Go Local for Cheese
Houston Dairymaids craft the very best
“I was always obsessed with food,” laughs Lindsey Schechter, founder of Houston Dairymaids. “But I didn’t learn about cheese until I was living in New York.
”Following her graduation from Rice University, where she studied art history and English, Schechter moved to New York, where she worked as a food writer and cooked in restaurants.
Being exposed to world flavors and gourmet stylings only cemented her love of food. But when she moved to Maine, everything changed.
“I was working in a restaurant and we put an artisan cheese plate on the menu,” she recalls. “And I got to go around and collect the cheese from the cheese makers.”
It was love at first sight.
“I knew that I wanted to work with cheese, but I also knew I didn’t have the time or the patience to do what these cheese makers did.”
She also realized there was a problem with distribution in helping small cheese producers get their products to consumers—and she wanted a way to solve it. Schechter was also determined to open her own business and even more determined that it be in cheese. She wrote a letter to Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of the world’s leading cheesemongers. Based in London, Neal’s Yard sells select cheese made by farmers and dairies all over England.
“I was shocked when they responded,” Schechter recalls.
The famed dairy took her up on her offer to come work with them for five weeks over the Christmas season.
“I got to work in their two shops, as well as in the warehouse where they store their cheese,” she recalls. “And, when they drove around to all the farms to collect the cheese I got to go along in the truck.”
It was driving around and collecting the cheese where Schechter realized she could take that same business model and grow her own business. Plus, using Neal’s Yard’s model of individual connections and collections, she figured she could also solve that distribution problem that prevents smaller producers from getting their product in the hands of consumers that had always bothered her.
Houston Dairymaids was born.
Four years on, Schechter’s business works with 10 dairies throughout Texas, bringing in more than two dozen cheeses to sell out of her Heights-area warehouse and at three local farmers markets.
“Farmstead cheeses need careful handling,” says Schechter. “And they are variable, depending on the season or what the cows might be eating. So, being able to go and work with the farmers directly helps, not only get their product to customers, but educate the customers about cheese production.”
When Schechter began her business, she spent a lot of time driving between Houston and the Hill Country, as well as points north and south, bringing cheeses back to the Houston market. Her earliest supporters were the city’s chefs.
“They just embraced us,” she marvels, noting that her business sells to nearly 150 restaurants in Houston, Dallas and Austin. “Chefs got it immediately, and were eager to put local products on their tables. But really, all of Houston welcomed us and what we were doing. I think people want to have a connection to where their food is from.”
That connection is one of Schechter’s favorite things about her business. “I love being able to know the farmers and see what they’re doing throughout the year, and being able to tell their stories to our customers.”
Customers love it, too. The line for Houston Dairymaids at a recent Rice University Farmer’s Market was five or six people deep, all of them listening to Debby, one of Schechter’s employers, explain about the day’s offerings and serving samples of Bosque Blue, a creamy, robust-flavored cheese made by Stuart Veldhuizen of Veldhuizen Family Farm near Waco. She also offers Texas Gold Cheddar, one of the Dairymaids’ best sellers, also made by Veldhuizen. The Dairymaids’ market tent is clearly a favorite, and nearly everyone in line went away with something.
“We really do work to educate people about our cheese makers and about cheese,” says Schechter. “We tell the stories of the farmers we work with, why they make what they do, what they’re doing that’s new or different. This is an experience you don’t get when you buy cheese from a grocery store.”
Schechter looks at cheese as a living, changing entity, with its own seasonality and peaks. Right now, she says, consumers might have a hard time finding fresh goat cheese. Don’t worry, she explains. The goats are giving birth now, so they aren’t producing milk for cheese making.
“But spring goat cheese—oh, that’s wonderful,” she says, noting that buyers should look for that in the next few months.
As she’s built her business, Schechter now spends less time traveling about the state and more time in the warehouse, which is open on Fridays and Saturdays for shoppers. There, amid the wheels, she works to fill orders, calls farmers to find out what’s new and further business development. Houston Dairymaids now has three full-time and three part-time employees, and does a brisk online business. Last year, Schechter sold 600 gift baskets at Christmas via her website, on top of market appearances.
She still maintains contact with her cheese makers, though. Schechter always does the first visit to a farm that’s interested in having her represent its cheese, and she maintains regular contact with the chefs who are still huge supporters.
“They’re the taste makers in the city,” Schechter says of Houston’s chefs. “But the greatest thing about doing business in Houston is that people here have great Texas pride and they’re interested in supporting local producers. And that’s definitely what we do.”
Houston Dairymaids Sells at these Farmers Markets:
Rice University Farmer’s Market
Tuesdays 3:30 – 7pm
Midtown Farmer’s Market at T’afia
3701 Travis St
Saturdays 8am – Noon
Houston Dairymaids holds tastings at their warehouse twice a week:
Fridays, from 3 to 6:30 pm
Saturdays, from 10am to 2pm
Houston Dairymaids Warehouse
2201 Airline Drive, Houston, TX