Hooked on Cheese: The Impact of a SOFI Award: An Interview with Jeremy Little
The SOFI Awards are some of the most coveted honors in the specialty food business. Gold, Silver, and Bronze sofis are given for “Specialty Outstanding Food Innovation,” and the prestige that comes with these accolades has the potential to significantly alter the course for an artisan producer. We interviewed one such honoree, cheesemaker Jeremy Little of Sweet Grass Dairy, whose Thomasville Tomme won SOFI Gold in 2017.
Little has always been a passionate, educated cheesemaker whose goal to improve his cheese is rooted in satisfying his own intrinsic drive. This year, his Asher Blue has been awarded a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards in Europe, and his Thomasville Tomme just won a Good Food Award in addition to the SOFI. While each prize is just an added bonus to the true satisfaction of making extraordinary cheese, Little recognizes that the SOFI has an tremendous effect on his business. Raymond spoke to him about winning this award and how he keeps grounded as his cheesemaking evolves.
Raymond Hook: As a cheesemaker, what did the SOFI win mean to you?
Jeremy Little: It was incredible. It took a few days to sink in, to be honest. The best part for me was that the batch we sent for judging was an updated version after my courses at Academie Opus Caseus with Sue Sturman [in France] and Sterling College [in Vermont]. I put a lot of effort into tweaking the flavor profile and natural rind development. The award was a direct reflection of the changes I put into the recipe, so I could not have been prouder.
What did winning the award mean for Sweet Grass Dairy?
Thomasville Tomme is a cheese we have made from the beginning. It got some attention in the early years, but for the first win in a while to be a Gold sofi brought a lot of confidence to our team. It showed that the changes I was making in our recipes were not just some crazy idea I had, but there was real intention fueling these changes.
How has the win affected sales for Thomasville Tomme?
Well, we’re sold out until the end of January. Sales have never been so strong. It’s almost bittersweet; the attention and recognition of our efforts is so great, but it does come at a cost. We can only make so much, so we've had to tell some of our customers that they'll have to wait, and that's always a really tough pill to swallow when you are in the hospitality business. But rather than try to figure out how to make more at lower quality, we stand by our values and make quality our main priority. I think it speaks to the quality of the product when people say, "Okay, I'll wait. Let me know when I can get it and if possible, can I put in a pre-order for a month out?” That's a huge compliment.
Is your cheesemaking constantly evolving?
Always. I am always trying to make the cheeses “better,” which is, of course, subjective. What I think is “better” is not always what the consumer would agree with and my adjustments don’t always turn out as expected. But that’s part of the evolution: being able to recognize the opportunities present. Sometimes we try to make a specific tweak that ends up leading us to a totally new thought process somewhere else. It’s a cycle that won’t end as long as I’m behind the wheel. It’s what keeps me pushing: the idea that no matter how great my cheese is today, it can always improve.