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Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran. The following article was originally published in The Advocate.
In 1976 after completing degrees at the University of Tennessee, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith took a trip to San Francisco. After landing in San Francisco, both established careers in some of the city’s most famous kitchens.
Smith was inspired, and kept her eye on Chez Panisse while developing her cooking skills at places like Noe Valley Bar and Grill in San Francisco, and Mount View Hotel in Calistoga. She had to submit her resume a dozen times, but her persistence paid off: in 1979, she was hired to cook at Chez Panisse’s new upstairs Café. For the next 17 years, Peggy worked the stove, preparing dishes made from vegetables just out of the garden, fruit right off the branch, and fish straight out of the sea. Over time, she managed the Café kitchen with Catherine Brandel and cooked with Jean Pierre Mouile, Paul Bertoli and David Tanis in the downstairs restaurant.
Conley also made her way into the kitchen, first under Bambi McDonald at Hotel Obrero in Chinatown and later, 4th Street Grill in Berkeley under Paul Bertoli. That’s where she met Bette, the namesake of their joint business venture, Bette’s Oceanview Diner. After 11 years of serving delicious everyday meals to an eclectic mix of Berkeley students, workers and neighbors, Sue sought a quieter pace, migrating to Point Reyes Station, with Smith along for the journey.
By the early 1990s, Conley and Smith launched Tomales Bay Foods, a marketing vehicle to help West Marin’s farms and dairies get their products into the hands of the Bay Area’s finest chefs. Their first location, in downtown Point Reyes, featured a small cheese-making room at the entrance to the building. This was where their relationship with neighboring dairy farmers Ellen and Bill Straus came to be. Soon after, they began making delicious fresh cheeses using milk from the Straus Family Creamery. .
Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, owned by both Conley and Smith, are sold in over 500 stores, independent cheese shops, farmers markets and restaurants, and nationally through Whole Foods Markets. They also own and operate two creameries as well as four retail stores.
Conley, 59 and Smith, 60, who are legally married in California, and “happily out,” still prefer to keep their private lives private. “We are fortunate to live in a community that is open-minded and supportive of same sex relationships, so being open about who we love was not an issue in starting our business,” said Conley.
The women had to overcome financing obstacles when starting their business. Finding conventional financing was a major hurdle they overcame by having friends and family loan them startup money during the first few years. Later on, they were able to take on investors in order to build a new creamery. After 10 years, Conley stated, “Banks began to court us, and we have been able to finance growth with bank loans.” They presently hold 80 percent of shares in their company In addition to financing, the women had to wait for permits from two counties and the city of Petaluma which, according to Conley, was an average of three years.
Conley, who was introduced to StartOut through speaking on a panel of LGBT food entrepreneurs in San Francisco said, “The room was packed with engaged entrepreneurs and people with a dream to get started in the food business.” They have both been engaged in StartOut events and networking ever since. “We have made a few new friends who might help us in the future,” she said. Networking and meeting others who can offer advice is one of the benefits of attending a StartOut event. “Go to an event and find a mentor or two to review your business plan,” suggested Conley to aspiring LGBT entrepreneurs.
Cowgirl Creamery is currently remodeling its original creamery in Point Reyes and will be looking for a new facility in Petaluma for a 2014 move. The women are also writing a book about their business and will include recipes. The book will be released in the fall of 2013. There are currently 100 employees in three divisions; retail, wholesale distribution and production of cheese. Enduring the current economic financial crisis, Cowgirl Creamery continues to grow. “Our staff has contributed to improved efficiencies and cost saving measures as we grow organically,” said Conley.
For more information on Cowgirl Creamery, visit www.cowgirlcreamery.com.