Sweet Grass Dairy owners, Jeremy and Jessica Little, tell the story of how they used GaMEP resources to help them shift their business from restaurants and specialty food stores to larger retailers and eCommerce customers, after losing nearly 78% of their sales overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since beginning their work with GaMEP, Sweet Grass Dairy has:
- Implemented a FSMA-compliant food safety plan, that also allowed them to pass audits for large retailers and customers.
- Reacted to dramatic changes in the market due to the pandemic, allowing them to shift 78% of their business into new markets.
- Increased their eCommerce sales by 400% in just 3 months.
- Added five new jobs, with plans to hire at least three more this year, increasing their workforce by 22%, since January 2020.
- Successfully moved from a 4500 sq. ft. facility to a state of the art 12000 sq. ft. facility.
In the early 1990s, Al and Desiree Wehner, fourth-generation dairy farmers in southwest Georgia, decided to try a rotational grazing style of farming that would allow their cows to spend more time out in the pasture, doing what cows do best – soaking up the sunlight and eating grass. Almost immediately, they knew this style of farming improved the flavor of the milk being produced, as well as the health of their animals.
To highlight the quality of the grass-fed milk, Desiree began making cheese and selling it locally. Within just a few months the demand for cheese was so great, that they built a small production facility on the farm, and Sweet Grass Dairy was born.
In 2001, their daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and Jeremy Little, moved back to Thomasville, Georgia and took over the daily operations of the cheesemaking business. Jeremy trained with Jessica’s mother and then with a French cheesemaker to master the art of cheesemaking, while Jessica learned the sales and marketing side of the business. Their products began to earn both domestic and international cheesemaking awards.
The couple eventually purchased the business from Jessica’s parents and continued to grow it, providing a local, American-made option for those looking to purchase fine cheeses. Their products were highly sought after by chefs at high-end restaurants and gourmet food shops across the country. In 2010, they opened a restaurant in historic downtown Thomasville, to share their cheese with the community and support the small town’s growing tourism industry.
In January 2020, the company had reached a point where they could no longer take on new accounts due to production capacity in their original facility. They were preparing to move into a much larger production facility with improved equipment and technology that would allow them to increase their yield and grow their business. They were also grappling with how to write a food safety plan that would meet and exceed their current requirements but on a much larger scale.
Hank Hobbs, GaMEP South Georgia region manager, and Wendy White, GaMEP food-industry project manager, stopped by the facility one day to provide information about GaMEP’s food manufacturing services. They recommended that Little join the new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Cohort program that GaMEP was offering.
The free cohort was funded through a grant from the National Institute for Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) and would provide food manufacturers with a series of training and coaching sessions. By the end of the program, each participating company would understand how to evaluate their manufacturing process, identify possible food safety risks, and write a FSMA compliant food safety plan to proactively control hazards and protect public health.
Little said, “When they stopped by, I was so thrilled to have their expertise. The craft cheese industry is relatively new in the U.S. and the regulations and requirements have changed dramatically over the past few years. Up until then, I had a hard time finding classes to take or any type of program like the FSMA cohort to help producers interpret food safety guidelines, which is difficult to do on your own and so important for both consumers and businesses.”
In addition to the cohort program, White worked with the company to ensure their food safety plan met not only the FSMA requirements but those required by third-party and customer audits. She made recommendations and helped the company formalize and document procedures. She also helped develop a program to train employees on a daily food safety checklist, to ensure consistency in the future.
In the midst of this process, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a major disruption in the company’s sales model. The company lost its business with restaurants and small retailers almost overnight, which accounted for 78% of overall sales. The Littles knew that to keep their company alive and avoid layoffs at the manufacturing plant, they had to find alternative ways to sell their cheese. They decided to shift their business to larger retailers and eCommerce.
White’s help had allowed them to pass the audits necessary to sell to larger retailers, but their eCommerce set-up was not designed for the volume and flexibility that they needed to expand this part of their business. White connected the company with Katie Takacs, GaMEP marketing services group manager.
Takacs worked with the Sweet Grass team to improve the user experience on their website and help drive customers to their online store. She improved the functionality of their Shopify site, an eCommerce platform, for both the consumer and the production staff. Takacs provided guidance and implemented changes to make the shopping experience more seamless for the customer, including gift box options, selection of multiple shipping addresses, and s
hipping date calendars. Improvements were made to the backend, including changes to how orders were printed, how multiple address selections were seen, and order color codes, so the production manager could easily sort through and manage delivery dates.
“We really enjoyed working with Katie,” Little said. “She understands manufacturing and speaks the language. She was the bridge between knowing what we wanted our website to be able to do and actually finding the technical solutions that we needed. She even made suggestions above and beyond what we asked for, to set us up for future success.”
Finally, the company worked with GaMEP operational excellence group manager, Paul Todd, to help reconfigure their packaging room, from packaging and shipping whole wheels of cheese to package their cheese in the smaller formats needed by their new customers, large retailers and consumers. Todd helped develop standard work processes that would allow them to respond to the new increased demand of the ecommerce order fulfillment department and orders from large retailers.