When cheesemaker Ruth Klahsen’s landlords threatened to evict her from the space that housed her company, Monforte Dairy, she knew she’d have to make a dramatic change to her business. Her solution: ask her devoted customers to buy futures in her cheese.
“At that point, we’d been in business for five years and were making some decent cheeses, so we asked people if they wanted us to quit or not,” she recalls. “They were concerned for us because at that point I would have had to declare bankruptcy.”
It’s the nicest debt there is because it’s a debt built on relationships.
Klahsen needed an innovative way to raise funds to build a new facility, so in 2009 she launched a campaign to sell her customers company shares that were redeemable in cheese. One thousand people invested nearly $500,000 in Monforte, giving Klahsen the capital she needed to open an environmentally sustainable plant on one and a half acres of land in Stratford, Ont.
Her successful micro-financing model not only saved her business, but won her accolades in the agricultural community as well – this past October she won the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence for her inventive community-sourced funding.
“I think we had a story that made people care about us, and they know we’re trying to make good cheese,” Klahsen says of her successful campaign. “The honesty and integrity with which we run our business really helps a lot.”
Klahsen didn’t always want to run a dairy. She worked as a chef for years before deciding that cheese was her calling. “There was no one making artisanal cheeses in Canada, and as a chef that’s what I saw in Europe,” she says. “The only way to get [that cheese] was to make it myself.”
She launched Monforte in 2004 with a mandate to make sustainably produced cheese with milk from local grass-fed goats and cows. Today the company sells about 85 per cent of its product at farmers’ markets, and operates a small restaurant in Stratford and a storefront in Toronto.
Local foodies covet Monforte varieties such as horseradish sheep cheddar and Pecorino Toscano, but Klahsen claims she only knows “10 per cent of what I need to know” about cheesemaking. To broaden her own knowledge and that of other local cheesemakers, she’s in the process of establishing a licensed school at the dairy. She’s also plans to use the money she won from the Premier’s Award to help purchase and operate a training farm for marginalized youth.
By the end of 2014, Klahsen will have serviced the half-million dollars of cheese debt she owed her customers/investors. While she notes it’s challenging to balance the inventory she needs to support a crowd-funding model, she’s eager to do it all again later this year with another campaign to help purchase the training farm.
“It’s the nicest debt there is because it’s a debt built on relationships,” she says. “It’s hard to be in business on your own and take on that risk, but when you have that many people believe in you, then you need to realize that what you’re doing is probably an okay thing. ”