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Blessed Cheesemakers – Mark Potter

Mark Potter had a simple plan to open a cheese factory – While that’s still on the agenda, along the way he’s established a thriving cafe, picked up some glittering prizes and has developed an even more successful project helping people to sample the finer things in life in one of Australia’s best wine districts – He offers Cameron Bayley a taste of things to come.


Active ImageAn internet search blandly describes the basis of a good cheese as curdled milk. Not so, according to Mark Potter, director of Blessed Cheese in South Australia. "The cheese needs to be somebody’s baby. There needs to be a face behind it. It’s not made out of a machine."

The key ingredient is the story behind the cheese, according to Potter: "Who made it, where it came from, what the cow was doing that afternoon. The story."

Blessed Cheese is the store and cafe Potter established in 2003 in the wine district of McLaren Vale, and where he teaches cheesemaking and wine and cheese appreciation. It’s also the base for Potter’s Cheese and Wine Trails, which equip punters with a hamper of locally-made cheeses and goodies, sending them on a tour of selected wineries waiting with matching wines. A bit like those progressive dinners from the seventies, but with far more panache.

"We’ve done extremely well, based on knowing nothing," says Potter. Actually, Dr Potter. He holds a PhD in biochemistry and was previously a research fellow at the University of Adelaide. Although it’s not necessarily a natural progression to cheesemaking, there is a link. "It’s still project management. As a researcher, you pick up a project and you need to know where you’ll be in three years in the first week, and it’s a similar thing. Everything I do is a new research project."

Circuitous Route

The initial plan was to set up a cheese factory and get a university certificate in cheesemaking. But grim reality stepped in and changed all that when Potter realised the financial investment he would be facing. "So, rather than get into a big debt situation with no skills, I just started making some cheese at home."

From such a simple plan, things snowballed. "I got invited to make cheese at other people’s houses, like a roaming circus freak," he jokes. At one point he was asked to make cheese at a winemaker’s house in McLaren Vale: "I was told six people would be there to make cheese. When I got there, there were 28. And six kids and four dogs. And we made cheese on a barbeque, which I highly don’t recommend."

This led to being invited to make cheese at a winery during weekends, teaching the art to local winemakers. A segment on the Channel 7 Discover program brought more than 500 bookings for four days. These opportunities, not to mention the financial security, meant Potter could quit his research position and take on a cafe on McLaren Vale’s main street, which had a bakehouse out back from where he planned to teach. "I thought I could cover rent through teaching and live in the cafÈ. But of course the space was there, and I thought why not. So with no experience whatsoever, I opened the cafe and taught myself as I went."

When starting out it was difficult to find enough resources about the basics of running a small business, and the journey so far has been a trial-and-error effort. "We run a fondue party once a month now, where we clear a good $1500 from five hours’ work, but we lost $1000 every time we did that the first six times, just because I had no idea what the hell I was doing." And although the cafe is on the brink of becoming self-sustaining, finding the right systems to put in place to free up his time for the business (and have a life) is an ongoing challenge. "Systemisation is my major focus," he says. "Having that ability to not be responsible for things; having enough information provided to staff so they don’t need you to be there."

Branching Out

The business has just reached its second birthday. "I’ve realised recently there’s a totally different array of challenges that take you out in the first year as take you out in the second year." The first year of new business is really about establishing yourself, he says. "Is the business real? Can you make money out of it, is it possible, or are you basically flawed from the beginning?" Second year issues, he continues, involve the systems that keep a business running. "Staffing and related costs, taxation, developing good AWA [Australian Workplace Agreement] systems," he says. "And having no sleep and no time off for two years!"

Making it through the first two years has been helped in no small way by branching out.

Active Image"Diversity is absolute," says Potter. For a lot of cafes in the area, this often means catering for events out of hours. In Potter’s case, the Cheese and Wine Trails provide a major add-on component, with some 5000 people having passed through already. "We now have commitment from seven wine districts around Australia for me to go there and build trails for them." In preparation, he has created a new company, Cheese and Wine Trails Australia, of which Blessed Cheese will be a patron.

Partnerships also play a key role. "Integration with, and working with other businesses to gain momentum is extremely important. We have some 25 different wineries we work with down here, the Cheese and Wine Trail encompasses 12 of them, there are so many others I work with."

There are also plans to establish a network of sister cafes around Australia to promote to wine and cheese aficionados as they cross the country. On top of this, Potter has been contracted by the state education department to teach Year 10 and 11 science in cheesemaking. He’s clearly a man on a mission. "I haven’t even begun," he says. "We will build a cheese factory. I mean, that was my intent from the outset."

Coming up with different avenues for the business isn’t the tricky part for Potter: "Innovation’s one thing, managing innovation is another. Having ideas, and not being able to go through with them yet and having the patience is my stress really." Being able to pace business development—"letting the clock tick another month because you can’t do X or Y"— and keeping things in perspective, especially with cash flow, is another constant challenge. "It’s being able to cope when you’ve got $40,000 of running debt, knowing that you’re doing $15,000 a week. I think it’s being able to embrace that without panicking, being able to have patience."

This kind of perspective has also helped the business make itself a part of the community. "We were very aware that we were new kids on the block in a very established district," says Potter. Running barn dances in a local hall makes a loss that roughly equates to two newspaper advertisements. However, he says, the pay-off, in terms of acceptance by the local market, is worth every cent.

By its very location, Blessed Cheese already achieves certain status. The McLaren Vale district is becoming brand-like in its reputation for the wine and cheese produce in the area. "It’s very much a lifestyle concept here. We have the sea, the surf, and the wine. The food groups here are very strong. So it’s a much more integrated package." Being about a half hour’s drive from the CBD is a big plus. "The access is huge, and it allows us to be a lot more expressive and innovative than I think the Barossa could."

Blessed Cheese’s success at the Premier’s Food Awards in 2004, where it won the leadership through innovative services to the food industry award, helped Potter feel less like a new kid and more a part of the neighbourhood. "That was huge, from my perspective." While winning two awards at the Tourism Awards for the Fleu
rieu Peninsula (the coastal region south of Adelaide) had a noticeable impact on the business, the Premier’s award was more personally satisfying. "To see us out of the square, and see we’re actually worth something on a state level," he says. "Sometimes you need to get a smiley stamp, so you know you’re in the game."

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