Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Jessica Keahey, owner of Sweet Freedom Cheese, located in Fayetteville, AR, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Sweet Freedom Cheese is Arkansas' first cut-to-order cheese shop, featuring a unique and carefully curated selection of artisan cheeses, cured meats, local beer, wine, and specialty grocery items from around the world. Alongside our gourmet grocery offerings, customers can also enjoy our delicious cheese plates and tasty grilled cheese sandwiches. We offer a variety of catering and gifting options for both personal occasions and corporate events, including beautiful cheese & charcuterie platters, gift baskets, and celebration brie "cakes," as well as weekly pantry boxes, top-caliber cheese classes, and more. Our products are found across Northwest Arkansas, thanks to our local partnerships with chefs, restaurants, breweries, and other retail shops throughout the region.
Tell us about yourself
Founding the cheese shop was a long and circuitous path! I started Sweet Freedom in 2013 as an artisan creamery. I studied cheesemaking, dairy technology, and food safety extensively with cheesemakers and mongers in the US and around the globe before pivoting the business model to a retail operation concept. Sweet Freedom Cheese opened its brick & mortar location in the fall of 2018 at the 8th Street Market, a vibrant culinary and arts district in Bentonville, Arkansas. Since then, the Sweet Freedom Cheese Shop has been featured in Culture Magazine, Cheese Market News, Only in Arkansas, Do South Magazine, NWA Alive, and named by the Wall Street Journal and Taste of Home as one of the top independent cheese shops in the US to find the country's best cheese.
During my cheese journey to get here, I approached the work like an academic who just couldn't get enough knowledge. Along the way, I earned the distinction of being named a Certified Cheese Professional by the American Cheese Society and consequently was profiled in Erin Wood's delightful book Women Make Arkansas: Conversations with 50. And, of course, cheese needs wine, so I also earned a WSET Level 3 sommelier certification with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and am now a Culinary Arts Adjunct Professor at Brightwater, one of the top culinary colleges in the country.
I wake up thinking about cheese and go to bed thinking about cheese (and yep, it's cheese every moment in-between… ok, sometimes wine). So truly, the best motivation for doing what I do each and every day is getting to share that passion and knowledge, whether it's introducing new customers to the tasty world of cheese, teaching cheese classes, or training Arkansas' most knowledgeable cheesemongers.
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
A year ago, I might have said the act of founding Arkansas' first cut-to-order cheese shop and getting to introduce great cheese to the community through our "try before you buy" model .. or even just the miraculous act of surviving and retaining our staff thru the trials of COVID. Now though, I think it's just being able to take a day away from the front lines at the cheese case and know that it's in the best hands, humming away like a well-oiled machine. It's a thing now that exists apart from myself, and there's really something about that which feels both joyous and rewarding.
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
For me, in the beginning, I had the cheesy knowledge and a very clear vision, but the hardest part was learning how to delegate tasks and setting the right systems in place to help facilitate that process. You can't do all the things, so you need to know when and what tasks to entrust to others, as well as where your own strengths and weaknesses lie.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
- Love what you do. It's highly likely you are going to live & breathe it day-in/day-out, so it helps if it's a passion that runs hot in your veins. That said.
- Try to find some balance. I'm terrible at this one, but (if you're in it for the long haul), you need to keep yourself healthy & happy, and that means a work/life balance.
- Value and treat your staff like they are your most precious resource. Because they absolutely are.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
We're in a location where, initially, the majority of our customers had never been to (or probably even heard of) a cut-to-order cheese shop, so we have made it a focus to provide top-shelf customer service when someone steps up to the counter. Because of our location, I've also always considered us to be in a position of both responsibility and opportunity to educate while providing affordable cheese to anyone who walks in the door. We are grocery workers, sure, but we also get to be ambassadors for cheesemakers and producers around the globe -- and that's a true honor getting to tell their stories and celebrating their hard work while feeding the community.
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email firstname.lastname@example.org; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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