Petaluma, Calif.-based Marin French Cheese Co. has been making high-quality soft-ripened cheeses using French techniques in the coastal terroir of Marin County since 1865. Famed for its soft-ripened cheeses with bloomy white penicillium rinds, the company has also been handcrafting washed-rind cheeses since 1901, using the Old World techniques that make its creamery a destination.
Marin French Cheese Co. is the oldest continually operating cheese manufacturer in the United States. Handcrafted and made of the milk from local dairies within 20 miles of the creamery, the company’s products offer a distinctive taste, true to its roots in Marin County.
Dairy Processing spoke one-on-one with Manon Servouse, marketing director for Marin French Cheese Co., about the craft of artisan cheesemaking, company tradition, respect and responsibility.
Dairy Processing: How did Marin French Cheese Co. get started?
Manon Servouse: Marin French Cheese Co. originated in 1865 when the Thompson’s, a family of Illinois cheesemakers, migrated west and bought a 700-acre dairy ranch amid the rolling hills of Marin County. They opened a creamery and soon realized they’d struck gold of a different sort in California — the cool, misty coastal mornings and sunny afternoons created the perfect conditions for making small-batch, soft-ripened cheese.
In 1865 as the Gold Rush was subsiding, failed miners sought work in the city by the Bay and the sudden population spike caused a shortage of eggs. Jefferson A. Thompson responded to this abrupt shortage of breakfast protein by creating a small-format brie using traditional French cheese-making techniques and, due to overwhelming demand, shipped the new “breakfast cheese” without aging to San Francisco. Petite Breakfast is made the same way today and remains one of Marin French Cheese Co.’s bestsellers.
The company evolved into the 20th century as Jefferson’s two sons, Jeff and Rudolph, took over. Jeff expanded his knowledge of French cheesemaking under the guidance of Louis Cantel, one of the first European Camembert makers on the West Coast. Marin French Cheese Co.’s heritage Brie and Camembert recipes form the basis for all the creamery’s artisan cheeses. The addition of ingredients like mustard seeds, truffles and jalapeños reflect the vibrant culinary landscape of Northern California and appeal to adventurous tastes.
Generations of Thompson family members ran the creamery from the late 1800s until 1995, when they sold it to entrepreneur and cheese enthusiast Jim Boyce. Boyce believed that what cows eat and where they live determines the quality of the milk they produce, and that Marin French Cheese Co. exemplified this philosophy. Before Boyce’s death in 2010, he sold Marin French Cheese Co. to Laiteries H. Triballat, a 100-year-old French, family-owned artisan cheese company that has maintained the same standards and traditions reflected in generations of cheesemaking knowledge and passion.
Nearly 160 years later, the creamery has never stopped making the highest quality French-style artisan cheeses with fresh milk from Holstein, Jersey and Guernsey cows raised on local pastures. The milk is pasteurized and turned into curd using unique recipes and a blend of cultures present in the salty coastal air. That influence of geography and climate found nowhere else in the world distinguishes Marin French Cheese Co., and creates a true taste of place.
DP: What is the company’s mission? How does this impact company culture, practices and structure?
MS: As the country’s oldest cheese company, tradition matters. Our mission is to produce the highest-quality and best-tasting soft-ripened cheeses. We marry a commitment to the tradition of artisan French cheesemaking techniques with the bounty provided by Northern California’s terroir and innovative, pioneering spirit. Our award-winning cheeses are hand-crafted to inspire one of life’s simplest and most authentic pleasures: exploring new flavors and experiencing good food.
At a company that is nearly 160 years old, our culture will always be a combination of past and present. From our longest employee of 52 years to seasonal student workers, it’s the balance that makes things work. We are lucky enough to have a family-owned parent company, Laiteries H. Triballat, that provides us with invaluable support and whose shared standards and traditions are reflected in generations of cheesemaking knowledge and passion.
Respect and responsibility for the products is the top priority for all employees, no matter the department. Awards, recognition and any sales wins are recognized as shared successes and celebrated companywide. Pride in our products and place makes us all feel like stewards of the land, members of the community.
The creamery has never stopped making the highest-quality French-style artisan cheeses with fresh milk from Holstein, Jersey and Guernsey cows raised on nearby pastures. The milk is pasteurized and turned into curd using unique recipes and a blend of cultures present in the salty coastal air. Everything is hand-made in small batches in the same creamery since 1865. We adhere to strict attention to detail and continuous assessment of all cheeses to maintain quality and tradition.
With the support of Laiteries H. Triballat, this shared respect for tradition, allows us to explore and innovate via cross-departmental brainstorming around innovation, R&D updates and tastings, and using internal communication channels to share ideas, new products on the market, buyer and consumer feedback, and more. The cheese shop at our creamery, which carries our cheeses as well as products from neighboring cheese and specialty food makers, is where we test new products, get consumer feedback in real time, and explore new flavors and share our love of experiencing good food with visitors from all over the world.
DP: What are your views on the artisan cheese category in general in terms of trends?
MS: People are seeking opportunities for small indulgences, with comforting and nostalgic flavors, and the opportunity to “explore” without having to actually travel. Our cheeses are perfect for this, as we promise moments of authentic pleasure (for yourself or with friends and family) and offer cheeses unique to California. We’re also aware of staffing challenges at the retail level and see the introduction of fixed-weight versions of traditionally random-weight items gaining wider distribution. In a challenging environment, this does give more consumers access to high-quality artisan cheeses, which we’re optimistic will be good for the industry and for other artisan producers.
