It’s hard to imagine the artisan cheese movement of the North Bay without the dynamic duo of Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, two college friends hailing from the Washington, D.C. area who opened the Cowgirl Creamery in 1997 in a renovated barn in Point Reyes Station.
Now, 20 years later, the pioneering Cowgirl Creamery and its marketing sidekick, Tomales Bay Foods — a trifecta of cheese production, distribution and retail — has become a sturdy and reliable link in the California cheese chain, boasting two retail shops, two creameries, a staff of nearly 100 people and a line of award-winning products that includes 10 different types of cheeses made exclusively from the Northern California “milkshed.”
Over time, Cowgirl Creamery came to mean something much larger than making great cheese, however. It was the fire that fueled the entire artisan cheese movement, starting with the food revolution of the Bay Area and ending with the renaissance of the dairy industry along the North Coast.
“The community (came) together around the idea of forming an appellation, of centering West Marin’s regional identity around dairy farming and cheese,” Smith and Conley wrote in their 2013 cookbook, “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “Contrary to popular belief, the cheese does not stand alone, and neither does the cheesemaker.”
Now the region is dotted with 28 cheesemakers and the Cowgirls can claim international bragging rights, having won many awards and served on multiple boards, from the Marin Agricultural Land Trust to the California Artisan Cheese Guild. They were both inducted into the Guilde des Fromagers in 2010.
Like Redwood Hill Farm and Creamery in Sebastopol and Cypress Grove Chevre in Arcata, Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods was sold to Swiss dairy company Emmi in 2016, but its founders have continued to steer the business toward innovation and growth. Now getting ready to open a new creamery in Petaluma, Cowgirl Creamery hopes to supply their fans with a steady supply of cheese for the next 20 years, ranging from the buttery Mt. Tam and the pungent Red Hawk to the seasonal St. Pat and the return of its cottage cheese.
While getting ready to speak at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival in Petaluma this weekend, Conley took a nostalgic look back on the past 20 years and talked about some of the inspiring people and places that led the two friends to leave their kitchens — Smith worked at Chez Panisse, while Conley was one of the founders of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley — to start their wild West adventure in cheese.
Q: You first arrived in the Bay Area in 1976 during the food revolution. How did that influence your career?
A: I don’t think our career could have happened anywhere else … what we were able to do and all the education and collaboration along the way. We did have a business in Washington, D.C., for eight years. We meant for it to be a mirror of our business here, which is three equal parts: retail, wholesale distribution and the production of cheese.
That’s what gives it its energy and success. We needed to be all of it because we couldn’t distribute our cheese. It’s hard to get it out there. There was not a legitimate wholesaler. And it was always in our mission to promote artisan and farmstead cheese, the way we had seen it in Europe and Great Britain.