Finding an artisanal supplier before demand is a definite
Philadelphia food truck The Cow and the Curd went through roughly 20,000 pounds of Wisconsin cheese curds in the last year. And all of those curds were sourced from specialty cheesemakers in Wisconsin. But partnering with the artisan suppliers that could produce the needed quantity and caliber of cheese was no easy task; it required much up-front research and networking.
Before launching the truck in January 2013, owner Rob Mitchell and his wife spent a year doing their due diligence in Wisconsin. “We did our homework, looking at cheesemakers, sampling and trying recipes,” Mitchell says. But as a small start-up truck, Mitchell says a lot of doors were slammed in his face at the beginning. It took gaining a following, developing a positive reputation and selling about 8,000 pounds of cheese curds in its first year of operation to prove to potential suppliers that The Cow and the Curd was a viable business that could be mutually profitable.
Prior to gaining its current following, though, Mitchell did find one vendor that was willing to take the risk and work with his unknown truck directly. He found the cheesemaker while doing his year-long research. During this period, he did more than just learn about cheese. He spent time building relationships and getting to know different cheesemakers—a crucial step in securing artisan suppliers, he says. “With [these] small businesses, it’s about the handshake, the interpersonal aspects.”
And how did the deal develop once that relationship was formed? “It all begins with a conversation,” Mitchell says. He discussed the expected demand, as well as the cheesemaker’s process and whether or not they could handle the amount of cheese needed. But “a lot of it comes down to a mutual trust,” Mitchell says.
Once curds sales rose and the fleet increased to two trucks, the original supplier couldn’t continue to meet the demand. Instead of jumping ship to a large supplier, The Cow and the Curd opted to stick with its artisanal roots, looking to other specialty Wisconsin cheesemakers to supplement what was being shipped in from its original vendor. Fortunately, Mitchell’s process for finding another artisanal cheesemaker didn’t differ from him his original approach. After the initial “is-this-feasible” conversation, Mitchell’s next step is to get samples from a potential vendor. Whether it’s a two-pound bag or a 10-pound bag, he gets curds from Wisconsin cheesemakers to taste both fresh and then with his recipes and breading.
Because he’s now earned a reputation as a large seller of cheese curds in the Philadelphia area, his options have opened up. Mitchell was able to work with one of the cheesemakers to roll out a specialty product—goat-cheese curds—that the vendor didn’t previously make. “We go through a lot of cheese,” says Mitchell. And that meant a large order for the supplier, which was willing to add to its SKUs to meet a large demand.