Interview: Will O'Donnell of Mt. Townsend Creamery

Mt. Townsend Creamery | Bill O'DonnellJust over a year ago in Pt. Townsend, Washington, Matt Day, Ryan Trail and Will O' Donnell decided to start a cheese company. Actually it's a little more complicated than that (see interview for more details), but the resulting company, Mt. Townsend Creamery, has grown quickly and its cheeses - soft ripened Cirrus and Seastack and the aged Trailhead - have become popular all around the Pacific Northwest. Will O'Donnell visited Portland recently, and after battling late afternoon traffic, was able to sit down and chat for a few minutes about Mt. Townsend Creamery and its emergence as a successful cheesemaking concern. You’re originally from Illinois – how did you end up in the Northwest?

I was studying art in Baltimore but at the time I wanted to find a college that was more interdisciplinary. So I came out to the Northwest and looked at Evergreen, and then I looked at Fairhaven College at Western Washington University. And Bellingham is such a beautiful town – at the time I visited it was the middle of October on the one sunny day, with the beautiful  mountains and the water – I ended up moving there and I’ve never looked back.

What kind of art do you do?

I’ve done illustration and fine art painting – portrait oriented stuff. What I tell people now is that I’m a recovering artist. It’s just too stressful. You have to put in so much of your soul to these things that just hang on the wall. Or if it’s more representational art, then you’ve got to sell it as a product to somebody. I got disillusioned.

How did art evolve into cheesemaking?

I got into organic farming in college and I’ve been doing that for the last ten years or so. I met my wife that way and I love that. But farming is not a creative act in the way that I enjoy creativity. So I always wanted to do something more creative, and we were looking for a better way to make money, and making cheese was always in the back of our mind.

Then a local dairy farmer was going out of business and I talked with him about what I thought he could do. He said – you know what you want to do, why don’t you do it? I just want to make the milk. So he and I partnered up for awhile and tried to go that route. But he later bowed out. Eventually I found some new partners and new dairy farmers to work with and that’s how we got Mt. Townsend Creamery going. So why make cheese, of all things? I mean, you could have started a software company or something…

Oh I could never have done anything with software! My other option would have been maybe to be a comic book illustrator or something… I used to do caricatures at festivals and at theme parks. But I wasn’t really good at that because I don’t like to make people cute. I like to highlight their features in way that says something about their personality - not in a way that they usually like!

But my wife and I wanted to do food production and we wanted to find a way to make money doing it. Growing organic vegetables just wasn’t making enough money. In California there’s people making millions of dollars growing organic salad mix, but in Jefferson County, Washington there’s not a land base to do that kind of thing, and also there’s just not great soil structure. We don’t have big broad agricultural valleys. So in looking back at the historical trend in the area, dairy was where it was at.

Mt. Townsend CreameryThere’s three of you that started Mt. Townsend Creamery - how did you all get together on this project? Did you know each other beforehand?

The two of us that make the cheese – Ryan Trail and I – we met in a childbirth class. He’s an engineer. He had read in the paper about what I was doing, and he said - if you need any help give me a call. At the time I didn’t know what he could do to help (which was ridiculous because later he ended up building our entire plant).

But when my venture with the farmer ended, Ryan and Matt Day (who were working together already on another project) and I decided to work together. We’re three guys in our early 30s, all with young kids and families and the same kind of perspective. Matt’s got a financial background, and Ryan’s an engineer and I am whatever I am, so it really worked out well.

 

Mt. Townsend CreameryI interviewed Julia Grace from Moonstruck Organic Cheeses in British Columbia awhile back, and she said you spent some time with her learning cheesemaking?

When I first started thinking seriously about making cheese, I’d knock on the doors of cheesemakers and for the most part they weren’t very approachable or helpful. Then I happened to go to an international organic farmer’s conference in 2002 that was held in Victoria, BC. They had a tour of Salt Spring Island organic farms and I went on the tour, and we stopped by chance at the Grace’s place. After walking around I said to my wife - I’m going to ask if I can stay and make cheese with them tonight – you just keep going! And she was fine with that, and so I stayed.

