SEATTLE — In the early 2000s, Kurt Beecher Dammeier was looking for a business with permanence. After much deliberation, he chose to make cheese.
“We wanted a business that would be around for the next 40 to 80 years, at least,” co-worker Chris Birkeland said. In addition, they wanted something about which they could be passionate.
Cheese satisfied both of those criteria. It is a product that has been around for ages, he said, and it would be around for many years to come.
Nearly two decades later, they are still at it, and growing.
Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, four to five employees at a time make cheese in the 1,400-square-foot facility in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. They take milk from a pair of Washington state dairies and process it into cheese.
This is done in full view of the public; windows expose production to passers-by on the street. Diners inside Beecher’s café, which is in the same building, are also able to look through the windows and see cheese-makers at work. They munch on the company’s “world famous” macaroni and cheese, and other menu items, as they watch.
Dan Schleicher, senior cheese-maker, said the tourists are amusing, as they sometimes stand at the window for several minutes engrossed in workers who are doing rather ordinary activities.
He said the fishbowl environment is initially distracting for new cheese-makers, but only for “the first week or two.”
“You get used to it,” he said. “After that, you just see it as a job to do. You’ve got to stay on track.”
And it is a big job — processing four 10,000-pound vats a day. There is not much time to be distracted by tourists, who line up at the window and at the door waiting to enter the restaurant.
Being highly visible contributes to the company’s success, helping it grow. People see the sterile and professional atmosphere of the processing room, they taste the finished product and develop a connection with the company.
With a growing fan base, the company has mushroomed. Beecher’s has opened a second Seattle location at Sea-Tac Airport.
Beecher’s has even grown beyond Seattle, opening a facility in Manhattan in 2011 that is 30 percent larger than the Seattle location. Like the Pike Place facility, the one in New York City has large glass windows so the public can watch.
On top of the commercial success, Beecher’s has also attained a highly respected place in the industry. Its cheeses, including its Flagship Reserve (an 18-month-aged “cheddar style”) and Flagsheep (a cow/sheep’s milk blend), are regular winners at the American Cheese Society’s Annual Conference.
Beecher’s Homemade Cheese
Owner: Kurt Beecher Dammeier
Location: Pike Place Market, Sea-Tac Airport, New York City
Year opened: 2003