By Rachael King In the late 1990s, in the midst of Middle East talks, Liz Parnell got a call from the Clinton Administration. The White House chef wanted to serve Belle Chevre, her company's goat cheese, at a state dinner to be attended by Jordan's King Hussein, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Palestinian Yasser Arafat. At first, Parnell was thrilled. Then she panicked. Goat cheese, while still catching on in the U.S., is a staple in the Middle East. "Those gentlemen had been eating goat cheese since they were children," Parnell says. "What if they didn't like mine?"
Although she wasn't there to hear the dignitaries' verdicts, the White House invitation was yet another sign that her company had arrived. Since launching Fromagerie Belle Chevre in 1989 in Elkmont, Ala., Parnell has earned 48 national awards for her cheeses and has been featured in 10 books and top culinary magazines.
The five-employee company now makes Belle Chevre with 14 seasonings, from basil to herbs de Provence with lavender. Selling to upscale retailers like the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills and slightly more mainstream outlets like Whole Foods Market, Parnell brought in $175,000 in revenue last year.
BIGGER BITES. She was 58 when she made her first batch of cheese. Before then, Parnell, now 73, worked as an administrative assistant while raising two children with her husband, Tom Parnell, a U.S. Navy aviator and astrophysicist. While living in Huntsville, Ala., where her husband worked for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Parnell went back to college, then began working as a real estate broker. In 1987, she started her own company, Omni Realty.
She was introduced to goat cheese while traveling in Europe. It was love at first bite. "Every time we went to France, when the cheese tray came and the waiter would put the knife down to cut it, I would move it over a little bit, and then I'd move it over just a little bit more," Parnell says. But she couldn't find this delicacy in her local supermarkets.
In 1989 Parnell discovered a small goat-cheese-making operation in Elkmont, a 45-minute drive from her home. She quickly decided to buy into the business. Parnell worked long days, first at the real estate firm and then learning to make goat cheese. Finally, in 1995 Parnell bought out her partner and gave up real estate for good. She invested about $175,000 to buy the dairy and the 37 acres on which it sits.
SEASONAL VARIATIONS. Not content with the cheese the dairy had been producing, Parnell experimented. She would serve test batches to her six-year-old granddaughter, who loved it. "She was one of my best tasters," Parnell says. Three years later, she perfected the recipe she now uses.
Making goat cheese, Parnell says, takes a bit of black magic. The goat's milk, for one, varies greatly by season. "So much depends on the weather and temperature and timing and ratios of one to the other," she says. Large companies such as Kraft Foods (KFT) buy their milk according to the percentage of milk fat, but Parnell's small business can't do the same. She buys the milk of 120 goats milked exclusively for her by a Tennessee farm.
"In the summertime, when it's really hot and the goats go out and drink their hearts out, I'm getting more water, and I'm paying the same thing for that," she says. "If you aren't Kraft and don't analyze everything, you don't get Kraft cheese." But that's precisely the point.
While setting up her business, she sought advice from the American Cheese Society and attended its meetings. Parnell recalls someone commenting that small-batch cheeses such as hers -- known as artisanal cheeses -- vary from one batch to the next, unlike the more dependable cheese produced by large companies. And therein lies the beauty of her handmade cheeses. To Parnell, each is a work of art. King writes about business and technology for BusinessWeek SmallBiz and other publications