Sunday, January 20, 2008

From grass to cheese, a study in differentiation and branding

While on a day trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore with my wife and daughters to enjoy a day hiking and searching for migrating whales and elephant seals, my curiosity was centered on the numerous historical ranches (called the alphabet ranches, named A-Z) that we drove through between the town of Olema and Pt. Reyes Station and the shore. At the end of the day, we stopped and had dinner at the Olema Farmhouse Inn (highly recommended) and after some outstanding mac n' cheese and a Blue Burger with local Pt.Reyes Original Blue Cheese, I knew I had a good topic to blog about.

The local dairy ranches were clearly old, and each ranch center had a sign displaying the date established, most in the 1860's. The ranger said that the ranches were originally owned by a San Francisco law firm. My thoughts were on a course I took (seems like) long ago from Prof. Gary Larson at the New Mexico Military Institute about Economic Geography, or the economic development of places based on local resources, transportation, and technology.

Upon some reading at the National Park Service Website, in the late 19th century, the majority of the pasture land property extending from the beaches to Mt. Wittenburg where owned by the Law Firm of Shafter, Shafter, Park, and Heydenfeldt of San Francisco (my guess because of their ability to figure out the complex legal issues complicated by the contradictory Mexican and Spanish land grant titles and generally poor documentation). They formed a cooperative dairy splitting up the property into a bunch of different ranches and recruited immigrant farmers from around the world to bring the best practices in dairy production to their land. This is quite an interesting story in itself.

Even though the cool wet climate and natural pasture lands produced by hundreds of years of burning and clearing by the local Mi Wok indians were ideal for dairy production, there was no way to bring fresh milk from Western Marin to the markets in San Francisco, so the farmers had to turn their milk into butter and some cheese. The dairy cooperative was sure that their fresh grass fed cows were producing top quality butter, so they created the Pt. Reyes Brand and symbol and used it on their products signing up the finest restaurants and markets in San Francisco for their premium butter. They may have been the first dairy ever to use a brand to distinguish their products.

Later, technology, poor land management, and even the 1906 earthquake all attributed to a waining local dairy industry. Refrigeration and government regulation made the production of cheese and butter only profitable at large scale reducing most local dairies and coops to commodity milk producers shipping their product off to large regional commercial dairy facilities.

Luckily, 100 years later, local ranchers and business men rediscovered the formula for profitability. Tie the differentiating qualities of your product to a brand and position that brand to command a premium price.

One such example is the Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. I only know the company through a fantastic Blue Cheese Burger and their equally fantastic web site (though it seems a crime to compare a website to good food), but their story is compelling. The patriarch, Bob Giacomini, ran a successful dairy on their property since the 1950's. When nearing retirement, the family had a new idea on how to maintain the family business. Instead of selling off their milk as a commodity, they would produce high quality artisan blue cheese. Their brand is built by marketing their unique compeitive differentiators, the grass, the climate, the salty air, and a freshness generated by a process where cows are milked at 2:00 AM and cheese is set to dry only hours later. (I apologize if I am short changing the art of making cheese.)

Today, they are the only California producer of traditional Blue Cheese, and their product is distributed around the world and served in the finest restaurants; very similar to the high quality producers of Pt. Reyes brand butter that introduced branding to the industry over 100 years ago.

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