A cheese empire expands after success in local farmers' market

A cheese empire expands after success in local farmers' market

 Mike (left) and Pablo (right), owners of FireFly Farms, selling cheese at Dupont Circle. PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Khawly

Mike (left) and Pablo (right), owners of FireFly Farms, selling cheese at Dupont Circle. PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Khawly

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet created a cheese empire from the humble beginnings of their kitchen – but they attribute a big chunk of their success to their weekly visits to farmers’ markets.

Unlike the fancy restaurants and grocery stores that now carry their Firefly Farms’ cheese, it is among the stalls of vegetables and colorful fruit where they test out new products and advertise by word of mouth.

“Every weekend we see what people like and what they don’t – it is like a focus group – we tried new products and modified others,” said Mike Koch on a recent Sunday at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market.

 MountainTop Bleu cheese takes its shape from pyramid molds and is currently the most highly awarded cheese in FireFly’s product. Photo CREDIT: Joe Khawly

MountainTop Bleu cheese takes its shape from pyramid molds and is currently the most highly awarded cheese in FireFly’s product. Photo CREDIT: Joe Khawly

It was more than a decade ago when Firefly Farms started frequenting farmers markets in the D.C. area – 170 miles from their farm in Accident, MD – as a way to connect with the community and introduce what is now an international award-winning handmade artisanal goat cheese made with vegetables enzymes, natural sea salt, organic goat milk and free of additives, preservatives, or stabilizers. Back then they were lucky if they sold 50 pounds of cheese a week.

Last year, thanks to grocers such as Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods carrying their products, plus restaurants like SweetGreen sprinkling it on their dishes, they sold 110,000 pounds of cheese between New York, South Carolina, Chicago and New Orleans.

“We have been selling via multiple channels, but the market provided us access to retail price point and cash flow – it is important for a young business”, said Koch.

The price of their cheese at grocers may be altered from its original price at the farmers’ market, depending on current demand and competition.

“When you take care of the animals, it shows in the quality of cheese,” confirmed Solanet, who has a culinary background, and co-founder of FireFly farms.

Mike and Pablo consider their customers as friends who get to taste fresh new cheese. Clients gather at the market and ask questions about the secret of the good handmade cheese.
 “I like the concept of buying local fresh products, and supporting local farmers,” said Irene Marr, one of the market’s clients.

Dealing with customers at farmers’ markets has a double-edged sword. Convincing people that organic food is expensive is one of the challenges. Americans are used to the idea that food should be cheap. The economics of food, however, are completely shifting.

“You cannot sell good cheese for $2,” said Koch, who emphasized that Americans used to be reluctant to pay more for food, “but now this is changing.”

Farmers market in the District helped Americans rediscover farmers, and sustainable products. People taste the difference between organic and conventional cheese – and they like it.

 “The flavor of organic cheese is stronger and subtle compared to the one-toned cheese you find in the supermarket,” said Elisa Djuhar, a frequent visitor of the farmers market. “I would pay for expensive organic cheese.”

When asked what his favorite cheese is, Koch answered: MountainTop Bleu. “It looks like a pyramid – you put it in the fridge until it passes its expiration date. When it gets stinky, you cut the top and you get that dewy texture which you spoon it out and spread it on bread – it is like a sexual experience.”

cartoon credit: Yellibelly.com

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