Photographed by Jennifer Olson
When Avery Jones’s phone rang at midnight on August 2, 2019, she was in bed at the University of Edinburgh. It was lights out, but Avery wasn’t sleeping. She’d flown to Scotland just a few days prior with her high school theater group, who’d been selected to perform in the largest arts festival in the world, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The team, jet-lagged and jittery, were staging their take on “The Addams Family” the next day, which they’d been preparing for 11 months.
But that’s not why Avery couldn’t sleep.
Her parents were on the other end of that call, and they were telling her to get on Facebook Live quick, where they were streaming the 2019 American Cheese Society Conference awards—the Oscars of artisan cheese.
Unlike most teenagers, Avery doesn’t have social media, so it took a minute for her roommate to log her in and another to set up a video call with her parents (who’d flown to the UK with her, but were in London that night). When they finally got situated, it was just in time to hear that Aries—the cheese Avery created earlier this year to launch her company, Shooting Star Creamery—had won Third Place Best of Show, right behind the likes of Murray’s and Wegmans.
“I heard my name called on my parents’ phone,” Avery said, recalling the evening. “My parents were going crazy on the other end of the line.” Aries had also taken first in its category (American Originals, sheep’s milk), making Avery the youngest cheesemaker in ACS history to take home a blue ribbon and the youngest to place in the Best of Show category.
And later that week, after seeing a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater and participating in many acting workshops, Avery’s group won Best Musical at the Fringe’s American High School Theatre Festival. When she finally returned home to Paso Robles, California on August 9, there was no denying her star was on a steady rise.
While it makes the story no less impressive, it’s worth noting Avery’s cheese pedigree. She’s the youngest daughter of Reggie and Kellie Jones, who moved their family to central California in 2012 to start Central Coast Creamery. In the years since, the Joneses have won nearly 30 awards themselves, for cheeses like Seascape, Goat Cheddar, and Ewereka.
Aries, aged a minimum of six months, is an Alpine-style sheep’s milk cheese with a clean ivory paste like pale marble waiting to be chiseled, dotted elegantly with understated nebulas of crystallization. Somewhere between a Gouda and a Comté, Aries melts in your mouth like cashew butter and lingers with notes of bubblegum, hay, and salty ocean air. Though richer than a Basque sheep’s milk cheese, Aries’ understated balance is refreshing—it feels downright erudite.
If you’re thinking, “I’ve never heard of an aged Alpine-style sheep’s milk cheese before,” that is by design: Avery landed on the style by surveying the cheese landscape and looking for holes. “This was an obvious gap in the market,” she said. Avery plans all of her cheeses this way, utilizing her perspective as a relative outsider to look for unmet consumer need. Her next release is a bloomy rind sheep’s milk cheese called Leo, followed by a washed rind sheep’s milk cheese called Scorpio (Avery’s astrological sign). Following that will be a mixed sheep and cow’s milk cheese called Sagittarius, inspired by the winter sign’s centaur symbol.
While astrological imagery might be exactly what you’d expect from a high school student, the same cannot be said for sales-oriented market considerations. In case you haven’t gathered as much, Avery is not your typical high school student.
She maintains straight A’s, holds her high school’s sophomore record in the 100-meter dash, and is the co-founder of her school’s popular Dungeons& Dragons club. For fun, she experiments with animation, drawing, writing, and story-building, and plays a big role in caring for her family’s cat, rabbit, two dogs, three chickens, and many fish. For a recent birthday, she designed an elaborate Harry Potter-themed scavenger hunt throughout the neighborhood for her friends, and she already knows her college major (biological sciences).
“She’s smart, creative, kind, funny, coachable, talented, and a great friend,” said Catherine Kingsbury, Avery’s drama teacher, who said Avery’s also taken the time to learn many aspects of theater besides acting. “She has run lights, helped as a stage hand, built props…She is definitely one of our stars both on and off the stage.”
In what fleeting downtime Avery had last year, she picked up a book called Feather Merchant, written by her great-grandfather. In it, she learned that he’d received two purple hearts during WorldWar II, and that his father had died young of injuries sustained in World War I. She researched further, finding letters her great-great-grandfather wrote home from France, and became moved to the point of action.
“She really wanted to find a way to help veterans,” said Reggie, who brainstormed with her before she landed on the idea to start a creamery to fundraise for veterans’ organizations. She had access to a team of skilled cheesemakers, and had been watching her parents make cheese since she was five years old. Some of her earliest memories involve going into the creamery to flip wheels on holidays. Equipped with this knowledge, access to the family facilities, and a 200-gallon cheese vat that Reggie says she will definitely need to pay him back for, Avery got started on Aries.
