Willapa Hills Cheese: one year in

On a cold northwest morning, I spent 30 minutes on the phone catching up with Stephen Hueffed from Willapa Hills Cheese. Stephen is half of the husband and wife team who took an idea for a handcrafted cheese company from a dinner conversation to a growing business in southern Washington. Stephen spoke with me while waiting in the car for his other half, Amy, who was purchasing milk from a supplier they drove to that morning.

On a cold northwest morning, I spent 30 minutes on the phone catching up with Stephen Hueffed from Willapa Hills Cheese. Stephen is half of the husband and wife team who took an idea for a handcrafted cheese company from a dinner conversation to a growing business in Southwest Washington. Stephen spoke with me while waiting in the car for his other half, Amy, who was purchasing milk from a supplier they drove to that morning.

Growing their business has not been easy, and they haven’t tried to go it alone. Their $15,000 loan from 75 Squareholders financed additional cheese-making equipment last year, which helped them increase their production so they could say “yes” when buyers asked for larger orders. That infrastructure loan, coupled with other financing from our local finance partner, Craft3, provided working capital to buy more milk for delicious cheese.

“Prior to these rounds of funding, we would have to decline–or really, stress–about the potential to fulfill those orders,” Stephen told me. When I asked for the secret to his success, he tells it like it is, “Number One, you’re lucky. And two, you’re just stubborn enough to stay with it.”

Amy was recently invited as one of just nine Whole Foods Market Local Producer Loan Recipients to share their products and story with company leadership at a national gathering in Austin. Perhaps it’s a result of Willapa’s ability to grow with opportunity. With those bigger orders comes more responsibility. “We’re in the middle of some of the most rigorous food safety audits we’ve ever been apart of, and that’s just to start selling to a new retailer.” If everything goes well, that rigorous testing will result in one of their biggest orders ever.

The goal isn’t necessarily to get as big as possible. “It’s all relative,” Stephen says. “But the bottom line is that we can’t pay the electric bill based on what we sell to one small retailer. Most small producers top out really quick.” Willapa loves its local stores too, though. They’re entering more local natural foods stores soon. Not all small natural stores like the larger chains. Willapa has to balance those relationships every month–on top of everything else.

Amy returns to the car. Time to get back to work. No rest for these determined entrepreneurs. Stephen ends our call with the same encouraging tone he brings to every corner of his business: “You know, we love it. That’s the core to the whole bloody thing. If we didn’t care, and we didn’t love it, we would have turned back 100 times. And maybe that’s the deal. We’re not lucky. We’re just stubborn.”