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In the coming weeks, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese will move into a new production facility here outfitted with a tasting room, affinage cave and European-style retail area.
Construction and renovation for the 3,000 square-foot facility has been partially funded through an online Kickstarter program. So far, the project has generated $8,932 – about 89 percent of the total cost.
Final construction is slated for completion in about a month.
“We were in a warehouse for a bit, and now we’ve moved into the old Diamond Bear Brewery in downtown Little Rock,” said owner and affineur Kent Walker said.
The Little Rock cheese company has now been in operation for three years, mainly concentrating on wholesale business and farmers’ markets.
“We’d been talking about having a retail space and tasting room with beer, wine and cheese since the very beginning,” Walker said.
“A lot of our customers are incredibly excited about it,” he said. “In 24 hours, we were a third of the way to our goal and after 48 hours, we were halfway to our goal.”
Walker serves as owner and affineur, and Randy Copeland is head cheese maker. The company also includes a marketing manager and tasting room tour guide, along with three to five workers during farmers’ market season.
Cautionary Tale Of Cheesemaking In The South During Hot Weather
A lot of cooking in the South typically doesn’t depend on cheese – barbecue, Cajun food – none of that’s really cheese-heavy, Walker explained. I think what it comes down to is how hot it gets in the summer.
“Before refrigeration, the food culture grew without having a lot of cheese around,” Walker said.
“That said, we’re being incredibly well-received and people are excited about having cheese around because we usually just had imported cheese,” he said.
Whole Foods Market now carries Kent Walker cheeses, as well as other Arkansas retailers and soon, Louisiana grocery stores.
“Cheese doesn’t do great in the South at Whole Foods,” Walker said. “It’s an interesting thing. We’re excited to show them that if we can make it work here, they should take us to their easy markets.”
Walker shared a story about just how difficult cheesemaking in the South can be. Last September – the first year the company was really ramping up production – his cheese cave’s cooling unit shut down while Walker was away for the weekend.
“The temperature went from a cave-like 52 degrees to a cheese dip-like 95 degrees,” Walker said. “It took about five days to get it fixed, and we lost 100 percent of our inventory – over a ton of cheese.”
We had just started all kinds of incentives and sales programs, but instead had to send out a press release saying we didn’t have any cheese, and wouldn’t have any until December at the earliest, he said.
Insurance came through, covering about 60 percent of the company’s losses, then dropped Walker as a customer.
“It took a full year to recover from that loss,” he said. “It took six months to replenish our inventory, and another six months to replenish our orders and accounts receivable.”
When it became absolutely apparent that day what had happened – that all the cheese was lost – I just drank a big bottle of whiskey and dug a giant hole in my backyard, Walker said.
“The next day I woke up hung over, had some bacon and eggs and got back to work,” he continued.
When I got the insurance check and had quite a bit of money in the bank, I could have gotten out, covered my debts and basically broke even, Walker said.
“But then I realized that I’d have to go out and get a job – no way,” he said.
Starting A Career As A Hobbyist
After college, Arkansas native Walker started making cheese as a hobby with a group of friends and home-brewers in Denver, CO.
Walker returned to Little Rock and continued his hobbyist cheesemaking endeavors.
After working in wineries and distilleries, he made the decision to stay in the food production industry.
Walker proceeded to take week-long cheesemaking classes at Three Shepherds Cheese in Warren, VT, and Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese in Granbury, TX.
Kent Walker Artisan Cheese officially kicked off its research and development phase in October 2011 in a local church kitchen.
Four years later, the company is now making both cow and goat raw milk cheeses, using pasture-based milk from local dairies. Walker is also in the research and development phase of a new sheep’s milk variety, which he hopes to begin making this season.
If the deal goes through, there’s not many sheep producers in Arkansas, Walker said. Instead, the company will buy milk from a farm in Tennessee.
The company first launched its product line with five cheeses – Garlic Montasio, Habanero Cheddar, Leicester, Goat’s Milk Gouda and Goat’s Milk Feta.
“I just picked my favorite cheeses to make, and the ones we thought would sell well,” Walker said. “Down here in the South, everyone loves their spicy foods – Habanero Cheddar has always been a big seller.”
For his Feta, Walker ended up changing his recipe from the fresh Feta he initially started with to a hard, block Feta aged 60 days in brine.
“We did six months of R&D before we sold a single piece of cheese,” he said.
We went to events and festivals, but didn’t sell any cheese, Walker said. We just gave it away – the only price was an honest opinion.
“This is one of the lessons I’ve learned in the production industry,” he said. “Some companies launch a bit too soon, and the first few batches didn’t give them a great name, even though they’re making wonderful, award-winning stuff now. They’re still dealing with the fallout from those first batches.”
Now on winter break, cheese production resumes March 1, he said and typically runs through November.
Last year, the company averaged between 300 and 350 pounds of cheese per week.
“We have the production capacity to do about 10 times that,” Walker said. “It’s about building our customers and not over-extending ourselves production-wise.”
Sourcing enough milk is also an issue. The two farms that provide milk for cheesemaking will never be able to procure enough for that amount, Walker continued.
“We’re looking to grow, but to do so responsibly, smartly and at a pace that we can keep up with sales,” he said.
To help keep up, the company has integrated a volunteer program in which cheese enthusiasts can help with operations in exchange for free cheese.
“We’ll put out a notice saying that we’ll need a few people during a certain time,” Walker said. “People love it. Since we’ve been going for years without a tasting room or tours, it’s a way for people to see what we’re doing.”
“Down here in the South, everyone loves their spicy foods – Habanero Cheddar has always been a big seller.”
—Kent Walker, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese
“I always send people home with cheese,” he continued.
Volunteers can sign up on the website for jobs like flipping cheese in the cheese cave.
“There’s always a bit of training, and we don’t put people in critical control point situations,” Walker said.
“But from their perspective, they feel like they made the entire wheel of cheese,” he said.
After Three Years, On A Precipice
Right now, the company is on a precipice, Walker said. We’ve pretty much exhausted all the money from our investors to get this thing up and running.
“But we’re set up and nearly done with construction at our new location,” he said. “We’re ready to pounce and be a successful, small business.”
That said, everything I own and our investors’ money is at stake, Walker said. It’s a huge gamble, but I feel good about it. It’s the moment we’re about to strike.
“We spent three years getting this business set up, and now we’re ready to rock n’ roll,” he continued.
For more information, visit www.kentwalkercheese.com.