Inside a former cotton warehouse in rural north-central Alabama, Tasia Malakasis is dreaming again.
The space might hold a café in one corner, she says, or a demo kitchen for cooking classes or a small specialty foods market—maybe even all three. Outside, the torn-up parking lot could become a crushed-stone courtyard with outdoor seating and a regular open-air market, all of it ringed with orchards. And right in the middle of the warehouse, she says, tracing a square into the air of the 16,000-square-foot space, “I want to put a giant glass box. That way, everyone can walk around it and see how the goat cheese is made.”
The goat cheese in question is made by Belle Chevre, the creamery that Malakasis owns and that she envisions relocating from its current cramped quarters in Elkmont, Alabama, to this moldering relic of the old South. It’s all part of her plan to take her small-batch, hand-crafted cheeses from foodie splurge to everyday luxury. To do for goat cheese, in other words, what Ben & Jerry’s did for upscale ice cream: Make it a fun, accessible treat that also, despite widespread success, continues to embody the principles of its founders.
“The thing about artisan cheese is that outside of hard-core foodies, not a lot of people know the names of any specialty brands,” she says. “But I’m focused on taking this high-end item mainstream.”
Focus is not something that Malakasis lacks. A former software marketing executive who wanted to marry her professional skills with her passion for good food, Malakasis bought Belle Chevre in 2007. After an extended cheese-making apprenticeship with then-owner Liz Parnell, Malakasis immediately set to work reimagining the 20-year-old brand, which was esteemed within cheese circles for its creamy, fresh, French-style goat cheeses but largely unknown to anyone else.
“I keep asking myself two questions: ‘What can I do with goat cheese that no one else is doing?’ and ‘What would be fun?’” she says. “If it’s fun and if I think people will buy it, then I’ll try it.”
One of her first innovations was to introduce a line of breakfast spreads flavored with coffee, cinnamon, figs, and honey. She also created several variations on the traditional goat-cheese crottin or disc, including the Southern Belle (coated in bourbon-soaked pecans, sugar, and mint) and the Greek Kiss (wrapped in brined grape leaves). Lemon, chocolate, and pumpkin goat-cheese cheesecakes followed. Most recently, she’s been testing goat’s-milk gelato and yogurt, and she’s trying to develop a line of handmade snack packs (think upscale Lunchables).
Inevitably, some ideas don’t pan out. A plan to reconfigure an old ice-cream truck into a road-tripping goat-cheese-mobile stalled when the price on eBay hit five digits. No one liked a Moroccan-inspired cheese spread (honey, curry, and cranberries) that Malakasis loved, and an attempt to crowd-fund $100,000 for a new creamery fell short.
But cheese makers, of all people, know how to accept and learn from failure. Making goat cheese the way Malakasis does, on a small scale and in a nonfactory environment, can be a precarious enterprise. The process itself, which differs slightly from cheese to cheese and cheese maker to cheese maker, is simple enough—when it works. First, a starter culture is introduced to pasteurized milk to help it ripen. Next, rennet is added to coagulate the milk into curds, a process that can take a full day. The curd is then scooped or drained into cheesecloth bags, which sit for another day or so until the whey has drained off. What’s left in the bags is cheese, and after seasoning it, Belle Chevre’s crew of cheese makers shape each piece by hand before packaging it. But unseen bacterial forces make the outcome always uncertain, and this uncertainty adds a little risk to the work.
For Malakasis, that’s part of what gives cheese making its pleasure. And on the business end, those risks are essential to building Belle Chevre into the company she wants it to be.
The trick is getting people to differentiate Belle Chevre from all the other goat-cheese brands available. “I’ve got only 1.4 seconds to persuade people in the store to pick up my cheese, and no one in Connecticut knows that it was handmade and hand-packed by eight women in north Alabama, talking, having fun together, and listening to loud music. So my job is to figure out how I let people know how much we love doing this.”
And that brings us back to the glass box.
The idea of converting an old cotton warehouse into a state-of-the-art creamery is part of Malakasis’s plan to make Belle Chevre special. The lease on the company’s longtime headquarters is due to expire, so Malakasis will soon have to find (and build) a new home.
She needs it to be within a reasonable commute for her employees and to be flexible enough to expand if her venture in, say, chèvre cheesecake really takes off. But one of the main purposes of Belle Chevre’s new home will be to draw crowds in to hear (and be a part of) the Belle Chevre story.
“People want to come see us right now,” she says, “and I have to turn them away. There’s just no room.”
The glass box would give people room to come and see the cheese-making process, and the reinvented cotton warehouse would give people a reason to linger and return.
Malakasis also likes that the place is surrounded by pasture. Belle Chevre has no goats of its own (nor a place to milk them), so Malakasis sources fresh milk from a couple of dairies in southern Tennessee and North Carolina. But she is also considering starting a small herd of her own once Belle Chevre has settled into its new home. The goats will provide a little milk and add the right air of authenticity. She has even toyed with an idea she calls Kids for Kids. The program would pair up schoolchildren with goats, possibly even involve a cheese made from community-sourced milk and help reconnect people to their food supply.
“I’m not trying to change the world with goat cheese,” says Malakasis. “But we’re more than just in the food business; we’re also in the business of making people happy. We can help support this community in a meaningful way by creating quality, real food.” She takes a last, long look around the warehouse. “You know, I’ve got big dreams for this little creamery.”
Check out these delicious goat cheese recipes, courtesy of Belle Chevre: