Cowgirl Creamery’s new leadership shares future plans, favorite recipes
Cowgirl Creamery is arguably the preeminent artisan cheese company in the North Bay, with signature cheeses like the triple-cream Red Hawk and Mt. Tam repeatedly snagging top awards through the years.
The company was born in a humble barn in Point Reyes Station after its founders started helping their neighbors at Straus Family Creamery market their high-quality milk.
Like many of the region’s early pioneers of organic cheese-making — Cypress Grove in Arcata in 2010, then Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol in 2015 — Cowgirl Creamery was purchased by Swiss dairy company Emmi in 2016.
Since then, the company launched in 1997 by chefs Sue Conley and Peggy Smith has been preparing for the future, ramping up cheese production in 2017 with a new 30,000-square-foot facility on Lakeville Highway in Petaluma.
Smith and Conley announced their official retirement this year in January, and their legacy is a sustainable business rooted in its small community of West Marin yet able to meet growing cheese demand across the country.
Their rising tide through the years helped keep many other boats afloat, including local dairy farmers, chefs and other cheese producers they helped promote along with the careers of many cheesemakers, cheesemongers and food safety experts.
“Creating and building Cowgirl Creamery has been the greatest adventure in our lives,” Conley and Smith wrote in their farewell letter. “We leave a seasoned team of leaders, each with their own team of passionate people working together to strengthen this artisan cheese movement.”
Knowing they were ready to pass the torch to the next generation, the duo recruited Amanda Parker to join the executive team in 2018 as deputy managing director and mentored her. The 35-year-old Berkeley resident now leads the company as managing director.
Parker got her first taste of the cheese business just out of college, when she landed a job at the legendary Murray’s Cheese in New York City, which opened in Greenwich Village in 1940. She started out as a cheesemonger and ended up as vice president of business development, overseeing the opening of roughly 350 cheese kiosks in Kroger supermarkets across the country.
“I realized that I didn’t know what I didn’t know … and I wanted to know more,” Parker said. “I wanted to learn the academic pieces, the financial and acquisitional stuff.”
After graduating from a two-year MBA program at UC Berkeley, Parker was touring through Scotland when she received an unexpected email from Conley: “We heard you graduated. ... Are you interested in working with us and taking over as managing director?”
“I felt so lucky,” Parker said. “We had met at a cheese festival in Northern Italy, and we had stayed in touch over the years through cheese events. ... It all just fell into place.”
Working at Cowgirl Creamery, a small business nestled within a much larger corporation, reminds Parker of the partnership she was able to help nurture between tiny Murray’s Cheese and Kroger, the biggest supermarket chain in the country.
“It’s a pretty unique blend,” she said. “One of the best parts is that they (Emmi) recognize that there’s value in what they acquired in the first place. They are not looking to fundamentally change who we are. But, as we shift into the next phase, we have a little bit more of an engine behind us.”
Meanwhile, 20-year Cowgirl Creamery veteran Maureen Cunnie brings deep experience with the cheese company to her crucial role as supply chain director.
Cunnie started out as a cheesemaker, learning from Conley in 2001, and is credited with helping transform the company from a startup with seven employees to a national brand producer with about 75 employees.
Her job is to oversee purchasing, procurement, out-the-door distribution and production.
“It’s people safety, food safety, food quality and sustainability ambassador,” she said. “All these things are part of what makes our product what it is.”
We interviewed Parker and Cunnie to learn about some of the new products and other changes underway at the iconic company, which is aging nicely as it takes lessons learned from the past 20 years and applies them to the future.
From NYC to North Bay
Parker grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and attended Brown University, earning a degree in modern culture and media with a joint major in Italian studies. During study abroad in Bologna, Italy, she segued from a picky eater to a food person who would lead friends to the best pesto in Genoa.
Q: What first attracted you to the cheese world?
A: Like many people, I fell into cheese totally by accident. In America it’s not something we grew up learning a ton about. When I went to college, I realized that I really loved the world of food in general and was interested in food and media and magazines and writing. I worked for Gourmet Magazine and for the Food Network, and then I was working in Martha Stewart’s merchandising department. Then I was laid off. That was 2008.