The Specialty Food Association has named Thomasville, Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy an “Outstanding Retailer of the Year.” The national organization bases its yearly award on qualities such as premium food, service and the bushiness's loyalty to its community. And Sweet Grass Dairy co-owner, Jessica Little, said that’s precisely what her business is about.
“The demand for a place to come and eat a cheese and charcuterie board and drink a glass of wine has been overwhelming and so I think we’ve listened to what customers wanted. Our philosophy is trying to stay true to what we love, so everything here in the shop has a story and is something we want to share. We say that we offer the service of limited selection, so no matter what you get, hopefully you’re going to love it as much as we do,” Little said.
Little said receiving the award was a huge surprise and an honor. And she said she hopes it will help her business find more opportunities to work with other small-scale businesses like hers. Little and her husband opened their cheese shop in down town Thomasville about 2 years ago, but the business got its start long before that.
“My parents are both dairy farmers and they switched over in 1993 from a conventional dairy farming system with 2-thousand Holsteins milking three times a day to 500 Jersey cows on grass that were only milked twice a day. And they were really raised to produce the highest quality milk and not the most quantity,” Little said.
And that makes for some happy cows—the same happy cows whose milk is used today to make the cheese sold in the dairy's downtown shop. Which, Sweet Grass spokesman, Mat Willey said is hand crafted in what’s literally a back yard operation a bumpy 10-minute ride from the store.
“When we talk about hand crafted, this is what we’re talking about. Each wheel is touched by hand. Each box is boxed by hand. You don’t see machines in here," Willey said.
For example, workers hand pierce each wheel of the dairy's Asher Blue cheese 100 times, using a long thick needle-like object to encourage the growth or what’s called Penicillium Roqueforti, or the mold that makes the blue veining associated with blue cheese.
The entire process from heating the milk, to cutting the curds, to shaping, aging and packing the cheese all happens in the same barn sized building. And eventually the cheese makes a complete locally grown food circle--returning to the dairy's down town shop.
The Specialty Food Association lists innovation as one of its reasons for recognizing Sweet Grass Dairy and Little said there are already plans in place for something new—a restaurant as well as a mail order service.
“We want to be able to focus on products that our area, the South East and more specifically this Red Hill region, are doing really, really well and being able to offer that on a larger scale,” Little said.
Right now the shop features a variety of hand selected wines and beer, locally made honey, jams and of course Sweet Grass Dairy cheese along with a menu of sandwiches and cheese plates. The plan is to keep all of that available, but to move the restaurant portion of the shop into a new location. And Willey said he expects their plans will keep growing.
Here's a video of Sweet Grass Dairy's cheese makers cutting the curds to a uniform size.
For more news updates, follow @regan_mccarthy on twitter!