Peering through the window, San Francisco-based Mission Cheese looks like a cool cheese and wine bar, an intimate and hip place for a date or business meeting. Ask a few questions about the Bent River, Marieke Gouda, or Fleur de la Valle cheeses that you ordered as part of your Midwest Cheese Flight, and you soon discover that Mission Cheese loves the cheesemaker just as much as they love the cheeses they sell. Probably more.
In the same way that the fair trade model exists to empower small-scale coffee and chocolate producers, Mission Cheese champions the domestic cheesemaker.
For the last five years, founders Sarah Dvorak, Oliver Dameron, and Eric Miller have positioned Mission Cheese as a seller of artisanal American cheeses and as a hub for feedback and growth for the domestic cheese industry.
“Cheese makers are good at making cheese, but not to so good at getting out there and selling it. We are trying to help American cheese makers grow to economies of scale so that domestic cheesemaking becomes a sustainable industry,” says Dameron.
In the selective choosing of their 400 cheeses from 35 states, Mission Cheese always supports the small-scale producers with the best quality. And as expert cheese tasters, if they prognosticate that a particular variety won’t fare well with their customers---according to Dameron, people are more definite about what they do and do not like about cheese than wine--they provide feedback to the cheesemaker. Collaboration with cheesemakers is the foundation of their business.
“A cheese might not have been perfect the first time we taste it, but we develop that relationship, provide guidance based on what does well in the market, and continue to buy from them. The cool thing about it is that a year later, when their product is amazing, we’ve got first dibs,” says Dameron.
Tamara Hicks, cofounder of Northern California's Tomales Farmstead Creamery says the relationship they have with Mission Cheese is invaluable. Cheese makers know their land, know how to care for their animals, and how to make cheese. Mission Cheese knows the taste profile of the customer.
“I learn new things about my cheeses from the Mission Cheese staff,” says Hicks. “And what makes Mission Cheese exceptional is they have not compromised their integrity in helping small-scale makers succeed. Once a month they take their entire staff out for farm tours and get to know the creameries, the land and owners, the production, all of it.”
It’s almost as if you can taste the intentionality and care of the collaboration. The delicate notes of nuttiness and brown butter in the Gouda I savored at Mission Cheese found their way into a conversation with my friends later that night. But, how Mission Cheese is using their growth opportunity as a catalyst for local and community investment shifted my perception about what’s possible for the local movement: disruption.
Quickly outgrowing their 35-seat capacity at Mission Cheese, Dvorak, Dameron, and Miller are working to open Maker’s Common, a more expansive wine and cheese bar and a market of American craft goods. How will they raise the $600,000 capital investment? Locally. California residents have the opportunity to invest into Maker’s Common through Direct Public Offerings with a minimum investment of $1,000 for a 4 percent return on a seven-year term. Think of it like crowdfunding except instead of receiving branded swag you never use, your investment actually makes you money. Of course, your ROI comes only if Maker’s Common profits. How does an investor ensure Maker’s Common runs in the black? By savoring more Gouda, tangy blue, and yogurty goat cheeses. This is revolutionary. Closed-loop, local investing. Eat more cheese. Support your town. Put money back into your pocket. Even the cheesemakers like Tomales Farmstead Creamery are investing.
“We know Mission Cheese has a larger purpose than selling cheese or making money. If we want the small-scale cheese industry to exist, we have to step forward. We have to work together to make it work because margins are slim and it’s really hard work. We are excited to be part of a new investment model. It’s this community that keeps us going,” says Hicks.
We are eating locally, shopping locally, but not investing locally
The larger vision for Dameron and the team at Mission Cheese and Maker’s Common, beyond domestic cheese and artisanal goods, is local investment for entire communities.
“Let’s invest $2,000 in our barber shop; $5,000 in the nursery; $1,000 in irrigation. Let’s not be tied to the macro economy because there’s an inherent resiliency in investing locally. We have lost access to this. We are eating locally, shopping locally, but not investing locally. Imagine if we put 10 percent of our dollars into the local community—this money would not be impacted by global or national markets,” explains Dameron.
And, we might just know our cheese makers, our gardeners, and the people with whom we share a ZIP code. We might find ourselves rooted in the neighborhoods in which we live and find it easier to stay a little longer. All because where we invest is also where we happy hour. Sounds like disruption to me.
Californians: Invest into Maker’s Common. NoCalers and Tourists: Eat at Mission Cheese. Read about the incredible history and intentionality of Tomales Farmstead Creameries. Learn why Jen Boynton, editor at TriplePundit, decided to invest her hard-earned dollars into Maker’s Common.
I met Oliver Dameron at the Social Venture Network conference. He’s one of their Innovation Entrepreneurs—a program designed to support high-impact leaders. SVN is by far the best sustainability, business conferences out there. It’s not networking. It’s friendship.