Appeared March 2008 in Dairy Foods Magazine
Copyright BNP Media

Sue Conley’s family is rooted in the restaurant business, but the experience of earning a political science degree was also instrumental in Conley’s creation of one of America’s most renowned artisan cheese companies.
Peggy Smith partnered with Conley in the startup of Cowgirl Creamery in Marin County, Calif., in 1997. Conley and Smith had met two decades prior at the University of Tennessee, and by 1997, both had a wealth of experience in the restaurant and gourmet foods industries.
Conley’s interest in political science, and subsequent involvement in the Marin Agricultural Land Trust, served as an introduction to Ellen Straus, of the pioneering organic dairy, Straus Family Creamery. Smith, meanwhile, spent more than 17 years cooking at Chez Panisse–the storied Berkeley restaurant belonging to Alice Waters. Waters’ ingredient-focused culinary philosophy led to the fresh/local/seasonal approach that’s now a centerpiece of culinary trends from coast to coast. It has left an imprint on Cowgirl Creamery and its parent company.
Three years prior to the creation of Cowgirl Creamery, Conley established a food marketing company, Tomales Bay Foods in Point Reyes Station, north of San Francisco. It soon morphed into a diversified business steeped in local food culture. Around the time Smith joined the company, Conley was looking for a new way to utilize the excellent milk from Straus. Both women already had some cheese credentials, and cheese was the logical solution.
Cowgirl Creamery’s cheeses have since earned their own renown. Soft ripened cheeses like Red Hawk and Mt. Tam, luxuriant cheeses in the triple creme tradition, have won numerous awards at the American Cheese Society Conference, including a 2003 best of show for Red Hawk. The creamery makes several fresh products including a clabbered cottage cheese. Herbs and other ingredients native to Marin County enhance some cheeses. All are made from pasteurized milk.
Initially, Conley was the lead cheesemaker, and she keeps a hand in the vat. Nowadays, a group of seven cheesemakers is led by Maureen Cunnie, another restaurant veteran who, starting in 2001, learned from Conley the art and science of coaxing curds into cheese. Straus Family Creamery still supplies all the milk.
Cowgirl Creamery has also evolved into a distributor, carrying more than 200 cheeses from other producers. Many are local, but the portfolio includes U.K. cheeses from Neal’s Yard of London, as well as products from Bordeaux and from Spain, and from across the U.S. The common thread is three-fold: they all come from small scale production processes, the animals providing the milk are well cared for, and the milk is handled carefully.
Wholesale operations and an additional cheese shop are based in neighboring Petaluma. In 2006, the company opened a 2,000 sq ft retail shop in Washington D.C., where it is working with East Coast cheesemakers to help fill the cases. Tomales Bay Foods employs around 50 people, and the creamery derives most of its power from solar panels.
Recently, 3D Cheese, a San Francisco-based firm that represents a select group of superb cheesemakers to retailers across the U.S., added Cowgirl Creamery to its client list. Cowgirl’s website includes the amazing Library of Cheese.

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