Posted 3/17/2014 12:00 am
Updated 9 months ago
Six months after an equipment failure spoiled 2,500 pounds of carefully handcrafted cheese — his entire inventory, worth about $60,000 retail — Kent Walker is looking into the future, and, he says, it’s bright.
Sometime in early summer, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese, the 28-year-old’s eponymous company, will be moving from its less-than-ideal industrial space in east Little Rock to 524 Main St. and a 2,000-SF shop designed to Walker’s specifications.
There he’ll have a tasting room, a public space in the Main Street Lofts mixed-use development that is one piece of the Main Street redevelopment puzzle. He’ll have dedicated space for the giant vat in which he and one other employee make his cheese, for the cheese-pressing equipment and for a cellar — a real cellar, below ground — in which he’ll age his cheese.
It’s an unexpected trajectory for the Little Rock native who grew up in Fayetteville, a proudly proclaimed Eagle Scout with a computer science degree from the University of Arkansas, a former website creator who once worked at Lockheed Martin in Colorado.
But, Walker says, it shouldn’t be — unexpected, that is. “I’ve always liked making things,” he said in an interview at his production facility on Pepper Street. He loved the “something from nothing aspect” of creating websites.
About six years ago, Walker returned to Little Rock to be with the woman who would become his wife, Josie Niemeyer Walker, a resident at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. While casting about for jobs, Kent Walker began making cheese as a hobby, eventually aging cheese in the vegetable crisper of the couple’s refrigerator.
Some friends and acquaintances in the restaurant business expressed interest in his creations, and Walker began selling some of his cheeses. The demand for his product inspired him to take samples to area stores and restaurants “and people were excited about it.” There was, he found, a market for his product.
About this time — two and a half years ago or so — Trinity Episcopal Cathedral offered Walker and a few other nascent food makers (Loblolly Creamery was one) free space in the cathedral’s kitchen, and suddenly, he had a cheese-making business.
Walker compares cheese making to winemaking: “You’re making a product that people love. And financially, it’s just an awesome business [model] because it’s something that’s destroyed and repurchased with pleasure.”
And as with winemaking, in which mistakes can become prized products (Champagne), a cheese recipe gone wrong can result in something even more desirable, he says. “We have a couple of cheeses that started off as an accident,” Walker says. “That’s the great thing about cheese making, is that if you mess up a batch, you take it to the market and charge extra. It’s crazy.”
Walker, using savings, his 401(k) and money from his parents and family friends, invested about $80,000 in his business. In 2012, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese had $60,000 in revenue and was on track to double that in 2013 and show a profit. He moved the cheese-aging aspect of production to Pepper Street in October 2012 and the rest of the operation in October 2013. In between was the great cheese debacle.
On the last hot weekend of September last year, the building’s cooling unit failed, and all the inventory Walker had spent January to September building up — some of his cheeses are aged three months — was spoiled.
With a $25,000 insurance check, hard work and the support of his customers — he didn’t lose a single account — he has “pretty much recovered” and is able to see a year down the road, three years, even five years.
Demand remains robust for his product, of which he makes 280 to 300 pounds a week. He offers six cheeses year-round along with one-offs as the mood or the season strikes. And Walker uses as many local ingredients — milk is, of course, the big one — as possible.
Ben E. Keith Co. is the distributor of Kent Walker Artisan Cheese. Walker has about 50 restaurant accounts and about 20 retail accounts, including Whole Foods stores in Little Rock, Memphis and Jackson, Miss. His cheeses can even be found at an independent cheese shop in Tulsa.
But Walker is particularly looking forward to introducing more people in central Arkansas to his product.
“That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the downtown space,” he said. “We’re going to have a big, awesome 1920s-style neon sign that says ‘Kent Walker Artisan Cheese.’ We’re going to have a public front, the tasting room. We’re going to be in all the ‘Visit Little Rock’ magazines and the cool maps that show the different businesses. And that’s just going to do so much for us.”
For a virtual view, check out KentWalkerCheese.com.