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10 Questions with John Machacek

John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past nine years. He knows their ups, and their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Maartje Murphy, Founder of Cows & Co Creamery.

01. Will you please tell us your Cows & Co Creamery elevator pitch?

Cows & Co Creamery, which includes our Duchessa Gelato brand, is an on-farm creamery where we produce authentic gouda cheese and artisan gelato that connects my family’s dairy farm with the customer.

Did You Know?

Gelato dates back to the 16th century.

02. I, likely along with others here, first came to know of you and your business by seeing your Duchessa Gelato cart at events like the Red River Market. I’ll get to your creamery operation in a moment, but am I correct to say that the gelato cart was basically the first step into what we now see today?

I had always had the desire to be a part of the family business but didn’t necessarily want to be a dairy farmer. There was something in my heart calling me to entrepreneurship and creating a product with the milk from our cows seemed like something I could do to honor my family and our cows for producing such high-quality milk. I am originally from the Netherlands and we moved to Canada when I was seven and North Dakota when I was 13. We would travel back home to the Netherlands about once a year and spend lots of time at on-farm creameries. I thought this would be fun to bring back to North Dakota, especially because there are no on-farm creameries in this state. During all this dreaming, I was working full-time as an emergency department nurse in Fargo. I wasn’t ready for brick-and-mortar so I purchased a gelato cart from Italy and started catering weddings, farmers markets, business meetings and basically anyone that would hire me. This was a great way for me to get started at my own pace and time.

03. Between having family in Carrington and following your socials, I’m aware of the beautiful Cows & Co Creamery space you built on your farmstead to not only make your gelato and cheese, but also serve as café to purchase food and drinks. How did this next big step in your business growth come about?

Catering events and monthly orders were slowly taking off for myself and Duchessa Gelato. Before our current creamery location, we renovated my mother’s side of my parent’s garage into a licensed and inspected dairy processing facility. After a few years, we had to expand our processing facility. Casey and I had looked at renting space in Fargo or purchasing a farmstead near Fargo, but something in our hearts was pulling us back to Carrington. After deciding to move back to Carrington, we purchased a farmstead of our own that we could grow our business and family on. Gouda cheese was a logical next step for expansion, as it originates in the Netherlands.

Did You Know?

Gouda cheese get its name from the city of Gouda, South Holland where it is traded. The city is also where stroopwafels were first made—not bad for a city of about 75,000!

The Netherlands has many on-farm creameries. I wanted to share the peacefulness of farm life as well as show people where their food comes from. We renovated a pole barn into the creamery we have today. It houses our cheese and gelato processing room, an aging room for the gouda cheese, a commercial kitchen and a small cafe with an espresso bar. Our creamery is open a couple of times a month for the public, usually two Saturdays a month. When we’re open, we have about 400- 500 people visiting from North Dakota and surrounding states. It’s fun to be the one making the products and delivering it straight to customers. We’re currently renovating the old milkhouse section of the old dairy barn. It will be open seven days a week and people will be able to swing out to the farm and purchase cheese and gelato even when we are not open.

For a full list of event schedules, head to pages/calendar

04. Now, another new phase of growth is the location you are opening in the new Brewhalla Market project. How did the decision process go to make the move on this expansion, especially considering it will be about 140 miles from your home base?

We were approached a couple of years ago by Drekker Brewing Company to be part of their new adventure, Brewhalla. I often tell people it was the right opportunity and the wrong time. We’re a small team and our business has been growing rapidly over the last few years. Though, we just could not pass up the opportunity even though it felt impossible to get it all done at the time. We’ll be processing our product in Carrington and bringing it to Fargo. Cows & Co Brewhalla will be a gelato scoop shop where we also make homemade stroopwafel in addition to offering cheese and gelato-to-go. We want people to feel like they are on the streets of Amsterdam when they enjoy a warm freshly made stroopwafel with authentic Dutch ingredients. People will be able to purchase gelato pints to take home, farmstead gouda, fresh cheddar cheese curds, mac and cheese take and bakes and more. We hope that our Brewhalla outlet will continue to spread our brand and even generate more traffic to our farmstead creamery.

Another really exciting part of Brewhalla is that it will be managed by my husband’s cousin Eryn. We approached Eryn about a year ago to see if she was interested in being a part of the team at Cows & Co Creamery and managing the Fargo location. She agreed and has been working with us at the creamery since last April. She has been an awesome friend and business partner and I am excited for her to continue to grow.

05. So with wearing all of these hats and growing rather quickly, and thinking about readers who may also be multiple-hat-wearing entrepreneurs, how do you effectively manage yourself?

