By JIM TRAMMEL, Agritourism Monthly
LEXINGTON, Ky. – We all agree that the worst fate that can befall a business is failure. The second most dire fate might be over-abundant success.
Ed Puterbaugh of Lexington, who lays claim to the status of Kentucky's senior craft cheese maker, operates Boone Creek Creamery with five employees. Every day he starts the 90-day production cycle for only 42 pounds of cheese. He could sell much more, but how to fulfill the contracts?
"Costco wanted every ounce we could make – I had to turn them down," Ed said. He had to give the same answer to Trader Joe's and Earth Fair.
One of his most daunting obligations is fulfilling the needs of the University of Kentucky, which is under mandate to use a certain percentage of local foods on campus.
Solitary vs. public duties
Ed has to develop customers, do marketing research, and conduct public relations events such as school tours while adding his personal touch to the day's production. Ed believes each wheel of cheese reflects the personal care and attention of the cheese maker, so he won't stint on that process.
The company relocated to larger quarters a month ago to handle the foreseen expansion, but that brings commitments of its own. The new facility will house a sampling room and a demonstration area where visitors can watch from the other side of an observation window as cheese is made.
To make visiting the plant more appealing than just taking a tour of a stainless-steel factory, the planned restaurant will be decorated as a Tuscan patio. Children visiting will surely note, remember, and talk about the Hobbit's Cave that is being decked out especially for them.
"It's indirect marketing," Ed said. "They'll go back home and talk it up."
Assistance from KDA
Ed has been making cheese for several years now. Cheese making for Ed was a nearly perfect convergence of two prior careers, as a microbiologist and a 1990s graphic artist pioneering the application of computer graphics to commercial printing.
Ed remembers petitioning the Kentucky Department of Agriculture for permission to operate as an artisan cheese maker. At first, KDA didn't know how to deal with a small operation, Ed said, but the necessary licenses eventually came about, and his newest career was under way.
Ed's cheeses take 90 days to age, so he has to predict his market three months in advance. "We'll always make gruyere – you can never have enough gruyere," he says. His very popular Sassy Redhead, infused with a rare degree of spicy flavors, is another hot seller. Ed must read his markets and make educated guesses about who will buy what.
The stakes riding on those guesses has been accelerated recently by a stroke of purest luck: The New York advertising agency for Windstream Communications selected his business as one of eight handcrafting artisans to be featured in high-quality, wide-release Internet videos.
Windstream, based in Little Rock, Arkansas, provides broadband Internet and telephone landlines in smaller cities and rural areas, including Lexington.
The video series, backed up by a Tumblr page, "Locally Crafted," highlights low-tech hands-on creative pursuits in the areas Windstream serves.
No backstage angling positioned Boone Creek Creamery for Windstream's favor – the agency found Ed's company through Internet searching. "It was just a stroke of luck," Ed said.
Another lucky break followed: The New York Times featured the marketing approach of the Windstream video series as Ed's was released in early September.
Ed's video is fourth in a planned series of eight.
How to get things done
All that good fortune serves to turns up the pressure on Ed's time management. Ed advises agritourism operators facing similar challenges to gather and organize data. "We are hyper-organized," Ed said. "I spreadsheet absolutely everything."
The company must always track how much of which product is in what stage of production, aging, and stockpiling. Knowing which cheeses sell best in which areas leads to more efficient marketing. "Hyde Park farmers' market in Cincinnati buys more of certain cheeses than other places," Ed says as a for-instance.
Solving the challenge of increasing production must precede finding new customers. "If you accept a contract from a restaurant or store, you had better be able to fulfill it, or they'll close a door you'll never open again," Ed cautioned.
Developing new customers
Marketing overlaps with customer development as Ed and his employees work area farmers' markets. Selling at Hyde Park and Findlay Market in Cincinnati not only drew new customers but also helped his cheeses catch the attention of area restaurants and of Kroger and Jungle Jim supermarkets.
Cheese baskets sold online for the upcoming holiday season will also add to the press of business, as well as the classroom cheese making sessions for which Boone Creek sells gift certificates on its website.
Ed also develops customers with in-house tours. He has a special affinity for school tour groups because cheesemaking fits so many curricula so well. "A French teacher from Sayre School [in Lexington] prepared her class for the trip by talking about French cheeses and the concept of 'terroir,' which means the natural balance of flora and fauna in the area where cheese is made, a balance that affects its character." Cheeses can similarly serve as a tactile, practical illustration of concepts in geography, biology, and physics.
Finally, the solution to the problem of how to get things done is to find enough energy and motivation to do them. Ed seems equal to that demand: Though he says he hasn't had a day off in three months, he sounds more proud than wearied when he says it.