Sister hood and a Whole Lot of Hard Work Pays Off For Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company
To have a successful business, jokes Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s Robert “Bob” Giacomini, all you need is four daughters. Fortunately, he had exactly that.
A little more than 18 years ago, Bob, his late wife, Dean, and their four daughters decided to transition the family’s 41-year-old dairy business into artisanal cheese production and launched Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company (PRFC). They researched what cheeses were already being produced in our area, and decided to start with high-quality, hand-crafted blue, at the time a novelty in California and rare in the rest of the country, as well.
Since then, PRFC’s Original Blue has made a royal splash in every major market in the U.S., and the company’s production has expanded to include several other award-winning cheeses. Toma, a rich and buttery table cheese; the mellow Bay Blue; and an aged gouda redolent with butterscotch notes. The Fork, PRFC’s beautiful culinary and event center located at the farm just outside of the town of Point Reyes Station, hosts guests for farm tours, cheese tastings, cooking classes, always-sold-out farm feasts and private educational events throughout the year. And this past January, PRFC opened a state-of-the-art creamery and distribution facility in Petaluma.
But Diana Giacomini Hagan, Lynn Giacomini Stray and Jill Giacomini Basch weren’t always interested in the family business.
“Milking cows was basically the option here,” said Jill during our interview at the Point Reyes farm and creamery. The farmstead in Point Reyes is emblematic of picturesque West Marin: black and white cows graze overlooking Tomales Bay and the one-lane road cuts into the hills of grass—bright and shimmering in the wind, the blades almost appear metallic. Over the hill is the dairy and cheesemaking facility, nearby is the three-bedroom, one-bath childhood home in which the sisters grew up. As beautiful as it is, there’s no question why four girls could get restless here.
Encouraged by their mother to leave the dairy for college and life experience, all four daughters went on to have fruitful careers. But with their parents in their early 60s, the sisters were lured back to help them answer a family quandary: How do we add value to the farm, and would you like to help us do that? Ultimately, returning to the farm bright-eyed and armed with years of outside experience may have been the key to their success.
While the dairy business itself had a slight emotional pull, the common denominator that bound the sisters to each other, and to the future of the family business, was a passion for food.
“So we gave up our careers to work for cheese. And for the first while, that’s what we got paid: cheese,” laughed Lynn, only half jokingly. They started off slowly, using the cash flow from the dairy operation to build the cheese business. In the beginning, like at any start-up, the sisters tag-teamed business responsibilities, everyone doing a bit of everything. As the company grew, roles were divided. Sister Karen eventually retired from the business. Today, sisters Diana, Lynn and Jill are equal co-owners. Diana pulls from her background in finance, serving as CFO; Lynn uses her sales and operations experience as COO; and Jill applies her marketing and PR skills as CMO. Together, they oversee all aspects as an executive team, like the three legs of a stool.
Miraculously, the sisters report that for the most part they get along (and I believed them once they said that they still vacation together). Decisions are made keeping the family’s values in mind: quality in product, people and business culture. As for business practices, the sisters say they make sure that they take enough time to work on the business, versus in the business. In other words, planning for the future while taking care of day-to-day duties. They agree that building the business together from the ground up and still coming to the facility every day gives them an advantage to working well with their growing staff and understanding how executive decisions impact every level of operations.
Do you think you would run this company differently if you were three brothers? I ask them.
The answer is: yes. Yes, because part of the inspiration to join the family business was that they were raising young families themselves and needed flexibility vis-a-vis their jobs. And yes, because they recognize that need as common among many working women.
“I think we are more in tune to the needs of the families we support,”said Diana. “We bring certain things to the table like empathy and commitment to the well-being of our employees’ families. Men might be more bottom-line driven.”
To do that, the company supports their employees in their professional development, as well as in their personal lives. Lunch is provided onsite. Schedules can be adjusted to accommodate family responsibilities. They have a health and wellness program. When the sisters were considering the expansion of operations off the farm, shortening employee commute times was an important factor in the decision-making process.
They’re also diligent about providing professional ladders for women to climb up the company hierarchy. They offer free English as a Second Language courses and pay for relevant continuing education. Jobs are often filled from within, and employees are encouraged to move from one department to another to learn new skill sets. At large-scale creameries, men tend to dominate in production positions due to the physical burdens of manipulating large vats, but at PRFC the executive team conscientiously encourages women to apply for those positions. Two out of five of PRFC’s main cheesemakers are now women, and, overall, women make up 55% of PRFC’s workforce.
“We still don’t have a woman working in the dairy,” said Lynn. “That’s one of our goals.”
