A Conversation with the Cheese Man

IMG_2654 My friends and I have talked a lot about our dreams of opening a cafe or a bakery.  Of course it’s always been just that, a far-off dream, but if it didn’t seem like such an unattainable goal, what are the obstacles we would face?

I’ve always imagined that the main obstacle to small-scale producers in a local market is time.  After working at multiple small businesses, I have realized that starting and running a small business means 24 hours of work.  My bosses at Who’s on First, the cafe I worked at in Ocean City, NJ last summer, had one day off a week and worked sometimes twelve hours a day on their feet baking and managing.

In order to maintain a small business, you must first produce a quality product, and that takes time and labor.  With all that time spent in production, it is difficult to promote your product in local markets.  I have found that most small producers are passionate about the products they produce, but they struggle to deal with the numbers, the bureaucracy, or even the promotion of their products.

Living in northern Italy, my obsession with cheese has only grown.  I have spent many a lazy Tuesday morning speaking with local producers, mainly cheese and salami, at the farmers markets.

Many small businesses in this industry tend to be family owned and run.  One woman runs her cheese business with her husband and two kids, and there’s a lot of work to be done.  She described to me her days of caring for the animals on top of the cheese making and ripening process.  In a family of four this is a lot of labor to take on, and she showed me her rough cracked hands to prove it.

IMG_2655Another man described working at the market as ‘dead days’ when no one stops by his stand.  Most of his business comes through the shop he owns by his farm, but even then it’s not enough.

Small producers must also ask themselves what the local economy lacks, and what their business can bring that is different, because they have to be competitive.  There are too many farms and not enough demand for local products.  Instead, most people find it easier to go to a large supermarket and purchase all their groceries at one time.  Access is key.  Most people don’t have the time to get their groceries from multiple places, and therefore local quality products are a niche market.

Another obstacle is cost. Costs for small producers tend to be higher because they don’t have economies of scale and clout with which to bargain.  The cost of production is high and therefore businesses must increase the cost of their products in order to stay afloat.

Taking all these obstacles into consideration, I am happy to say that I believe there is a demand for these products, but I’m asking you guys to spend more time at your local farmer’s markets and your local coffee shops and bakeries.  With all the obstacles, these businesses need all the support they can get.

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