Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese: Sisters in business

David Briggs
Lynn, Jill and Diana never expected they would return to the family ranch. But complementary backgrounds in business and the excitement of diversifying would finally draw them home—and into the forefront of the artisan cheese movement.  
02/26/2020

Just this month, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was certified as a majority women-owned business by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council after a rigorous application process. Of course, the business isn’t just mostly owned by women—it’s 100 percent owned by women, and has been for 10 years.

But for the trio of sisters who own it—Jill Giacomini-Basch, chief marketing officer; Lynn Giacomini-Stray, chief operating officer; and Diana Giacomini-Hagan, chief financial officer—certification has multiple benefits. It allows them to sell to certain larger vendors with diversity purchasing requirements and it facilitates networking with other women-owned businesses. But they said it also reflects their values.

“We feel that a lot of our management and co-leadership, as co-CEOs, is because of being women,” Jill said on a sunny afternoon at the patio of the Fork, the company’s educational arm. “[It’s] the foundation of some of our beliefs and how we take care of our employees and focus on both personal and professional growth…so they’ll stay with us and feel good about the balance we enable them to have at home and at work.” 

That balanced focus, Jill went on, has attracted women. Of the business’s 85 or so full-time employees, 68 percent are women. 

In retrospect, it can seem pre-ordained that the sisters, with their diverse but synergistic business backgrounds, would return to the family ranch, becoming a major voice in the specialty cheese industry. But they never expected such a turn in their lives; although they grew up on the Point Reyes Station dairy, they did not fit the stereotype of the children of ranchers.

“We were not your typical farm kids living out here,” showing animals or involved in 4-H, Jill said. Their father and mother, Bob and Dean, encouraged them to follow their own interests, leading to business-oriented careers. Working for the dairy, which provided milk to Clover, wasn’t a dream for any of them, and there wasn’t really a path for all of them to be involved—at least without diversification.

But in the late 1990s, when Bob and Dean started considering what would happen to the 720-acre ranch after their eventual retirement, Bob revealed his real dream: making cheese from the Giacomini milk. A farmstead cheese business not only excited them but offered opportunities for the sisters, who all had business experience in different realms. Lynn had worked in sales in wine and the title industry, Jill in tech advertising and marketing, and Diana in real estate and finance.

Although their mother, who passed in 2012, was more “behind the scenes” with the dairy business, Jill ruminated on her support of their varied business careers. “She was maybe the one who had the master plan,” she said.

Today it’s hard to find a cheese case that doesn’t carry a panoply of locally produced options, but back then the region’s artisan cheese renaissance was just beginning. Although some small-scale producers, like Marin French Cheese, had been in business for some time, Cowgirl Creamery had only recently started making cheese in the 1990s. 

There were two main risks to starting their company, Jill said. The first was the financial investment involved in building a creamery, which was funded by selling half the herd. (This was also part of the environmental benefit, she pointed out, in terms of how a value-added product could bring in more revenue with fewer cows.)

The other risk was more personal; the women had families, and initially they agreed to not be paid—in money, that is. “When we came back…we were literally getting paid in cheese,” Lynn said.

Jill added, “For us personally, it was agreeing not to get paid, to reinvest the earnings to grow the business. That was scary.” 

Once the family decided to move forward, they had to select exactly what to make. To find their own niche and address a demand in the market—as well as satisfy their personal palates—they chose blue cheese. “We reached out across the country making phone calls,” Lynn said, “saying, ‘We’ve got grade A milk; what are you not getting domestically?’ And they all really said, high-end table blue cheese…. So that validated our intent with the blue.”

Despite the risks, many factors paved the way for the company’s success. Aside from their strong business backgrounds, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese started at a time when there was a “hunger,” as they put it, for artisan cheese before the market was loaded. They also found a distributor early on, which was essential when they secured a relationship with Whole Foods.

