I recently visited Beehive Cheese, a small company that creates artisan cheese in Uintah, Utah, about 30 minutes North of Salt Lake City. I spoke to Katie Johnson, marketing director for the company, and Pat Ford, one of the owners about how Beehive Cheese got its start.
Pat Ford and his brother-in-law, Tim Welsh were tired of the everyday grind of their stressful jobs in real estate and software, so they started talking about owning their own business. After considering a few other ideas, they settled on the crazy notion of creating artisan cheeses, something that hadn’t yet been done in Utah.
Pat and Tim went where anyone who wants to learn about making cheese goes: Utah State University Western Dairy Center. They took a two-week course and spoke to the cheese experts in Logan about their idea. Initially, they were discouraged. There were already several major cheese makers in the Cache valley. Why would Utah need another? But this cheese would be different. Instead of the typical cheddar, monterey jack and mozzarella, Beehive Cheese would produce artisan cheeses with a rubbed rind; something different and new. The folks at Utah State starting warming to the idea and taught Pat and Tim everything they could about making a quality product.
Beehive Cheese opened in 2005 with the cheese that would serve as the base for most other varieties: Promontory. Then they set out to make some distinctly different, unique cheeses.
One day the two owners were kicking around some ideas for new cheeses. They had some 4 oz bags of coffee sitting around and Tim got the idea to add it to the cheese. Pat said, “We did some experiments. One of them was coffee and lavender. Tim put the soothing effects of lavender and combined with the edgy effects of the coffee. It was just a fun, crazy little experiment.” The new variety, “Barely Buzzed” was born. It was an instant hit, garnering a first place ribbon at the American Cheese Society Competition in 2007. And again in 2008. And yet again in 2009 and 2011.
Jamie Forrest, food reviewer and cheese aficionado on the website, Serious Eats, had this to say about Beehive Cheese’s Barely Buzzed: “As I bit down through the cheese, the bitter nuttiness of the espresso and the caramel sweetness of the cheddar-style cheese made me realize this is a match made in some really quirky and hip corner of heaven.” The success of “Barely Buzzed” put Beehive Cheese on the map, and the buyers for Whole Foods and Central Market noticed. Beehive Cheese is now distributed throughout the country and has gone on to win 17 major awards.
Other award-winning cheeses include Apple Walnut Smoked, Big John’s Cajun, SeaHive and Full Moon. Two new cheese are slated for introduction in the next year: Ipanema, a cocoa bean and butter-rubbed rind cheese, will be released for exclusive sale during the Christmas holiday at Whole Foods. And BeeChive, with a distinctive bright-green rind, will be released for St. Patrick’s Day in 2013.
Beehive Cheese is a family affair: of the 15 employees, 8 are family. Tim’s and Pat’s kids work at the creamery during the summer and school breaks, and Pat’s wife ran the shipping department for the company for several years. Family provided loans for the startup of the company and Pat told me that his mom has always been a great source of support and a big influence on the success of the business.
Employees that aren’t technically family might as well be: turnover is rare and everyone in the company meets to discuss new ideas for cheeses, and to taste and judge prospective new products.
I asked Pat about the difficulties of the early days at Beehive Cheese. “We worked seven days a week in the beginning. We participated in five farmer’s markets every week. We would make cheese from 4:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night. Tim would stay until midnight and do the books. We both worked our butts off . . . but it paid off.”
Pat gave me two pieces of advice to pass on to people who are thinking about opening their own businesses. The first piece of advice was financial. He said, “Have twice as much money in the bank as you think you’ll need. You’re always growing.”
The second piece of advice was about customer service. Pat said, “We always err on the side of the customer. Even if we lose money, it’s just one little box of cheese, it’s not going to ruin us.” Connecting with customers continues to be important for Beehive Cheese. The company sells its cheese at farmer’s markets in Utah and also supports community events. Beehive Cheese is a sponsor of the Red Butte Garden’s Summer Concert Series, and they show up occasionally to hand out free samples to concert-goers as they wait in line.
The company is very involved in supporting local arts and music events and the owners are still heavily involved in the business’ day-to-day operations. Katie told me, “Pat and Tim answer the phones. We don’t have some automated phone system. The owners talk directly to customers. People love that they’re so accessible.”