Sonoma County artisanal food manufacturers are a tight and well-connected group who enjoy each other’s success. “There’s a certain vibe in the natural products industry. It’s very much about people. We like to meet and talk together, it’s an ethos,” said Aaron Mansika, managing director of Naturally Boulder, a nonprofit that supports the natural food industry.

Mansika was speaking at the 4th Annual FIG Awards at the SOMO Village Event Center in Rohnert Park on Wednesday.

Sue Conley and Peggy Smith of Cowgirl Creamery were awarded this year’s North Bay Food Industry Group (FIG) Pioneer Award, and Serafina Palandech, co-founder and president of Hip Chick Farms, was presented with FIG’s 2017 Next generation Pioneer Award.

“This is for our team. Most have been with us since the beginning,” said Sue Conley. “Agriculture is at the basis of what we do. The secret is in the milk and we are very lucky in Sonoma with our dairy infrastructure.”

Early on, Conley and Smith established careers in some of San Francisco’s most famous kitchens: Smith spending 17 years at Chez Panisse, and Conley co-owning Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley. They founded the creamery in the early 1990’s.

Cowgirl Creamery artisanal cheeses are sold to over 500 stores, independent cheese shops, farmers markets and restaurants, and nationally through Whole Foods Markets.

The creamery was acquired in May 2016 by milk processor and dairy company Emmi AG of Lucerne, Switzerland about 20 years after both women co-founded their Point Reyes Station-based company.

Hip Chick Farms, in Sebastopol, sells organic chicken fingers, wings, nuggets, meatballs and grilled strips.

Palandech founded the company with her wife, Jennifer Johnson, in 2013. Since then, they have launched into more than 5,000 stores across the West Coast, and achieved 300 percent over year growth in 2017, the company said.

Palandech admitted she didn’t know what she was doing in the beginning, but received a lot of help from the natural foods community.

“I was making calls, making calls, making calls, I probably called everyone in this room,” she said, adding frozen food giant Amy’s Kitchen helped her with a box that could stand up in the freezer.

Johnson, a chef with 25 years of experience, has prepared food for the likes of President Barack Obama. She also spent nearly a decade as a chef with Alice Waters at acclaimed California restaurant Chez Panisse, a job, as it turns out, she got from Peggy Smith.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.