Martha Davis Kipcak
Mighty Fine Food – Martha's Pimento Cheese
Martha Davis Kipcak relocated from Texas to Wisconsin in 1998. A passionate Southern chef who eventually launched her own catering service, she crafted a new life in the North centered in part around activism, community building and promoting support for sustainable, just, local food systems. In the process, she discovered our state's burgeoning artisan cheese industry and realized that, while a fantastic array of great cheeses was being made, her favorite Southern staple – pimento cheese – was not among them. Seeing an opportunity, she took the leap in 2012 to launch her own artisan food endeavor, Mighty Fine Food, home of award-winning Martha's Pimento Cheese.
How did you become interested in creating your own specialty cheese product?
After being at the table for several years with very smart people from many aspects of food, health, agriculture, ecology, tradition, etc., I noticed that the sector usually missing in these conversations was commerce. It dawned on me that for all of the activism and education I had about the food system, I knew very little about what's behind the grocery shelf. So I thought, 'I'm a cook, maybe I should consider a product to bring to the marketplace.' I mulled on that for about three years before I had my 'aha moment.' I had eaten pimento cheese all my life; it's as beloved in the South as peanut butter is here and its base is cheddar cheese. Here I was in Wisconsin, with world-class cheddar all around, and pimento cheese was nonexistent here. One of the principals of just, sustainable, local food systems is to put together resources that are around you in a way that makes sense. It made sense for me to honor my Southern food traditions using local Wisconsin resources.
Having a product idea is one thing, but producing and distributing it is quite another. How did you get started?
I met Kathy Brown at WSCI, as well as people at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and other organizations that support cheesemakers well before I launched. Everyone was so welcoming, supportive and helpful in leading me to contacts and resources. And the stars aligned because I knew that Bob Wills, a Master Cheesemaker who has helped many start-up cheese businesses get their footing, was bringing Clock Shadow Creamery to Milwaukee. It's an urban cheese factory that was being built as I was thinking of this and it presented the opportunity for me to make my product right there, with local products and local people. I've been a tenant of Clock Shadow since the beginning, going in when they're not in production to make my pimento cheese. Being a separate business, I do have my own employees, dairy plant license, distribution channels, etc. I am pleased and proud to partner with Red Barn Family Farms to source my primary ingredient: delicious, rBGH-free, Aged White Cheddar. Good food well made every step of the way makes a difference in the end result.
What's special to you about pimento cheese?
It's such a big thing in the South – you'll find it at public schools, gas stations, weddings, funerals, church suppers. If someone's sick, you take them pimento cheese. You always knew a grandmother, aunt or neighbor who made the best pimento cheese and there's a lot of nostalgia around it. There are many industrial products available now, but homemade is always better. My goal was to get as close as possible to homemade, but to make it available commercially. That means my products have a shelf life and I only make to order; I don't sit on inventory.
What products did you start with?
I launched with two varieties – mild and jalapeno. I have two women who work for me and we make and package everything by hand. We started in November of 2012 and in the summer of 2013 I entered my products in the American Cheese Society competition, which was held in Madison. I won first and second place in the spreads category, which was really exciting. I later introduced a third variety, chile de arbol. It's a pepper commonly used in Mexican cuisine that has a lot of flavor and more heat than a jalapeno, but not so much that it burns. I'm a cook and a Texan, so I like big, bold flavors. That's also why I only use aged cheddar in my pimento cheese.
What key challenges or surprises did you face as you worked to bring your product to market?
Among the surprises was the reluctance of people in a whole region to try something new. Because I grew up with pimento cheese I didn't realize that it would be a hard sell here. It's different from other products – not like a cold pack spread or dip—so getting people to try it has been a little tougher than I expected. Distribution has also been an education. I chose early on to go the wholesale route rather than direct sales or farmers markets. It was imperative to build solid relationships with distributors in order to get into the stores. It's been a slow crawl, but I now have four distributors and I feel good about how we're growing. The tortoise wins the race in the end and I'm putting my money on slow, manageable growth.
What advice would you offer to other new specialty cheese entrepreneurs?
Talk to everyone you can and tap the resources that are available to you. Everyone I talked to had an idea, contact or introduction to share. It speaks so beautifully to the power of community. At the end of the day, you're the one who has to check all the boxes and get it all done – payroll, HACCP plans, branding, ingredient sourcing, marketing – but having groups like WSCI, where you can ask questions, stay up-to-date, or just show up at meetings and see smiling, friendly faces of people who share the issues that you're facing is priceless.