This question is always tough for me to answer because I have not figured it out yet myself. I thrive when it comes to manual labor but I have a lot to work on when it comes to doing the paperwork side of the business. I would suggest getting a planner and a big whiteboard calendar to write everything down on. It is super important to prioritize finding time to do bookwork, write out plans, and answer emails in a timely manner. This is an area I really struggle with but hope to get better at. It is important to find people to join your team that are strong in departments you are not. Eryn is very good when it comes to the back-end of the business. She is very patient and thorough and takes time to do the bookwork well. It has been nice having her a part of the team to excel in areas where I do not.

06. Speaking of effective management and planning, what has been your marketing strategy over these past few years as it seems a lot of people are more and more aware of you and your products?

Our marketing strategy has been extremely organic. We rely on word of mouth and social media for most of our marketing. Starting Duchessa Gelato as a mobile business was a great way for us to get started. We catered many weddings and served hundreds of new people each weekend. When the guests would hear that the owners of the business were scooping and making the gelato with milk from the family dairy farm, their faces would light up. These wedding guests would then order on our monthly delivery route and spread the word. We’re fortunate to have a high rate of repeat customers. We’ve also benefited from publicity and interviews that have shared our story throughout the agricultural community, North Dakota and the nation. Authenticity has been a strong point for us, as we try to be transparent and absolutely not cut corners with our products. We have our eyes and hands on our product from the field, to the barn, to the creamery and finally to the customer.

Give them a follow!

Facebook: /cowsandcocreamery
Instagram: @cowsandcocreamery | @ducessagelato

07. I want to mention the Forbes 30 Under 30 recognition you received in 2021, as I think that is very cool. What was that experience like for you?

It was truly a moment in my life that took my breath away. I received an email that I was nominated for the Forbes 30 under 30 Food and Drink category and I was asked to fill out more information about myself and my business. My husband and I sat down and filled out all the information and later on, we sort of forgot about it. When the list came out, I thought, ‘let’s check out who made the list,’ knowing there would be no way I would have made it. As I was scrolling through the list I saw my picture and name. It was unbelievable! It was nice to see not only a value-added ag business on the list but also a small business from rural North Dakota.

08. From what I’ve learned of you from past brief conversations, articles I’ve read, watching your business’ social presence and also seeing what you are choosing to create in Carrington and beyond, I think of words like driven, creative, inspired and caring. Do you think those words correctly resonate with you?

I’ve always looked up to my parents, but I didn’t want to be like them when it came to how much they worked. They’re still dairy farmers and work all the time. It’s just part of the dairy farming lifestyle. I told myself I would go be a nurse, work my shifts and go on vacations. Now, I find myself working all the time with my own business and really enjoy what I do. It must run in the blood to have the urge to be on the move all the time. I always have a hard time explaining the feeling but I just cannot shut my brain off and I am constantly dreaming of ways to be better and what the next adventure will be. I have worked hard to think outside of the box and build Cows & Co Creamery/Duchessa Gelato to be a unique business that you don’t see or experience every day. You cannot be average when you are trying to build a business—you must go above and beyond and create something special. I definitely feel driven to hit the ground running in the morning and work on building the Cows & Co vision. I think driven, creative, inspired and caring would be accurate words to describe many people, but I’ve been fortunate enough to use Cows & Co as an outlet to manifest those qualities.

09. From what I’ve learned of you from past brief conversations, articles I’ve read, watching your business’ social presence and also seeing what you are choosing to create in Carrington and beyond, I think of words like driven, creative, inspired and caring. Do you think those words correctly resonate with you?

This is a great question because I often get so caught up in tomorrow and forget to reflect back on where I started. I would tell myself to enjoy each day and work hard but also find time to enjoy family and friends. I’m still working on this part of my life and have been better about taking time to relax. I’m known to be a people pleaser so it has been hard for me to say no to certain events, but the last few years have been great for me personally and my family.

10. Lastly, what can we do as a community to help Cows & Co Creamery succeed?

Keep doing what you are doing! We have felt so much love and support from all our gelato and cheese fans throughout North Dakota since the day we scooped our first scoop. This state is a hidden gem with the kindest and most supportive communities. If you love our products, spread the word with family and friends around the country as we have started shipping cheese outside of state lines. Keep eating and enjoying our cheese and gelato and spread the love with your family and friends!

About John

John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GFMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.

Written by John Machacek

Hannah Lange, Venture Financing Manager, North Dakota Department of Commerce