Like her parents, she single-sources her sheep’s milk from one family farm, Etchebehere Sheep Dairy. She uses the Central Coast plant, and enlists the help of her parents in managerial tasks while she’s at school. (Reggie says she may need to hire a manager when she goes off to college, though). A portion of all Shooting Star profits goes towards a local Paso Robles non-profit called AmpSurf, offering surfing clinics to disabled veterans, adults, and children. And so far, those profits have been coming almost exclusively from John Nava.
Reggie Jones and John Nava first met in 2008, when Reggie brought two wheels of his first cheese (the now-decorated cow-and-goat’s-milk blend Seascape) into Sigona’s Farmers Market, a specialty grocer with locations in Redwood City and Palo Alto, where Nava is the cheese buyer. Reggie and Kellie were still living in Modesto and Avery was not yet five when Nava tasted the experimental wheels and told Reggie, “I’ll take it all.”
A similar scenario played out earlier this year, when Nava drove down to Central Coast Creamery to taste a cheese he’d commissioned Reggie to make for Sigona’s (Moo-Na Lisa, also an ACS winner). “[Reggie]’s like, ‘I want you to taste this other cheese,’” Nava said, recalling the incident. “He’s got this round opaque wheel and he gives it to me and he goes, ‘It’s not quite ready yet, needs two or three months, but I just want you to taste it and tell me what you think.’”
That opaque wheel was, of course, Aries. It was the best sheep’s milk cheese Nava had ever tasted, and he was about to congratulate Reggie to that effect. [Reggie] goes, ‘Well guess who made it!’ And I said, ‘You made this, right?’ And he goes, ‘No, Avery,’” Nava said. He told Reggie he wanted to be the first to carry it, and Reggie told him he could have just about all of it, save for some ACS test wheels. In the end, Nava got 38 of the 42 wheels Avery made in her initial run, and he sold them all within just two months.
“I have probably at least five to 10people come in a week asking for the cheese since they’ve seen it in the New York Times article,” said Nava, who referred to Avery as the 15-year-old phenom when she won at ACS.
Word of the phenom has now spread, and demand for Aries is outpacing supply. Another 55 wheels hit the market in November, 50 with Nava’s name on them. That number will double in the new year, with over 100 wheels reaching maturity per month, at which point Shooting Star will make its national debut.
This attention isn’t likely to go to Avery’s head, though. “Avery is not a self-promoter,” her older sister Breanna said. “She needs to be encouraged to go on social media just to at least minimally promote the business.” So far, the Shooting Star Instagram account has 257 followers and just nine posts. Avery is not the type to revel in all the attention she’s garnered, and also doesn’t want to make too big a deal of her age. “I don’t think that age really makes a difference if you’re passionate and enthusiastic about something,” she told me.
While she came to her social media stance on her own, at least some credit for Avery’s maturity belongs with the supportive and inspiring environment in which she grew up. In addition to witnessing her parents follow their dreams and her two older sisters go off to the likes of Stanford and Berkeley to become lawyers and financial advisers, she also had the creamery staff (all women) to look up to. “The Central Coast Creamery ladies are amazing,” Avery said. “They are like my sisters.”
“I don’t know if my parents have ever taken on the ‘feminist’ label, but that is certainly how their parenting and leadership has manifested,” Breanna said. “They have seen and comforted us when we’ve encountered some of the barriers that women face… They are our biggest champions in those situations, and I think the same is true for the women at the plant.”
Reggie agreed, describing his staff as strong, educated, and independent.“We have the expectation that these ladies are here to change the world. This certainly has been a great influence on Avery,” he said.
Though she would likely squirm at the claim, Avery is already changing the world, breaking records and altering our perception of who can and can’t start businesses and win awards. The children of farmers and cheesemakers around the globe will look up to her the way she looked up to the Central Coast staff and her ambitious parents—as inspiration and permission to hack a clear path through tangly, untrodden woods. To not wait until a prescribed time to chase a big dream.
While Avery is studying for college entrance exams this year and practicing her lines for a school production of “The Crucible,” she’ll also be releasing her next round of cheeses—all trailblazers venturing into otherwise underpopulated areas of the American cheese market.
Her latest, Leo, sold out of its 120-unit trial run at Sigona’s in just over a week. Nava, who says he could sell Avery’s cheeses all day and twice on Sunday, describes it as a buttery camembert on steroids. “I’m saying this…,” he said, pausing for effect, “I predict this is the ACS winner for next year.”
Hopefully theater, track, and D&D can share her, because the cheese world is definitely not done with Avery Jones.