Cowgirl Creamery is now remodeling its original creamery in Point Reyes and will be looking for a new facility in Petaluma for a 2014 move. The women are also writing a book about their business and will include recipes. The book will be released in the fall of 2013. There are currently 100 employees in three divisions; retail, wholesale distribution, and production of cheese.
For more information on StartOut, sign up for the monthly newsletter. This is a monthly series highlighting a successful business within the LGBT community that is involved with StartOut. The organization strives to educate, inspire and support entrepreneurs. It fosters LGBT leadership in the business community by including social programming opportunities, providing role models, connecting mentors, and promoting equality.