I saw that the Graces had a couple of things broken around the farm andI have some carpentry skills, so I said – if you let me stay and make cheese with you I’ll fix these things. And so that’s how it started. I would go out there for like a week at a time, and fix some windows and make some cheese and it worked out fantastic.

They were great and very helpful. And because they’re in Canada and because of their licensing they don’t ship across the border to the US, they were comfortable sharing their numbers with me, they would share costs, recipes and so on.

Mt. Townsend Creamery has just passed the one year mark, correct?

We celebrated our one year anniversary in April of this year (2007). When we were building the plant, it was like – I can’t wait to be done building this thing so we can make cheese. And before that, I had spent so long trying to get the business started and then that fell apart initially. And then I got things going again, and then we couldn’t find a place to do it. So it’s always been one hurdle after the next.

Now our new hurdle is figuring out how to grow in a manageable way. We’ve grown from two of us making 500lbs a week to 8 people making and selling about 1500 lbs of cheese a week. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and know what we don’t want to do, so we want to try to figure out how to grow in a manageable fashion, rather than a haphazard fashion. That’s our new challenge. In the past few years there’s been a sort of artisan cheese renaissance happening all over the US and in the Northwest…how, if at all, did that trend figure into your decision to make cheese?

Well, I hoped to be more on the cutting edge of that when I started this project  5 years ago. . . it took a little longer to get into production than I expected.  But I was certainly inspired by the artisan boom, especially by Cowgirl Creamery and Cypress Grove Chevre in Northern California.  Cowgirl was phenomenal in going from zero to sixty overnight; they had no cheesemaking experience, no dairy background, and quickly became a national name making award wining cheese.  They made it seem possible.  And theirs seemed like a model we could follow -  cheesemaking plant near the farm based in beautiful rural area, but isolated by water but close enough to a huge hip wealthy market.  Seemed like we had the same opportunity being out on the rural beautiful Olympic Peninsula less than 50 miles as the crow flies from Seattle, but separated by water.

And the whole celebrity chef / food network gourmet craze is a great boon to a new business like ours.  I can’t think of a better time to be in this business, except of course if we had started ten years ago . . .  we could have worked out our bugs in a little more obscurity.

In five years, where would you like to see Mt. Townsend Creamery?

How about three years?  I ‘d like to see us looking at a new building and new markets.  We planned for about five years in our current space and it seems like we’re on track to outgrow it.  What to do then I’m not so sure. In some way it’s harder to think about the future now than it was even a year ago.  The future had a lot more options when we didn’t really know what we were doing.  We dreamed about milk bottling, expanded product lines, goat cheese . . . but now I just dream about getting half of my to-do list finished, or taking a vacation, a real one, like to somewhere warm. But in three years I see us having kind of reached capacity.  Not just with production but with sales too.

I’ve been an advocate of local food and regional eating for over a decade now, and its something I am committed to.  When we started Mt. Townsend Creamery our plan was is to make a local food product and sell it locally.  Our focus has been to supply the regional market, the Pacific Northwest.  Lucky for us it’s a great market, and though we sell cheese to all the northwest states (including Montana & Idaho)  we have yet to saturate the market.  We have room to grow with our existing cheeses. How much I’m not sure, but a good amount still.

So in three years I see us making some harder choices (or enacting the decision), do we go national with the existing product lines, do we expand the product lines, do we try to become a big small cheese company?  Do we sell the business to bored Microsoft millionaires and get real jobs with benefits?  I see us doing a combination of all of the above.

If it was up to me alone, I’d like to be involved in some kind of local meat production.  Other than Oregon Country Beef, which is an amazing business, there is so little high quality natural meat available on any kind of commercial scale in the Northwest.  I’d love to link a dairy processing operation with pig and turkey farm, something to take care of the dairy waste (whey, second quality cheese) and put it into profitable use.  Some of our whey is fed to pigs and some is composted, which is great, but I am interested in seeing some more synergistic commercial endeavors of scale.

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Mt. Townsend Creamery 338 Sherman St. Port Townsend, WA  98368 360-379-0895 info-at-mttownsendcreamery-dot-com