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PAOLI, WISCONSIN - With all the training it requires to become a licensed cheesemaker in Wisconsin, there are myriad career paths that a cheesemaker can take. Generally, grocery delivery driver is not one of them.
But that's the situation Anna Landmark finds herself in after the COVID-19 pandemic caused her to switch her company's business from making and selling cheese to partnering with other food producers to sell and deliver local goods. It pays the bills, but Landmark worries about its sustainability and what it means for her own business.
"Maybe we stay a local grocery provider and the wholesale cheese disappears," said Landmark, who with a partner owns and operates Landmark Creamery in Paoli, a tiny town southwest of Madison, Wisconsin. "I have no idea. It's so hard to predict."
Nearly two months into an unprecedented global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, the jobs report released last week by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the U.S. has lost 20.5 million jobs in the one-month period ending in mid-April, a stunning figure without precedent in the country's economic history.
The U.S. unemployment rate has rocketed to 14.7%, far outpacing Europe and other developed economies like Japan, the United Kingdom.
Since mid-March, more than a half-million people in Wisconsin, a state with a population of nearly 6 million, have filed for unemployment benefits.
Devastating industry losses
Across the U.S., artisanal and specialty cheesemakers are facing devastating business losses.
As groceries fly off the shelves during the pandemic, snacking and processed cheeses have seen double-digit sales growth over the same weeks from a year ago, the International Deli Dairy Bakery Association reports.
The opposite is true, however, for small-batch, artisanal and specialty cheesemakers. Their biggest customers are restaurants that feature the more expensive, handcrafted products. Small cheese producers' retail outlets are usually farmers markets or specialty food shops, and the bulk of their business is selling to restaurants through distributors who specialize in products like artisanal cheese.
During measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus, those avenues have been shuttered or heavily regulated.
"Seventy-five to 80% of our orders were restaurants, through a distributor," Landmark said. "Until the restaurants come back, and even so they'll probably come back slowly, we don't want to make a bunch of cheese that we have to age or has shorter shelf life."
Landmark Creamery makes 20,000 pounds of cheese a year, cheeses that age from three to six months. Landmark usually makes cheese two to four times a month but has made it just twice this year. In 2017, she and her business partner, Anna Thomas Bates, opened a retail shop that also serves as a packaging and aging facility for their cheese.
"We had one wholesale order last week for a distributor," she said. "That was kind of exciting, we hadn't had a wholesale order since March."
None of this was in the plan when Landmark took the sharp career turn from being a policy research director for a nonprofit to becoming a cheesemaker just less than a decade ago. That meant a two-year process of course work and an apprenticeship to earn her cheesemaking license; Wisconsin is the only state in the U.S. that requires a license to make cheese.
Landmark met Bates through a women's agriculture group, and the two formed the company in 2014.
Landmark Creamery quickly gained attention in the cheese world, winning awards and appearing on restaurant menus across the U.S. A signature cheese called Anabasque, made from sheep's milk, won its first national award last summer and in December was featured prominently in Culture magazine. For a cheesemaker, it was a double dose of attention akin to winning an Oscar and being featured in People magazine.
"It was so hard because we had a lot of momentum behind this cheese," Landmark said. "That all came to a screeching halt."
Landmark and Bates acted quickly as the pandemic threat grew and they realized restaurants and businesses in Wisconsin soon would be shutting down.
"We thought, 'OK, what can we do? Let's get some produce from some farmer friends and let's just try it,'" she said.
Landmark and Bates reached out to other farmers they knew who were losing their restaurant sales, and through networking found others who had products they needed to sell.
Landmark's business had an infrastructure in place with a website and a facility that was already set up for shipping. They launched the new business model on March 17 and got 30 orders. Now they make 120 to 140 deliveries a week for orders of vegetables, eggs, cheese, meat, chocolate, bread and other items.
What happens next?
That helps Landmark and Bates pay the rent on the building for their retail store and cheese-aging facility, and some cash flow should come with the sale of some cheese made months ago that has been aging and is now ready to sell. But nothing more will be made any time soon, keeping the cheesemaker in the role of grocery delivery driver. It works, for now, but nothing is guaranteed.
"What happens if people go back to work and do their regular grocery shopping but don't go to restaurants because they don't want to be in crowded places?" Landmark said. "Are we going to see a big drop-off in our deliveries but not have our own sales to back that up?"
For now, Landmark says her business is "treading water," but two employees have been at least temporarily let go. Month by month, short term, it's working. But she doesn't know what it means long term for Landmark Creamery and its mission of making and selling artisanal, small batch cheese.
"We're paying the bills," she said. "If that changes, we'll have to ask the question if we see a future for going back to our business model or do we have to pull the plug? That's the hard part. We just don't know."