The big cheese behind Valley Shepherd

MICHAEL HINKELMAN / DAILY NEWS STAFF Eran Wajswol , owner of the Jersey-based Valley Shepherd Creamery, recently opened a retail outlet at Reading Terminal Market.

ERAN WAJSWOL, 57, of Califon, N.J., owns the 120-acre Valley Shepherd Creamery in Long Valley, N.J., where he raises dairy sheep and makes cave-aged, farm-fed cheeses and other dairy foods, including sheep's milk yogurt, ricotta and butter. In mid-January, Wajswol (WHY-sole) opened a retail outlet at Reading Terminal Market, complete with an aging "mini-cave" and glassed-in production room.

Q: What made you decide to open a store here?

A: The store is really a derivative of how we do what we do. We're basically a farmstead operation, which means you own your own animals, milk 'em daily, make your own dairy products, age them yourself and sell direct.

Q: A different business model?

A: We opened a cheese store on the farm catering to agritourism. Step two was going to farmers' markets in New York because you sell direct. Stage three was opening external retail stores. We opened a store in Park Slope [in Brooklyn], which caught on and got us thinking about Philly. We started talking to Reading Terminal Market two years ago.

Q: It looks like you sunk a lot of cash into the operation here.

A: Probably $500,000. The minute you say milk, dairy and stainless steel, the cost triples.

Q: Before this, you were building high-rises in Hoboken, N.J. How'd you go from that to farmstead cheese?

A: I would go to Europe to get away from it and make cheese with friends in Belgium, Netherlands, France and Spain. I liked sheep cheese the best. I bought 12 dairy sheep in Canada and moved them in and learned the hard way.

Q: What distinguishes Valley Shepherd besides its biz model?

A: I don't think there's an equal in the U.S. You can duplicate direct-to-consumer, but what you cannot duplicate is the concentration of customers. You can take this model and feed it to somebody in Colorado or Vermont, but they can't execute it because they don't have the customer base. It's a unique combination of what we do but lucky we are here to do it.

Q: Lucky, huh?

A: Cheese is the new foodie mantra. Two things people want is handmade and local. And we just happen to fall in both categories, so, yes, we're lucky.

Q: Who are your customers here?

A: You got the lunch crowd that lines up to buy the artisan grilled cheese. We get a lot of foodies who come to the cheese counter and say, "Well, we know Di Bruno [Brothers] and Downtown Cheese, but we don't know anybody who makes and sells direct."

Q: How many employees do you have working in Philadelphia?

A: Eight.

Q: How's business going here?

A: We were profitable after two weeks of operations.

Q: Anything else in the works?

A: We're going to open a cheese school. We'll have a couple classes a week where we teach people how to make some cheeses in the production room after hours.


" @MHinkelman