Marin cheese maker finds a way to survive big drop in sales by giving away its award-winning cheese

ByJuan Carlos Guerrero KGO logo
Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Marin cheese maker gives away its award-winning cheese
When the pandemic hit, Point Reyes Farmstead Blue Cheese company couldn't just slow down production - it's cows kept producing milk. So it found a way to survive by giving away its most popular cheese.

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. (KGO) -- The Bay Area has changed a lot in the past 100 years, but not around Point Reyes.

The area looks similar to when Bob Giacomini's grandfather opened a dairy farm in Petaluma around 1900.

"He had about 10 cows, 400 to 500 chickens and raised six kids," said Giacomini, whose father Waldo Giacomini opened his own dairy farm in Point Reyes in 1938.

Bob Giacomini followed in the family business by starting a dairy farm of his own on a hill overlooking Tomales Bay in 1959. The cows he has now are all descendants of his original cows.

"In the 62 years that I have been here, we have produced four daughters and increased the herd from 110 to 450," he said.

Those four daughters - Karen, Diana, Lynn and Jill - didn't plan to work in the farm. Their mother, Dean Mae Giacomini, encouraged them to get a college degree, so they did. They all moved away to pursue careers in finance, marketing and real estate.

But in the mid-90s, Giacomini called his daughters back for a family meeting.

"We got them home one day and sit around the table and we said, 'If you want to keep the farm in the family, somebody has to step up to the table,'" recalled Giacomini, who was in his early sixties at the time.

For more than 30 years, his cows had been producing milk that was sold to distributors, but he wanted something more. Bob Giacomini had a dream to create a product he could call his own.

It was then that the family decided to make cheese and created the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company.

One by one, his daughters left their jobs to join the family business. It was at that time that artisan cheese was flourishing and they were able to find a niche.

"The first nine years we only made one product - the Point Reyes Original Blue. We really concentrated on the recipe, consistency and brand," said Diana Giacomini Hagan, the creamery's chief financial officer.

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Over time they expanded. They opened a creamery in Petaluma and began making other cheeses, including a Gouda that's aged 18 months and a Toma, which has become one its most popular cheeses.

"Toma is our everyday cheese that has a big following. It's something you can cook with. It melts great. It's a good snacking cheese," said chief operating officer Lynn Giacomini Stray as she stood in the cheese aging room, which can hold about 17,000 Tomas.

Business was good. The creamery was producing more than 1.5 million pounds of cheese every year.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Restaurants closed and conventions were canceled. The hospitality industry represented half their sales and it just disappeared overnight.

"We had to make some really tough decisions. We had to lay off employees in April, and sell milk and cows in an effort to reduce our production," said Giacomini Hagan.

It also closed The Fork, which was an event space at the original farm.

"Pre-COVID, we ran 10 to 15 events a week, anything from farm tours, cheese tasting, cooking classes and corporate team building. We had to shut down because the health mandate does not allow us to have visitors here at the farm," said Jill Giacomini Basch, chief marketing officer.

But there has been one silver lining that has emerged among all this turmoil. The family found a new purpose.

It began with the Farmers to Families Food Box, a federal government program that buys farm and agriculture products and gives them to food banks.

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After that, the Giacominis worked with the Wells Fargo Foundation to donate cheese to food banks. That inspired them to try their own food drive on their website.

"We told our cheese fans, if you buy a wedge of cheese from us, we will donate an equal amount of cheese for an area food bank," said Giacomini Basch.

Through the campaign, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company donated 3,000 pounds of its award-winning Toma cheese to Redwood Empire Food Bank last week.

"We are seeing a doubling in the number of recipients coming to our food bank right now. This is going to be very helpful in distributing and making our food boxes a little more exciting with cheese," said Rachelle Mesheau, the food bank's marketing and communication's manager.

"Food is our business. Food is part of our heart. Food is part of our family and we are just happy to be able to do this," said Giacomini Basch.

Producing cheese for donation has also allowed the Giacomini family to rehire some of the workers that were laid off.

"Over my lifetime there have been a lot of ups and downs. This is just another down and we'll get over it, said Bob Giacomini. "I don't know what the next corner is going to bring us, probably another cheese."

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