From a historical perspective, this all makes perfect sense. Artisanal cheesemaking has long been an industry dominated by women. In Europe, farm duties were frequently split between “outside” duties and “inside” duties, with caring for the family and activities like cheesemaking performed by women. In our own backyard, pioneers like Sue Conley and Peg Smith of Cowgirl Creamery and Mary Keehn of Humboldt Creamery inspired the modern wave of artisan cheesemakers.
Diana, Lynn and Jill agreed that the noncompetitive nature of the artisan cheesemaking community and the support of other women cheesemakers have been invaluable on their journey. While they had their father as a resource for the dairy operation, they relied on building their own networks to survive a steep learning curve.
“To not have to re-create the wheel every time is the strength of our industry,” said Lynn. And they are paying it forward locally, among other ways as founding directors of the California Artisan Cheese Guild, a network of cheesemakers that promotes and supports the California cheesemaking community through partnerships, outreach and education. Lynn also serves as a member of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, the nonprofit that runs the Sunday and Thursday Civic Center farmers’ markets. Jill serves on the board of the Marin Convention& Visitors Bureau and California’s Artisan Cheese Festival.
As PRFC has grown, the sisters seem to have come into their own as women business leaders as well, shrugging off skepticism from old-guard agriculturalists about their greenhorn status in the industry.
“I’d say we’re just starting to turn that attitude over in the last five to eight years,” said Jill. “Part of the earned respect has come from following our parents’ example of leveraging business success as a means to help others.”
In response to the North Bay fires, PRFC established a fundraising series called Cheese Cares, raising a total of $35,000 for relief efforts. Last year the company ran a promotion supporting Planned Parenthood and this year they supported Moms Demand Action, something they probably wouldn’t have done while building their brand. As you might expect, they took some online heat for it.
“We’re women business owners who advocate for women’s reproductive health care and sensible gun control legislation, and we are proud to have our brand represent those values in the marketplace,” said Jill.
One area where the company has never held back is the commitment to sustainable environmental practices. PRFC’s methane digester turns cow “emissions” into renewable energy that powers the farm and creamery operations, and the company practices water conservation and re-use systems, composts manure and recycles whey, a cheese byproduct, as a nutritional supplement for their cows.
“This property has paid dividends because of the way that it was cared for,” said Lynn. The family placed an agricultural conservation easement on the farm through MALT, assuring that the land will never be developed for non-agricultural purposes. “No matter who owns the business in the future, we know that our farm will look the same and that gives us great pride."
Years of hard work and continued dedication to longstanding family values have earned PRFC and the Giacomini family critical acclaim, as evidenced by countless awards given to their cheeses, and a huge consumer fan base. So what next?
The sisters actually got a good head start on pondering that question a few years ago, realizing that they would soon reach maximum production capacity at the cheesemaking facility on the farm. But the devil is in the details: Did they really want to build another facility off the farm? If they did, could they still be considered a farmstead creamery? How big did they want to become, and would their plans include the creation of opportunities for their own children—a total of six among the three of them—to “come home” to the farm?
The answer, again, was: yes. Yes to growing the business. But only if they could stay true to their core values. In looking for a location for a second production facility, the sisters cited the ability to continue to support the North Bay dairy industry and staying close to their local customer base as top priorities, in addition to lessening the commute for their workforce. The new Petaluma facility that opened in January achieves all of those, according to the company.
All of PRFC’s pasteurized cheeses including the aged gouda, Toma and Bay Blue are now produced in Petaluma. The company’s flagship, Original Blue (and the only raw milk cheese PRFC produces), continues to be made on the farm (keeping true to its “farmstead” designation). All of the company’s cheeses will be packaged and distributed out of the Petaluma location.
“The transfer of ownership [from the parents to the three sisters] happened in 2010, and we made that decision in order to grow,” said Lynn. “Historically, our parents grew the business the way their parents ran their business: saving and reinvesting. But you can’t grow at a higher rate like that. We were aligned in taking on investment and risk not just for our future, but for the future of the brand and our employees’ livelihoods.”
As for the future of the next generation of Giacomini descendants at PRFC, that’s yet to be decided. Most of the six grandchildren have participated in the company in some way, including some who attend college on the East Coast who work store demos on weekends and high-schoolers who work at weekly farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. For now, though, the sisters aren’t planning on going anywhere anytime soon.
“With our immediate and future growth plans in place, we have a real opportunity for leadership … in specialty cheese, in North Bay agriculture and maybe most importantly, as a successful, women-owned business,” said Jill. “We’re excited for the many ways we can make a difference through cheese."