While we pay attention to trends, which informs innovation in terms of the flavors of our Petites and new Premium line, we never lose sight of our focus on tradition. We are less concerned with following trends and more about maintaining our unique identity and expanding consumer awareness of our wonderful products.
DP: Describe your recent rebranding efforts. What was the impetus for the revamp?
MS: The decision to rebrand arose because many thought that Marin French was a descriptor of cheese style, not our company name. Even locals who know the creamery as “The Cheese Factory” had some confusion. The new logo and design reaffirm Marin French Cheese Co. as the country’s oldest cheese company, rooted in a tradition of artisan French-style cheesemaking in the unique terroir of Northern California.
The new logo and contemporary packaging with easy-to-read labels are in colors specific to each offering, so consumers can find their favorite cheese more easily.
DP: What new product innovations are on the horizon for Marin French Cheese Co.?
MS: We introduced Golden Gate in 2021, a washed rind triple crème cheese that is the first in a new line of premium artisan cheeses developed for seasoned cheese lovers and those just starting to explore the wonderful world of cheese. We are actively working on extending this product line as well as innovative additions to our Classic and Petite lines.
DP: What does your current portfolio include?
MS: Our heritage Brie and Camembert recipes form the basis of our artisan cheeses in the Classic, Petite Classic and Petite Reserve Collections. Exciting ingredients like mustard seeds, truffles and jalapeños appeal to adventurous tastes. Their foundation comes from time-honored techniques going back centuries. Our soft-ripened classic cheeses — Camembert, Traditional Brie and Triple Crème Brie — anchor any cheeseboard. In 2005, Triple Crème Brie shocked the cheese world as the first American cheese to win the only gold medal in the Brie category of The World Cheese Awards in London, a feat it repeated in 2010. The award marked the first time an American-made brie surpassed its European competitors and became the first in a long line of national and international awards. Most recently, Golden Gate, the company’s newest cheese, a washed rind triple crème, was awarded silver in its category at the ACS 2022 awards.
Petite Breakfast is our little cheese with the big history. It began as a protein alternative in response to a sudden over demand for eggs in the 1860s by failed miners-turned-dockworkers. The urgent demand inspired the Thompsons to quickly develop a small format fresh brie, skip the aging room and ship the new unripened “breakfast Cheese” to the docks. Petite Breakfast is made the same way today and remains Marin French Cheese Co.’s bestseller.
Our newest cheese, Golden Gate, was introduced in 2021. Inspired by the vibrant color of its namesake San Francisco landmark, Golden Gate is a washed rind triple crème cheese that gets its striking color from Brevibacterium linens cultures naturally present in the coastal air at Marin French Cheese Co.’s historic creamery. In true artisan fashion, each wheel is hand-washed with brine multiple times to lock in moisture and create the perfect environment for coastal cultures to thrive. The distinctive flavor is earthy with vegetal aromas and rich, savory notes. Golden Gate Washed Rind Cheese represents a true taste of terroir that can’t be replicated.
Our Brie en Croute is a seasonal offering and is a classic appetizer featuring our Traditional Brie wrapped in flaky puff pastry and parbaked for easy entertaining at home.
DP: With Marin French Cheese Co., it’s not just cheesemaking, it’s a craft. Expound.
MS: Cheesemaking is a beautiful combination of science, art and nature that needs a balance of respect for tradition mixed with innovative spirit. You need precise recipes and measurements but also experimentation, and trial and error. Our team of cheesemakers have their hands in the curd every day, feeling the milk knit together as it starts to transform. Every step of the cheesemaking process is important and needs personal touch and care. From receiving the milk to weekly quality tastings of all our products, it’s the dedication and know-how from our team that makes our cheeses what they are.
DP: What do the day-to-day operations look like at Marin French Cheese Co.?
MS: Each day starts with the delivery of fresh milk and the hands-on workmanship of our cheese makers who produce and age the cheeses. From there they are packaged and go out to the wider world: whether it’s being shipped to our distributors, retail and foodservice customers; or part of the curated cheese baskets that consumers order through our online shop, Northbay Creameries; or putting together a delicious selection of at-peak-ripeness cheeses for customers who stop by our cheese shop on their way to the coast for a day of wine tasting in Sonoma. All of this activity is done by hand, on-site by our small team.
Our cheese shop and grounds are open seven days a week and are a very big part of day to day life at Marin French Cheese Co. For many decades we have been a destination for both locals and tourists from near and far. Visitors to our creamery can enjoy picnicking on the grounds, where they will also see cows grazing behind the creamery, deer on the property, etc.
DP: What are the future initiatives for Marin French Cheese Co.?
MS: We are actively working on extending the Premium product line as well as innovative additions to our Classic & Petite lines. We are also getting back ‘out into the field’ with events and partnerships. We’re continuously improving and expanding what we offer at the shop. This includes the introduction of Straus Organic soft serve, upcoming espresso, weekend tasting events, supporting other local cheeses from neighboring creameries and bringing in new products and merchandise that will appeal and delight our local customers and visitors from all over the world.