By Laura Werlin
WHEN THEY CREATED the Cowgirl Creamery in 1997, Sue Conley and Peggy Smith sold their cheeses exclusively at farmers markets and out of their barn in Point Reyes Station. But their focus at the time on making fresh cheeses with inherently short shelf lives — fromage blanc, quark, crème fraîche and cottage cheese — meant they had to sell them quickly, a tricky prospect given their remote location.
They knew most chefs would not make the foray out to Point Reyes to taste cheese, and soon realized they’d have to bring the cheese to the chefs. So they decided to open a store in San Francisco — and in October 1999 they opened Artisan Cheese just off Fillmore Street at 2413 California, in what had long been the California Street Creamery.
In doing so, they made a connection that would extend from West Marin and Sonoma County into San Francisco and far beyond.
“The Fillmore was such a great neighborhood,” says Peggy Smith. “It was such a crossroads of people. The California Street Creamery was there, and we thought, ‘Well, this could be a good place.’ ”
Smith and Conley had recruited respected San Francisco restaurant public relations professional Eleanor Bertino and native San Francisco food writer Peggy Knickerbocker to help them search for a San Francisco location for a cheese shop. The Fillmore got their unanimous vote.
They converted the tiny 400-square-foot space into Artisan Cheese, a well-stocked but intimate space. With enough room for just two employees and a little space for customers, buying cheese there was a personal experience. Customers were invariably offered tastes of cheeses before buying, were educated about the cheeses’ provenance and gained exposure to a lot of cheeses they hadn’t known. A bonus for some — and maybe a little off-putting to the uninitiated — was the co-mingling of cheese aromas, the inevitable byproduct of the riot of cheeses on the counter and in the case.
For Peggy Smith, it provided an invaluable education.
“It was the best job I ever had,” she says. “It was fun talking with people, having them taste. I got really close to the cheeses we sold. It was a learning opportunity for me as well as the customers.”
In 2005 their California Street lease was up and a significant rent raise was in the offing. By then, the newly revamped Ferry Building was thriving, as was the Cowgirl Creamery outpost they had opened there — among the first four businesses to sign up, along with Acme Bread, Peet’s Coffee and McEvoy Olive Oil. So they decided to close Artisan Cheese and concentrate on the Ferry Building.
A visit to the Ferry Building confirms their business decision. For Fillmore turophiles, though, their departure was bittersweet. But even if the one-on-one buying experience and the cheese aromas in their tiny California Street shop are long gone, many of the Cowgirl Creamery cheeses are still available just down the block at Mollie Stone’s.
Laura Werlin, a neighborhood resident, is one of the nation’s foremost authorities on cheese and the author of six books on the subject, including The All American Cheese and Wine Book and Laura Werlin’s Cheese Essentials.
Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, owners of Cowgirl Creamery, will return to the neighborhood to talk about cheesemaking and their new book, Cowgirl Creamery Cooks — and to offer a guided cheese tasting — on February 25 at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center at 3200 California Street.
Appearing with them will be Albert Straus, president and owner of the Straus Family Creamery in Point Reyes Station, whose organic milk the cowgirls use to make many of their cheeses.
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