As we celebrate American cheese makers across the country, we’re putting a spotlight on Capriole, a goat cheese powerhouse that’s been producing award-winning cheeses under the leadership of famed cheese maker and Capriole founder Judy Schad since the 1980s. Murray’s Chief Strategy Officer Elizabeth Chubbuck sat down with Judy to talk classic American artisanal cheeses, the challenges being overcome by Capriole, and the future of cheesemaking during the current climate.
You have been a cornerstone in the American artisan cheese movement for decades. Prior to this crisis, what was one of the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome it?
Have been called an institution and a pioneer, so I like cornerstone better! The initial challenge was to get people to try goat cheese, then to make the unique cheeses I and customers loved—primarily based on the Loire Valley chevres, and then to stick with what I loved and improve on it. I think it takes many years to do that and our cheeses are very unique in their own categories. The rinds and texture of the ripened chevres very light, the aged cheeses higher in moisture and not typically heavy on the goat flavors.
What were some of the biggest challenges you and the creamery have faced when the pandemic hit? How did you navigate those challenges?
Our market was primarily food service, single owner shops, and very specialized cheese cases, so like many others, at least 70% of our business disappeared over night, and distributors were left with large inventories of perishable cheese. With NO orders coming in we were unable to buy the usual amount of spring milk from our 2 farmers, pay a full staff, etc. and decided to close down temporarily. That was a big mistake. In spite of a lot of follow up we still have customers who think we are not producing cheese. We also applied for and received the PPP and after a few weeks brought creamery staff back at hazard pay. March-April we received ½ the amount of milk as usual but continued to pay our farmers for some of the milk we didn’t receive. My heart went out to them as I remember well what a difficult time of year this is for all dairymen, but especially goat farmers. We began to broaden our customer base and while the weather was cool, do more mail order.
Have there been any positive changes to in the creamery or your operations as a result of the pandemic, will those changes will be lasting?
Yes, some employees, including our head cheesemaker, left for other jobs. Others stepped up and new team members were hired. The result has been a more innovative, independent, and dedicated staff eager to express and implement their ideas. I think it will be lasting. Our farmers are also grateful for our willingness to support them as much as possible during the downturn and feel, I think, a vital part of our team.
What was one blessing in disguise during this challenging time?
I believe it was the reshuffle of employees and losing our head cheesemaker. We’re still shuffling to pick up some of those pieces, but attitudes in the creamery are much more positive.
How has the current climate in our country impacted demand for your cheeses? Which ones are the most sought-after right now?
By May, both retail and end customers began to tire of the long hold, aged cheeses that stores were cautiously stocking. The demand for fresh and ripened cheeses began to increase. Distributors began to re-order in May, even though we lost our local/regional sales when the Kentucky Derby was canceled.
Can you tell us an uplifting story about how the Capriole team, or the industry, or your community showed up to support you and the creamery through this challenging time?
I was amazed at how friends stepped up to send mail orders sometimes 3 & 4 times. One of our farmers posted our mail order info and generated some orders.
Personally, how do you see the future of American cheese making changing after the pandemic?
I feel that direct customer sales will increase as customers have grown accustomed to having home deliveries. That’s why we need more customers like you. Our creamery is tiny and we utilize every foot of space. Mail order requires more space than we have. Also, the pandemic is far from over and feel it will continue to reoccur until there is a vaccine. Restaurants will close temporarily and some permanently. Life will change, perhaps for years. How that will impact cheese making is hard to assess.
If there were one message you wanted American cheese lovers to hear about how to support American cheese makers, what would that be?
There’s not a lot to be proud of in the general direction our country has taken in the current political environment, but hopefully we are learning to appreciate the value of small businesses and our own artisans. We may be the only country in the western world that continues to value imports as much or more than our own artisan cheese producers. I hope that changes during this pandemic, because I guarantee that customers in Asti, Paris, or London are not concerned about whether they can get their Capriole, Rogue, or Grafton.
You are an incredibly strong, tenacious woman with a vision for impact in the world around you. What is your message of hope for the cheese industry today?
Basically what I mentioned above, that generally there will be more emphasis on the value in the US of its small businesses and quality artisan products.
Which of your cheeses are you loving most right now and why?
That changes almost daily but at the moment it’s Piper’s Pyramide, Flora, and Julianna. The Piper because of its shape and size ripens the most uniformly, and the Flora is just an ideal retail size. Julianna is everyone’s favorite.
What is your favorite “guilty pleasure” cheese? (Mine is a grilled cheese made with kraft singles on white bread.)
Your choice is mine as well! And a great cottage cheese. I really do love the light, fresh cheeses across the board, especially this time of year!