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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, June 23, 2014, 6:28 am

Women in Business 2014: Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods

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    Women in BusinessCo-founders, Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods, 2080 Lakeville Hwy., Petaluma CA 94954, 707-789-9433, cowgirlcreamery.com

    Ages: both 61

    Residences: We both live in Petaluma.

    Professional background: Professional chefs and restaurateurs

    Education: Both of us graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

    Staff: 100

    Sue Conley and Peggy Smith

    Tell us about yourself and your company: These two old friends established careers in some of San Francisco’s most famous kitchens: Peggy spent 17 years at Chez Panisse, and Sue co-owned Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley.

    By the early 1990s, we were ready for a new challenge. With our first-hand knowledge of the restaurant business, we launched Tomales Bay Foods, a marketing and distribution company designed to help West Marin’s dairies get their products into the Bay Area marketplace. Now international in scope, this thriving community of cheesemakers, mongers, chefs and eaters remains at the heart of our company.

    Our first facility, a renovated hay barn in downtown Point Reyes, featured a small cheesemaking room at the entrance to the building. Using milk from neighboring Straus Family Creamery, we began making delicious fresh cheeses.

    Two decades, dozens of awards, two creameries and four retail stores later, it’s safe to say we’ve earned our 10-gallon hats.

    Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are distributed with products from more than 60 artisinal cheese companies to over 500-plus stores, cheese shops, farmers markets and restaurants.

    How have you two divided your responsibilities in the business over time?: Peggy is in charge of retail and wholesale sales. Sue is in charge of production and marketing. We have an excellent controller and division managers.

    How has the North Coast dairy business changed since Cowgirl started?: When we started, there were five cheesemakers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Today, there are 30, and most of these are on-the-farm producers.

    What is a major accomplishment in the past year or so?: Our book, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, was published by Chronicle Books in November.

    We won three ribbons at the California State Fair, moved our warehouse and offices to an amazing new building on Lakeville Avenue, built a new waste treatment system in Point Reyes and are getting ready for the national American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento, where Peggy will be inducted as society president for the upcoming year.

    What is the achievement you are most proud of?: Helping an up-and-coming cheesemaker launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy 10 cows and a bulk tank. That was really fun and successful!

    What is your biggest challenge today?: Waste treatment and management at both our Point Reyes and Petaluma cheesemaking facilities.

    As successful female professionals, what were the biggest obstacles you faced?: It is still more difficult for women to get financing for business expanion. We have established strong banking relationships over 20 years, but newcomers will have a hard time raising debt and equity capital for expansion.

    How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?: It will become more consolidated in distribution and production of cheese. Farmers will be dealing with the drought for years to come, forcing prices of animal feed and milk to increase.

    Tell us about your most important mentor: We dedicated our book, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks, to Bambi McDonald, who taught us both that to succeed in small business, you have to roll up your sleeves. She also taught the value of travel to any career.

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