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Meet the rising queen of the London dairy scene

Meet the rising queen of the London dairy scene

Gringa Dairy founder Kristen Schnepp

It takes faith and courage to turn your back on a well-paid corporate career and launch your own business; especially when the idea for that business might be considered a little ‘out there’.

The concept of producing Mexican cheese in the South London neighborhood of Peckham may initially seem a little surprising, but as Kristen Schnepp, the founder and owner of Gringa Dairy explains it, there was method to her madness.

Schnepp is originally from the US. She was born in Illinois but grew up in the Central Valley region of California; where she first discovered a love for Mexican cheese.

Eight years ago, she and her wife, Laurie – who’s works in diversity at McKinsey and Company – got the opportunity to relocate to the UK. The couple have been together 20 years.

Schnepp’s background is also in the corporate world. Before launching Gringa she had a senior role at Lloyds in the business development loans department. However, one day she woke up and decided that a radical change was needed.

Kristen at work at Gringa Dairy
Kristen at work at Gringa Dairy

‘I got to 43 and decided it was time to do something different. I’ve always wanted to make cheese and that was when I decided to do something about it.’

She says that her wife’s support and encouragement played a pivotal role.

‘I had been going on and one and on about wanting to be a small holder, and she said to me, “You know what I want for my birthday? I want you to write a business plan!” She was basically saying, “Put up or shut up”.’

But why Mexican cheese?

‘Firstly, no-one else is doing it. The UK is obviously sorted for Cheddar, and although I was initially in making a soft, Brie-like cheese, Somerset has pretty much got that covered, so I didn’t see a market opportunity.

‘Living here in London, I noticed that Mexican food was improving. When I started to do my research, I found that there had been an increase from one supplier of Mexican cheese to 3-4 suppliers, but it was all canned or dried.

‘At the same time, Mexican restaurants were getting better and some chefs were beginning to think about buying fresh Mexican cheese. They were going to want to take the next authentic step, and to me that was buying from a dairy.

‘It’s very difficult to import really fresh cheese, and prohibitively expensive, so I thought, why not me? I really saw it as a business opportunity.’

The idea for Gringa Dairy was born. Using the couple’s own savings, Schnepp took on the lease of a railway arch off Old Kent Road and spent the winter of 2012 kitting it out. She made her first batch of commercial cheese in spring 2013, having spent several months obtaining the required licenses.

Gringa Dairy in Peckham
Draining the cheese before packing into molds

The notion of making cheese in a railway arch may alarm some people, but the place is kept scrupulously clean; Schnepp asks me to remove my shoes and don a pair of rubber clogs before I cross the threshold.

Like any new business, the venture was fraught with challenges. Coming from a career in which she’d been heavily involved with SMEs, it was less the business side of things that daunted Schnepp, but the actual process of learning to make cheese – something which she had previously no experience about.

‘My parents were entrepreneurs. My dad was a gourmet food broker and distributor in San Francisco so I felt confident about the business and marketing side, but what I didn’t know how to do was to make cheese.

‘I took some classes and did what I lovingly call “dairy slaving” at other dairies, to get the experience. Then, I thought, ‘I’ll figure the rest out’. In retrospect, that was insane! Making cheese is such a craft and it requires both art and science; a lot of science and quite a bit of art.’

That art and science was required to ensure her cheese matched its Mexican counterparts. Cattle in Mexico tend to be raised on a maize-heavy diet, while cows in the UK are fed grass and other grains, meaning subtle changes in the flavor of the milk.

After a great deal of practice, Schnepp perfected her technique. She now produces three Mexican cheeses; Queso Fresco, Queso Chihuahua and Queso Oaxaca. The latter is a delicious, Mexican-style mozzarella made from raw milk; it’s basically the most popular cheese in Mexico.

Organic milk is brought to the dairy every morning from a farm in Kent. Schnepp sells the cheeses primarily to a growing list of restaurant clients and also a small number of independent retailers, including Selfridge’s food hall and select Whole Foods outlets. Her cheese can also be bought online.

Two years down the line, the business has exceeded her expectations and she employs a half dozen staff, primarily on a part-time/shift basis. She says Gringa is producing 225-250 kilos of cheese a week – a figure set to rise.

Gringa Dairy Queso Fresco
Gringa Dairy Queso Fresco

‘We have been more successful than I thought we would have been. I thought we would just bump along, just me alone, and we’d be a super-small niche project. But now we’re growing and growing, which is really exciting, so my ambitions around the project have grown.

‘I have no desire to be a huge, mass-market faceless brand, as we’d then lose the ethical and sustainable aspect of what we do.

‘For us, it’s about paying a fair price to the farmer, operating our business in a way that we like, and making sure we’re doing the right things for the environment, but it’s very clear to us that we have the opportunity to grow, which is really exciting.’

When it comes to offering advice to others thinking of launching their own business, Schnepp is keen to stress the importance of research and seeking as much advice from others as possible. She also says that creativity is but a small part of success.

‘What I also tell people is that if you’re so passionate about what you make, but you’re terrified of going out and actually selling it, then business may not be for you because you do need to get out there and sell your product.

‘You’re probably better off finding the right business partner who wants to do the that side of it or working for someone else where you can allow your creativity to run free because the business side is honestly the majority of what you need to do to make your brand succeed.’

For more information on Gringa Dairy, check gringadairy.com

 

Images by Astrid Schulz Photography