Cheesemakers transferring cheese curds into wheel forms

Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Opens 7.8M Plant in Petaluma

From the Press Democrat, July 15th, 2018


The stainless steel vats arrived from the Netherlands, the computerized operating system was purchased from Canada, the air quality system came from France and the machine that foil wraps cheese wheels was made in Germany.


The components are key parts of a new $7.8 million production and distribution facility in Petaluma for Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese. Also crucial is the plant’s size. At over 20,000 square feet, the facility offers enough room for the family-owned business to quadruple its space for aging pasteurized cheeses.


The Giacomini family, the owner, has made a name in the last 18 years for producing an award-winning, non-pasteurized blue cheese at its farm on Tomales Bay. And with the recent completion of the Petaluma plant on Payran Street, the family is planning to double production in the next five years.


The growth is expected to be fueled largely by the sale of the company’s buttery, semi-hard Toma, which last year was named the best U.S. farmstead cheese by the American Cheese Society.


“Toma is going to pay for this plant,” said Lynn Giacomini Stray, one of three sisters who runs the business.


Petaluma has long been a processing and distribution center for milk produced on the sweeping grasslands of Sonoma and Marin counties. Before the existence of the Golden Gate Bridge, farmers brought their milk to Petaluma for shipment by boat along the Petaluma River and across San Francisco Bay.


The city remains a center for the local dairy sector, which today features artisan cheeses and other premium products. Petaluma hosts the headquarters of Clover Sonoma, the Bay Area’s largest milk processor, as well as the operations of Straus Family Creamery, Cowgirl Creamery, Petaluma Creamery and Three Twins Ice Cream.


Clover President and CEO Marcus Benedetti said such companies “benefit from an incredible milkshed,” a dairy production region akin to a watershed.


He called Point Reyes Farmstead a case study in how dairy farmers can improve their livelihoods by making artisanal products from their milk.


“It’s an incredible story of adding value to a commodity,” Benedetti said.


Point Reyes Farmstead produces over a million pounds of cheese a year from the milk of its 450 dairy cows. The company employs about 90 workers at its new plant and at the farm and culinary center near Point Reyes Station.


The family purchased the 720-acre farm in 1959. Robert (Bob) and Dean Giacomini ran the dairy and raised four daughters.


In 2000 the family made the leap to cheese making. The adult daughters, who had pursued different careers, all agreed to come back and help run the new business. They did so after a new wave of cheesemakers had come on the scene.


While a few producers like Marin French Cheese have long called the North Bay home, the new cheesemakers included Laura Chenel, Redwood Hill Farm and later Cowgirl Creamery. This new crop of producers proved willing guides for those seeking to join their ranks.

“It was a fortuitous time to jump into the industry,” said Diana Giacomini Hagan, Point Reyes Farmstead’s chief financial officer.


Today the North Bay includes over two dozen cheesemakers, among more than 900 such artisan or specialty producers in the U.S.


In a sign of ongoing growth, the American Cheese Society reports the number of entries in its competition have increased more than 67 percent in the past decade. And cheese remains the top category of specialty food sales, reaching $4.4 billion in 2016 with two-year growth of 12.4 percent, according to the Specialty Foods Association.


Point Reyes Farmstead grew and in 2010 started to produce other cheeses. That year it opened The Fork, a state-of-the-art kitchen and dining facility for culinary classes, tastings, dinners and other events.


Also in 2010, the Giacomini parents transferred company ownership to their daughters. Three sisters still operate the business, and the fourth, Karen Giacomini Howard, retired.


The family matriarch, Dean Giacomini, died in 2012.


In 2015 the company’s operations reached capacity. The daughters, their father and the workers all agreed it was time to expand off the farm.


“We had identified Petaluma as an idea location to execute this growth strategy,” said Jill Giacomini Basch, the chief marketing officer.


The city’s location on Highway 101 would provide an easier distribution point than West Marin. It would offer an easier commute for most of the company’s production staff. And a processing plant in Petaluma wouldn’t be too far from the farm’s milk supply.


“We needed to be close to our source,” said Giacomini Stray, the chief operating officer.


Those who have sought production space agree the North Bay has a relatively limited amount of commercial properties for food processing facilities.


“In this area it’s really hard to find the real estate,” said Peggy Smith, a co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery. What does exists is less expensive in Petaluma than Marin County.


Clover’s Benedetti credited Petaluma leaders with taking steps to better accommodate the growth of dairy processors in the city.


As an example, food processors will benefit from $16.9 million worth of improvements that are nearly complete at Petaluma’s wastewater treatment plant.


Benedetti also said the sector has received help from the city’s economic development manager, Ingrid Alverde.


Over the last seven years Alverde has built relationships with the dairy business leaders. She said her assistance includes working with companies seeking to expand, as both Clover and Cowgirl have done in recent years. Expansion is a crucial time, she said, because a company then may consider whether it should leave town in order to find larger facilities.


Outside its own territory, Alverde said, Petaluma also has worked to help launch the North Bay Food Industry group, an effort by business leaders to help the region’s food producers thrive.


“Companies want to be where they can connect with like-minded companies,” she said.


In their search, the Giacomini sisters eventually located a former beverage distribution plant on Payran Street, which was owned by a friend of Bob Giacomini. The sisters were able to purchase the property before it went on the market.


For the first time, the cheese company needed outside financing to grow. Point Reyes Farmstead obtained a U.S. Small Business Administration loan through a partnership with Wells Fargo Bank and San Francisco-based Capital Access Group, a nonprofit certified development company authorized to provide such loans.


Claudia Cohen, a senior vice president with Capital Access, called it noteworthy to watch the next generation of Giacominis lead the expansion efforts and keep the business in the family.


In particular, she said, Diana Giacomini Hagan, who has a background in construction lending, “really did her homework” before sitting down to talk about the SBA loan. “She knew a lot going in,” Cohen said.


Construction began in June 2017, and the plant produced its first cheese in January. The facility was completed this spring.


Point Reyes Farmstead continues to make its raw milk Original Blue cheese at the farm. Meanwhile, all packaging and distribution occurs at the Petaluma facility.


The new plant also produces all the pasteurized cheeses. That includes the company’s Gouda, aged for 24 months, which won a best of show for cow’s milk at this year’s California State Fair Cheese Competition.


The cheese, which has notes of butterscotch and slightly crunchy protein crystals related to the aging process, sells for $45 per pound on the company website.


“The flavor pops in the back of your mouth,” Giacomini Basch said after serving a sample.


Automation throughout the plant has increased productivity. The German-made wrapping machine can package up to six cheese wheels a minute. It takes the place of as many as a half-dozen workers who used to wrap the wheels by hand at the farm.


Even then, at holiday time “there’s no way we could keep up with the orders,” said Kuba Hemmerling, the plant manager and head cheesemaker.


The plant is gearing up to process 6,000 gallons of milk a day. Point Reyes Farmstead plans to eventually partner with a second dairy to acquire the extra needed milk.


Both Cowgirl’s Smith and Anthea Stolz, executive director of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, credited the Giacomini sisters for their leadership in organizations that support the cheese industry and the preservation of farming in the North Bay.


“They make extraordinary cheese and they’re also an extraordinary success story,” Stolz said.


Smith said she and Cowgirl co-founder Sue Conley have distributed cheese from Point Reyes Farmstead, including the Original Blue, which she called “some of the best in the world.”


Conley and Smith also have served with Bob Giacomini’s daughters on the boards of various cheese, food and agriculture preservation groups. That has led to admiration for the women’s contributions to cheese making and to the west Marin farm community.


Said Smith, “We think of them as our cheese sisters.”