Monday, October 29, 2018

Empowerment through Food: Claudia Lucero of Urban Cheesecraft

"The line I draw between my former career in nonprofits and my company, Urban Cheesecraft, is empowerment." - Claudia Lucero

Raised for the first three years of her life by her grandmother, who'd immigrated from Mexico and lived in a neighborhood near the border in San Diego, Claudia Lucero said that her grandmother was a huge influence on her life and that they shared a special bond, one bound up in culture and a common passion for good food. Lucero remembers regular visits to Mexico so that her grandmother could see relatives there, and that during those visits they'd go to the tortillerias and fresh cheese shops and make cheese tacos right on the spot. Another treat was the instant chocolate mix called Maizena that her grandmother used to make a drinking chocolate called atole.

Cheese maker and author Claudia Lucero.

There were also the doughnuts her grandmother would make using inexpensive rolls of biscuit dough from the store that she'd roll out into disks. She'd have Lucero rummage in the kitchen for a just-the-right-size cap from a bottle to use for cutting the hole, then she'd fry the disks in oil until they puffed up before young Claudia's eyes.

Large blocks of surplus government cheese were a staple that was always available and "kept us going," Lucero recalled. After the age of three, she and her sister lived with their mother, who considered herself "a modern woman and working single mother" who had no interest in cooking. Lucero took over the job and recalled cutting the orange government cheese into cubes and cooking them in the microwave until they melted, turning them into crunchy cracker-like crisps just like the frico that's so popular now on restaurant menus and at deli counters.

Fresh cheeses you can make at home.

For several years Lucero worked for nonprofit organizations in San Diego focused on providing support services to girls, women and the LGBTQ community, then came to Portland to work for the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls. For several years she'd been dabbling in home cooking projects like pickling and making bread, yogurt and simple fresh cheeses such as paneer, but it was feedback from friends at a weekly soup night that caused Lucero to take these pursuits more seriously.

The breads and cheeses she made and contributed to the communal meals got consistent raves, so when a friend's mother was visiting, Lucero put together a simple cheese making kit—containing citric acid, salt and cheesecloth—as a gift. With her nonprofit job barely covering her living expenses and with student loans to pay off, she had the timely epiphany that these home cheese making kits might be something people would buy for themselves or for a gift.

Queso blanco and paneer traditional cheese kit.

At the time, that meant getting her home kitchen approved for food production from Oregon's agriculture department, a process that has been made easier by Oregon's Home Kitchen Licensing law passed in 2016. Coincidentally, the website Etsy had launched a couple of years before Lucero formed her company, Urban Cheesecraft, in 2009, and it provided the creator-friendly platform she needed to get her business up and running.

A success almost from the start, Lucero was producing her kits solo, doing all the purchasing, promoting, packaging, sales and distribution out of her home. That's when she got a call from Whole Foods asking if she could supply their Pacific Northwest stores with her kits, to the tune of 20 kits per store, which added up to 500 kits per month. Shortly thereafter, New Seasons Market started requesting her kits for their stores. The good news? She paid off her student loans within a year. The bad news? After two years, she was exhausted and realized she could no longer do everything herself.

Lucero's first book on home cheese making.

Fortunately, at about that time Portland distributor Provvista Specialty Foods (sold in 2011 to Chef's Warehouse) stepped in to pick up the sales and distribution aspects, which took a huge load off of Lucero's shoulders. Then she was laid off from her job, giving her more time to focus on the business. Fortuitously, within a month of being laid off, kitchenware and home furnishings retailer Williams Sonoma came to her with an opportunity to develop custom kits for the chain's stores, and Workman Publishing offered her a book deal.

Her book, One-Hour Cheese: Ricotta, Mozzarella, Chèvre, Paneer—Even Burrata, was an almost instant hit with its simple instructions and step-by-step photos that guided even the most cooking-averse readers through properly heating milk, stirring curds, molding, kneading, and stretching the cheeses. One reader commented, "[Lucero] starts you out at the very beginning with a fast and easy farmer's cheese. This is so basic and easy that it encourages you to know you can do this and will keep people reading the rest. She also has many photos, so you can really see if you are on track. Very well thought out."

New dairy-free kits.

As the business grew, Lucero found a co-packer, DePaul Industries, which could put together the kits for her. She then switched to another outsourcing company, Relay Resources, to assemble the kits so she could concentrate on recipe development and work on her second book about making dairy-free cheeses at home. Called One-Hour Dairy-Free Cheese, it came about because of the questions she got "from day one" about using non-dairy ingredients with her traditional kits. (You can't.) She also hired a sales director to manage the business flow, and found a new distributor, Frontier Co-op, to handle the new dairy-free kits.

Urban Cheesecraft's dairy-free cheeses.

Lucero said that, as a person who loves cheese, it was interesting to start making the dairy-free versions. Judging from the types of vegan cheeses available in stores, she came to believe that most vegan cheese makers—understandably—don't know what real cheeses taste like any more. So her aim? To develop vegan cheeses that taste like real brie, fondue and feta, just a few of the many styles she's developing.

"Cheese is milk's leap toward immortality," she says in her video on Etsy, quoting author and media personality Clifton Fadiman. She adds, "Whether it takes an hour or a month [as with aged cheeses], I want to make it easy, accessible and empowering for people."

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