The Take Away: Cheesemaker Susan Rigg Doing Work That Matters

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COURTESY OF RIVER WHEY CREAMERY
  • Courtesy of River Whey Creamery
Name: Susan Rigg
Job/Title: Chef and owner, River Whey Creamery
Birthplace: California
Years as a cheesemaker: Six
Impact: Uses local ingredients, classic technique and tenacious grit to supply local establishments including Cured, Hotel Emma and La Cantera Resort with cow’s milk cheeses
Money Quote: “You have to have something that matters to you, that fills a big enough space in your universe, that you can decide to focus on it and just get lost in it forever.”

Tell us about your background, and how you got where you are today.
When I was 10, I told my parents all I wanted for my birthday was a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. Even at that early age, I thought I was going to go to medical school, but that just didn’t happen for me. I ended up spending 15 years in retail, working for Barnes & Noble and Borders. It wasn’t what I thought I would be doing with my life, and I was miserable. I hired a life coach and spent three months working out the fact that food was a love of my life. I quit Borders, cashed in my 401(k) and went to culinary school. In 2014, I began production of the first River Whey Creamery products.



What was your line of thinking when you decided to professionally switch gears?
When Amazon came out, all brick-and-mortar bookstores were competing head to head with this new online model. As employees, we could see the writing on the wall. There was a moment in my life where I had to decide what would fulfill me. Before enrolling in culinary school, I took a week of vacation, grabbed a journal and really reflected. I thought I would maybe write cookbooks or do some travel writing, but everything I wrote down in that journal had something to do with food. I clearly remember my mother saying to me, “I don’t care what you do, as long as you’re happy doing it,” and the decision to get a culinary education just felt right.

What do you remember most clearly about starting that journey?
I remember discovering that beginning this new chapter was like walking down a hallway with 300 doors on either side. The career possibilities in the food business are endless. All I knew was that I wanted to enjoy the journey and leave the end open. Now I feel that way about life in general. People get this tunnel vision where they say, “I’m going to be a blank,” and I feel like that’s a mistake. When you limit or label yourself, you close yourself off to other opportunities to become even more.



How do you feel like your previous career path has helped in building your current business?
Spending 15 years unpacking countless boxes of books and utilizing employee book loan programs was a dream for a lifetime learner like me. I found myself taking in huge amounts of information about a wide array of subjects, like how to manage teams and how to run a business. The people I hire are just as important as the local ingredients I source for our cheeses. All of my employees are on a developmental action plan, whether they work for me part-time or full-time, because I feel like nurturing the professional goals my staff is worth that extra money, time and effort. It’s not about individual technical skills of that person; all of that can be taught. Can and do they want to do this job? And are they a good fit? These are the most important questions when I’m considering adding someone to the team.

Many people are taking this time to explore their hobbies more seriously, maybe even consider a career change. Any words of wisdom?
As shitty as people feel about COVID, it could be a huge opportunity. If you’re one of those people that hangs out on the sidelines and is just waiting around to see what happens to — or for — you, you’re going to be at the back of the line when opportunity comes around. It definitely takes guts and brains and luck, but grit and perseverance are what’s really going to make the difference. Just open yourself up to learning, see where that leads you, and don’t try to figure out the end before you get there.

Token COVID-focused question: how are you dealing?
You know, attitude really makes the difference. Are you going to look at the darkness every day or look at the light? So many local businesses are getting super creative right now and really taking advantage of every card that’s dealt to them. My friend Travis [Kraus] owns Parker Creek Ranch, and their home delivery business has been through the roof lately. We can’t attend farmers markets right now, so the fancy refrigerated truck that we typically use to transport product to weekend markets is now being used to help them keep up. We have to remain open and collaborative; not everything has to be a competition. Quite the opposite, the only way we’re all going to get through this is by embracing creativity and collaboration. With every dip, there comes a rise.

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