How many of us plod along in our stable jobs, guaranteed a salary at the end of the month, yet wishing for something more but too scared to take the leap? Kristen Schnepp of Gringa Dairy was in this familiar boat, until she woke up one day and wondered, “Is this it?” She decided to pack it all in and follow her dream, learning to make cheese and opening her own dairy. 

Tell us a bit more about your business offering

Gringa Dairy produces artisan Mexican cheeses under a railway arch in SE London (Peckham to be exact), using organic milk from Kent. We currently make three of the most common cheeses used in Mexican cooking – Queso Fresco (which is like a less salty version of feta), Queso Chihuahua (which is like a tangy mild cheddar only better melting) and Queso Oaxaca (which is like a more flavourful mozzarella). My business primarily serves Mexican and Latin American restaurants, food trucks and pop-ups in the UK, but we supply specialty online sellers as well as independent shops, Whole Foods Markets and Selfridges Foodhall.

What makes your business unique compared to other cheese dairies in the UK?

We are the only producer of Mexican-style cheeses in the UK.

And how long have you been working on this project?

I spent 2 months on initial business planning and a further 4 months building the dairy.  My first cheese was sold in April of 2013.

How did the idea for it originally come about?

I basically woke up one day at 43 years of age and realised that my career no longer fulfilled me. My dream was to become a small-holder, making cheese, and my wife was kind of tired of hearing about it, so she asked for a business plan for her birthday – basically a perfect “put up or shut up” approach to someone like me!

What came from that process was the idea to make Mexican cheese in an urban dairy. This emerged from the realisation that the Mexican food trend was finally taking root in the UK. While the number of suppliers of imported food products was dramatically increasing, the most common dairy products were near impossible to import and the cheeses available in the UK were poor substitutes. I thought: “Why not me?” and I just went for it.

startup_Kristen making cheese

And your personal background? 

I spent my career in the corporate world, first in technology and then in financial services in a variety of roles focussed on marketing, business development and strategy. So I was comfortable with the business side of things. What I needed to tackle was learning to make cheese!

In addition to home cheese-making and a whole lot of reading, I took courses at The School of Artisan Food and spent time in a few dairies trying to get a sense of what commercial production required. So I basically had no practical experience when I started. In retrospect, a bit insane really!

Were there any entrepreneurs from your family influenced your decision to go out on your own?

Both of my parents were serial entrepreneurs, but I honestly thought I would never want to start my own business.  I guess it is in the genes as doing my own thing seems to be a good fit!

Tell us about the most exciting or inspirational moment to date, be it in running your business or life in general?

I get asked this a lot and I find it difficult to name just one. My journey has been punctuated by a series of incredibly meaningful and inspirational moments that help me to keep moving forward. Praise from Mexican cheese expert Carlos Yescas, a silver medal for our first cheese awards entry, and a Gringa Dairy window on Oxford St. at Selfridges for 8 weeks are the top three.

And the toughest moment?

This is a long list as there are so many challenges in starting a business. I freely admit to spending a fair amount of time in tears as it can just be incredibly overwhelming to step so far out of the comfort zone and do something completely different. It has been a personal growth lesson to find ways to step back and not take setbacks personally.

And was there ever a strange moment in your life where you just felt you were destined to do this?

For whatever reason, I think I was always meant to do this. I remember once about 10 years ago making ricotta for a dinner party and not being able to stop talking about making it. Makes me laugh every time I think about it!

startup_Gringa Dairy Cheese

Where do you want your business to be in the next say three years?

We want to keep growing and plan to improve our reach in the UK as well as expand to the rest of Europe.  As long as we can have fun as well as run the business according to our values of honesty, transparency, fairness and environmental sustainability, we’ll keep going.

Finally, what would be the one bit of advice that you would offer to someone considering their own start-up?

Do the research on your idea and marketplace (the Business & IP Library at the British Library is fantastic). Question yourself deeply on if you are prepared for the uncertainty as well as the crushing workload that starting a business brings. Seek out advice and challenges. If it all looks good and you’re really up for it, you kind of just need to go for it as there is no such thing as the perfect time to get started!