The historic family operation helped, too, for it meant that the business had an established cash flow, allowing it to gradually use more milk for cheese over time while continuing to sell the rest to Clover. It wasn’t until around 2016 that the family stopped selling fluid milk completely. “It took a while to… build sales and brand recognition, our distribution,” Lynn said. “When we first started, we were making cheese just a couple times a month in a small vat.” 

The business grew, and in 2005 the family sold an easement to the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, which helped fund a remodel and expansion of the creamery.

In 2010, Bob retired, and the three sisters became 100 percent owners. (A fourth sister, Karen, had worked for the business, too, but has since retired.) 

That year the business opened an educational and event arm, called The Fork, where both trade customers, such as chefs and food vendors, and the public could learn about dairying and cheesemaking through tours, classes, meals and more.

It was also around this time that the business began to launch new cheeses. The sisters brought on a new cheesemaker, Kuba Hemmerling, and their second cheese was a radical departure from the first: where the blue is funky, the wax-rinded, semi-hard toma—traditionally a cheese made by farmers—is buttery and mild. 

Mr. Hemmerling developed a gouda, and has steadily made others, including fresh mozzarella and a second kind of blue reminiscent of a stilton. Some of the cheeses, like the gouda, are only available at local businesses or farmers' markets, and the mozzarella is available only in the spring through early fall, to coincide with the summer produce—tomatoes, melons, stone fruit—with which it is often paired. 

Just last fall, the business began to launch three flavored tomas: truffle, herbs de Provence and “TomaRashi,” flavored with a traditional Japanese spice mix called shichimi togarashi.

One of the company’s most recent changes was its expansion to Petaluma, where in 2018 it opened an over-20,000-square-foot facility for production and distribution. 

“Other than our mozzarella, all of our cheeses are aged, so you have to have the real estate, basically, to age them out and have a constant supply,” Diana said. Petaluma, the sisters explained, made sense, as many employees lived there and beyond in the North Bay, and they did not want to expand further on the ranch.

The expansion catalyzed another shift for the growing company, which now produces over one million pounds of cheese a year: the use of milk from additional dairies at the Petaluma creamery. The original blue continues to be made farmstead-style, with Giacomini milk on the family ranch.

Twenty years into the company’s inception, the cheeses have racked up a number of awards; last year that included first place in the cow-milk blue cheese category from the American Cheese Society. The same group awarded the business first place for both its pimento cheese and blue-cheese-and-date spread in a flavored cheese category, and third place in a cow-milk “American Originals” category.

The U.S. Small Business Administration’s San Francisco branch last year named the sisters the 2019 Small Business People of the Year.

And the business is still evolving—both on the dairy side and creamery side. 

This year, the company will release a new product: a bloomy rinded cheese wrapped in spruce bark that reveals a soft-ripened, spreadable interior after its top is cut off. 

The business is also shifting the way its cows are milked.

Cows have long been milked by machine, but other parts of the process—rallying the cows to the barn for milking and sanitizing the cows to ensure the milk is clean—have all been performed manually. The work is labor-intensive and requires long hours, as the cows must be milked twice a day at set times—once in the afternoon and once in the middle of the night—365 days a year. 

But in November, the company began the process of converting the dairy completely to milking robots. Everything is automated—and cows are not milked en masse twice a day. Instead, they come to the milking robot when they want to be milked. (They also eat there.) While the sisters said robots are more common in Europe, where they are made, they said theirs is only the third dairy in California to install them.

About two-thirds of the herd is now robotically milked, and the entire herd will be on the new system by spring.

“Once they are trained, they are able to do without human intervention,” Jill said. “Not only can cows be milked on demand when they feel the need to be milked…but the animal is comfortable in this environment, more comfortable than with the conventional method.”

The sisters said the new approach also results in more milk. “A benefit is that, over time, as you get the herd used to the system, you have higher production of milk because they are milking more often,” averaging about 2.8 times a day, Diana said.

“Because they want it, not because we’re forcing them. They’re in control now,” Jill added.

 

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company hosts regular Monday and Friday farm tours starting in May, as well as special events, private tours and private events throughout the year. See their website at pointreyescheese.com for more details or call (800) 591.6878.