For more than 45 years, Bob Giacomini had run a successful dairy on 700 acres of gently rolling farmland in scenic Point Reyes, CA. His father and grandfather, an Italian immigrant, were northern California dairymen too.
But the Giacomini family's powerful ties to the land appeared to be weakening about a decade ago as Bob and his wife Dean watched each of their four daughters move away, develop careers in advertising and marketing, and marry. Clearly the next generation wasn't planning to tie their livelihoods to a herd of Holsteins.
Today, however, the Giacomini dairy has been reinvented and reinvigorated as the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company. The Giacominis produce California's only handcrafted blue cheese, a piquant delicacy that has been featured in publications such as O (Oprah's magazine) and is sold nationally by Dean & DeLuca, Whole Foods Market stores, and gourmet groceries.
The success of their cheese company is all the sweeter for the Giacominis because making cheese has helped entice a new generation of Giacominis, who are in their 30s and 40s, back to the farm, where they enthusiastically handle everything from marketing and product development to customer service.
This is all about diversification and finding a commonality for us to get involved in the business, says Lynn Giacomini Stray, 38, who, like her sisters, has no job title. Her sisters are Karen Giacomini Howard, 44; Diana Giacomini Hagan, 40; and Jill Giacomini Basch, 34.
By the mid-1990s, their parents were thinking about ways to take our own raw product and add value to it, says Bob, 66. Milk prices were dropping, and concerns about the environmental damage caused by runoff of animal waste prompted the Giacominis to reduce their herd size by about 40 percent, to 250 cows.
Lynn, who had moved back to Point Reyes with her husband and children, offered to explore some options. She and her sisters are avid cooks and cheese lovers. Producing their own cheese piqued their interest and seemed to be an ideal way to make use of their plentiful milk supply.
But before they switched gears, the family took several steps they say helped prevent them from making a costly mistake:
- They didn't just plunge in. The Giacominis spent more than a year researching the feasibility of creating a specialty product. They spoke with chefs about industry trends, questioned retailers, sought advice from the California Milk Advisory Board, and met with cheese makers so they could weigh the potential demand for their product against start-up and operating costs. They learned that Americans consume an average of 30 pounds of cheese a year but just four ounces of blue cheese. However, blue cheese is one of the fastest-growing specialties.
- They found a mentor. Sue Conley, of the nearby award-winning Cowgirl Creamery, was glad to share her experience and contacts. She offered the Giacominis invaluable advice about distribution, which came in handy: Nearly all the Point Reyes Farmstead cheese is sold to distributors, who buy it in 6.5-pound wheels. Six-ounce wedges are sold in markets and online.
- They didn't try to do it all themselves. Initially, the Giacominis planned to make their own cheese. After a weeklong cheese-making class at California Polytech, what they learned was that they needed a pro. Extensive networking led them to Monte McIntyre, who had a decade of experience as the head cheese maker for Maytag Blue in Iowa. The Giacominis offered him just the fresh opportunity he was seeking. He joined the business in mid-2000. The first Point Reyes Farmstead cheese hit the market six months later. Today the business has five full-time employees and about three part-timers.
- They capitalized on their skills and interests. Bob Giacomini knew how to manage a herd of dairy cows. His daughters had experience in marketing, sales, and the restaurant business. They developed the family's publicity and products and defined its niche. Recognizing a growing interest in products that can be traced to their source, the Giacominis have emphasized their cheese's origins. Farmstead means it is made exclusively with milk from the Giacominis own herd of cows.
- They didn't abandon their core business. The Giacominis use about 6,000 gallons of milk each week about 40 percent of the farm's output for their cheese. The rest is sold to a creamery.
- They found a role for the family member who doesn't work in the business. Diana, 40, is our sane voice, younger sister Lynn says. We're all extroverted and have opinions, and Diana is no exception. But because she's not enmeshed in the business, she has the perspective to ask insightful questions at financial meetings and the state of the company meeting. Each sister holds a quarter of the cheese business.
Like many families who run a business, the Giacominis occasionally butt heads over who makes decisions. One of their biggest challenges is dividing responsibilities, Lynn says, because we all have the same background and expertise. We almost have one big job-share. She puts in the most time on the job, four or five days a week, because she lives closest to the farm. Karen and Jill each put in about two days a week.
Most big decisions are made by consensus at weekly operational meetings. Though reaching agreement can be arduous, the thought and discussion that accompany it usually serve as a check on impulsive decisions.
The sisters goals include lightening their day-to-day responsibilities so they can engage in big-picture planning. We need to start working on the business, not in the business, Lynn says. That's proven to be a challenge. Turning her customer service calls over to employees might seem like a logical thing to do, but callers enjoy being able to talk to the owners, and the Giacominis have lovingly nurtured those relationships.
Their efforts appear to be paying off. Last year the Giacominis sold 300,000 pounds of their blue cheese, the most ever in a year. The cheese business has made the dairy four times as profitable as it was when it sold only milk, and cheese has a larger profit margin than milk.
Bob says he is delighted to see his daughters involvement, and he feels closer to them and his eight grandchildren. The oldest ones are teens, and they've spent time on the farm. Their interest in the cheese company leads their parents and grandparents to hope that perhaps one day the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company will be run by the fifth generation of northern California Giacominis.