In 2011, when Oliver Dameron and Sarah Dvorak were in the final stages of starting Mission Cheese, their San Francisco–based shop and café, they were down to the wire and out of money. Their dream of opening a neighborhood spot to celebrate American artisan curds was suddenly on the line. “We were like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Dameron says.
So the couple turned to Indiegogo, a website that funds independent businesses or projects through user donations. The concept was still fairly new, but they had nothing to lose. The pair launched the campaign, spread the word, and within a month received more than $12,000 from interested backers.
Crowdfunding has been on the rise in recent years, with food-based projects in particular seeing a considerable jump. On sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, GoFundMe, CrowdRise, and others, many cheese-related enterprises are mobilizing their social networks to get the dough they need.
“There’s a lot of activity in the world of food crowdfunding—the category has grown incredibly,” says Terry Romero, an outreach lead at Kickstarter. In fact, at press time, food-based projects on the site had received more than $60.5 million from backers, which constitutes roughly four percent of the $1.5 billion the crowdfunding platform has brought in since its launch in 2009.
There’s no shortage of cheese success stories these days. Elizabeth and Peter Mulholland, the folks behind Valley View Farmstead Cheeses in Massachusetts, used the $25,000 they raised to build a 16-by-30-foot geothermal cave for aging semi-pressed goat cheeses. Austin Genke of North Carolina–based Boxcarr Handmade Cheese collected cash to pay for the dairy’s pasteurizer and get its Italian-style, soft-ripened cheese on shelves. Nicole Lang turned to crowdfunding to film the documentary “Pimento Cheese, Please!”, about the beloved Southern spread. Cheese lovers are stepping up and putting their money where their mouths are—big time.
It’s now been four years since Mission Cheese opened its doors, and Dameron says he enjoys watching supporters searching the restaurant’s sheep mural for their names, all in hand-drawn script to resemble the flock’s wool. Crowdfunding has created a lasting sense of belonging for their customers. It’s a common refrain from entrepreneurs behind successful campaigns: They get a lot more than money in the process.
Take Casey Schoch and her husband, Dave, who used Kickstarter (and some serious hustle) to amass an impressive $50,345 in 2014. Schoch Dairy & Creamery backers have helped them maintain motivation while they work on opening their family-run creamery in Oregon. “We have people every day saying, ‘We can’t wait! I’m telling all my neighbors and friends,’” Casey says. “Innately, I think people want to help other people.”
For Sasha Davies, everything changed the day she received an $800 order of Montgomery’s Cheddar and realized it was far too much product for her Portland, Ore., restaurant, Cyril’s. To distribute the excess, she started a community-supported cheese club in 2013: Members who donate on Kickstarter pick up their wedges at monthly parties that include pairings, lectures, and occasional cheesemaker visits. The club draws an average of 45 people each month, with many repeat customers.
“It has become this amazing, really sweet, genuine community,” Davies says. (On the two-year anniversary, three people even had perfect attendance.) It’s an excuse for folks to get together, learn a little something, and above all, eat cheese. “This is not really a moneymaker for us,” she says. “But that’s not necessarily the point.”
Photos courtesy of Mission Cheese