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Sarah Dvorak, Mission Cheese

On Monday, CAMEO staff was delighted to attend the opening of another micro-business.

Celebrating American Artisan and Farmstead Cheeses
by Kelly Lovlien, Working Solutions

Sarah Dvorak knows cheese. Whether it be the sweet and nutty Estero Gold, the smooth and earthly Boho Bel, or the notoriously fragrant bleu cheeses from Northern California, this cheesehead breaks it down for you. Sarah hails from Wisconsin, and now lives in San Francisco, happily rooted in a food lovers city.  Among this gastronomically intelligent crowd, she knew she had to find a way to share her native Wisconsin roots and introduce a better way to appreciate all things cheese.

After a few years slowly ticked by as she worked as a merchandising manager at The Gap, Sarah decided to quit because she felt herself wasting away in her cube. She was born with cheese in her blood and knew she wouldn’t be happy until she learned as much as she could about cheese and cheese production. She embarked on a year-long, global cheese journey to sample artisan and farmstead cheeses made by small-batch producers.

She started in England, where she visited farms like the Cheddar Gorge Cheese company, where they turn sweet milk in to traditional clothbound English Cheddar. From there Sarah traveled through France, spending time in regions like Burgundy and Franche-Comte, where she learned about the much loved, and much appreciated, Comte, a mountain/gruyere style cheese dating back to the early 12th century.

Sarah then returned to the United States and embarked upon what she called “The Great American Cheese Tour.” Over six weeks, Sarah moved through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New York, Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, down the eastern seaboard, back to the Bay Area through Colorado, Utah, and Nevada, and finally north through California to Oregon and Washington. On her journey, she sampled cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve (Uplands Dairy), Bellavitano Merlot (Sartori), and Mobay (Carr Valley), a sheep and goat milk cheese with a layer of grape ash separating the different milk styles.  According to Sarah, “the Mobay was as creamy and smooth as humanly possible.”

She tried the Hopeful Tomme from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, where “the aged raw cow and goat milk and Atlantic sea salt aim to replicate a batch of cheese from 2004 when a storage tank failed to keep temperature and Sweet Grass needed to use all of the milk they had on hand.” She tried the Big Eds from Saxon Homestead Creamery in Wisconsin, a cheese made from raw cow’s milk and aged 120 days with subtle strength and was perfectly creamy.

Learning about cheese production from small farmers around the world helped her to understand and respect cheese making as an art and as a science.

Sarah knew she had found her calling. She set her sights on opening an artisan cheese shop in a part of San Francisco that aligned with her beliefs of sustainable, eco-conscious living and eating. She decided that Mission Cheese would serve only U.S. produced cheeses and California beer and wine. Sarah wanted to keep her café as local, regional and sustainable as possible, but steeped in a global understanding and awareness of the process. But there was a problem: When she went to the bank for a loan, the bank wouldn’t give her a loan because she had no assets and no cash flow. Sarah needed to finance her business, but how?

Sarah went to the San Francisco Small Business Development Center for assistance. There she was introduced to Working Solutions, a local nonprofit small business lender, who helped Sarah secure financing for her business. Working Solutions assisted Sarah in developing/crafting a business plan, projections and a marketing strategy. They also worked with her to secure the space and comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

After a few careful months of crunching numbers and putting together projections, Sarah presented her business to Working Solutions’ loan committee, a body of small business advocates that approve or deny a business based on their loan application and sense of entrepreneurial spirit. Sarah, the smart entrepreneur that she is, walked into the loan committee meeting with a beautiful presentation of Humboldt Fog, Wisconsin white cheddar, a pungent bleu and a simple, elegant formagella. Needless to say, she on the hearts (and stomachs) of the loan committee.

Working Solutions provided Sarah with the $25,000 loan she needed for working capital, equipment and leasehold improvements. Working Solutions’ Business Development Officer Agnes Cheung meets with Sarah on a quarterly basis to go over financials, improve her marketing plan and connect her to resources and mentors. Because of the loan, Sarah opened Mission Cheese on April 13, 2011 and created three new full-time and two new part-time jobs have been created.

“Mission Cheese is a space where the community can come to enjoy and celebrate the abundance of American artisan and farmstead cheeses,” said owner Sarah Dvorak. “This project wouldn’t have been possible without the $25,000 loan from Working Solutions.”

Learn more about Mission Cheese.