Blog 6: San Lucas Cheese Company (Or, As We Like to Call it, San Luqueso)
July 10th, 2016
Disclaimer: The following blog post contains cheese puns. Read at your own risk.
“Okay, so the first thing we need is directions.” Everyone broke out in laughter.
OKAY, SO. Queso. (Pun number one).
We presented to San Lucas Queso today. It was a Sunday filled with hiking, cheese, cows, and a healthy dose of sugar and cologne. Let’s start with our first time in San Lucas.
Forty-five minutes from Namarin, on the Pan American Highway, a small town by the name of San Lucas sits nestled in a beautiful valley. If I had closed my eyes for fifteen seconds in the bus, I would have missed the town completely. A river runs alongside the Highway andtiendas advertise for Pilsener Beer at nearly every corner. Occasionally, the smell of a panaderia or chancho asado wafts through the bus, but before I can turn to see the source, the bus has already whizzed past.
This is Week 5 and Team Oportunidad is now in southern Ecuador. Team Impacto worked with San Lucas Cheese during Week 2 and gave some consulting advice. The artisans of San Lucas Cheese acted on all of the recommendations given during the consulting session with Team Impacto, so my team was very excited to be working with such a gouda (ha!), receptive company.
When our bus stopped in front of the building, my team did not quite understand where we were supposed to look: an old, but well-maintained, building stood in front of us; beyond the building, a field of maize grew on a nearby hill; everywhere we looked, we were surrounded by beautiful green mountains, speckled with cows, and small, stone houses scattered few and far between; behind us, an old church, seemingly ready to collapse under the weight of itself, stood atop a very narrow and steep flight of stairs. This was surely San Lucas. Our appointment was scheduled, confirmed, and re-confirmed to be at 10:00 am. However, true to Ecuadorian time, the family did not show up until 11:30. After a round of welcomes, the most talkative member of the family, Lauro gave us updates: since TeamImpacto worked with them, approximately two weeks ago, the San Lucas Cheese Company had a community meeting where many of the contributing members decided to leave the Cheese Company. Their reasons for leaving were that the members were too old or were not personally invested in the company. After approximately forty members decided to separate, this family decided to take it upon themselves to continue working as the San Lucas Cheese Company.
During the course of our initial discussion session, Lauro mentioned that the family wanted San Lucas to become a tourist site. Then he mentioned it again. And again. And once more. He expanded: San Lucas was a unique area because the valley is beautiful, there are plenty of incredible hikes in the nearby area, Incan Ruins are only an hours walk away, and the San Lucas Cheese Company makes the best artisanal cheese in Ecuador. The San Lucas Cheese consulting crew received a lot of information that day, but for the sake of being (more) succinct, I will forgo the details that are irrelevant to the tourism consulting. The San Lucas cheese is unique because the family is (and the company has been) using a very traditional style of packaging: rather than plastic, they use toasted banana leaves and blackberry vines to preserve the flavor and prevent bugs and pests from contaminating the cheese. This method of packaging proves to be very effective, but is only seven cents more. The family wants to maintain this style of packaging because it adheres to the traditional process of cheese making in the region, a craft that began in 1911. The family owns a restaurant, “Parada de Abuela,” or, “Grandma’s Stop,” which is located on the Pan American Freeway. Travelers, journeying from Saraguro to Loja, are frequently on the road. From August 1st to September 15th, the restaurant is open full-time to accommodate the thousands of religious folks that take part in a walk to a certain church (sadly, we didn’t quite understand this part of the conversation).
The family was primarily intent on leveraging the popularity of the cheese to draw tourists (mainly foreigners) to their town. However, the San Lucas Cheese Company’s cheese is not popular at the moment because they are not present in many markets. Additionally, the cheese costs $2.09/lb to make. Competitors in the nearby area charge $2.00 and are actually losing money, but they don’t have the business knowledge to understand this (according to Lauro). Competitors believe they are making money, but they forget to take into account the transportation, packaging, and time costs associated with making cheese. As such, competitors are slowly losing money. But Lauro’s family cannot sell in San Lucas because their cheese is much more expensive, priced at $2.60. Lauro also hoped to have an online presence with stronger marketing.
After consolidating our notes, the consulting team concluded that the San Lucas Cheese Company needed help with three things. First, they had to introduce their cheese to new markets; San Lucas is not a big enough market and it is saturated with cheaper cheese. Additionally, customers do not care to buy higher quality cheese. With the exception of one sale, individuals simply wanted cheaper cheese. Second, the family knew the area very well and were excellent guides (we actually spent a day making cheese with them) so San Lucas Cheese Company could easily diversify and become somewhat of a tourism company. Finally, their presence on social media was non-existent.
During my free day, I, along with five other guys from the group, traveled to Loja to do some work and explore the city. In our time there, we were able to find more than a dozen panaderias that were interested in selling the San Lucas cheese at around $2.50. Sometiendas were even willing to sell the cheese for more, assuming that the family would allow them to sample first. One store asked to sell it on consignment. We compiled a list of all the stores, their addresses, contact information, and interests. With these fifteen bakeries, Lauro’s family would be able to start selling in the Loja market.
The growth of the company into the tourism sector was a little bit more of a problem for us. The family hoped to build living quarters, similar to a bed and breakfast, for tourists that planned on extended stays. During their stay, Lauro hoped, the tourists could learn how to make cheese from beginning to end; from milking the cow and carrying the buckets to adding the final spices to the various cheeses. During the time it takes for the cheese to settle and culture, the tourists could participate in horseback riding against the winding trails of San Lucas’ mountains. Lauro, his two brothers, and his dad, took us on a (very strenuous) hike (on foot) through the jungle near their house (more details on that in a later blog post). At the top of the hike, near a waterfall, the family performed an indigenous ritual of cleansing. All in all, it was a surreal experience: ten interns, Lauro Sr., and his three sons, dwarfed by the size and sound of a crashing waterfall only feet away. It was an insight to their residency but also their culture. The reverence and respect they had for Pachi Mamawas astoundingly clear.
At the end of the hike, upon return to the residency, my consulting group was tasked with giving critiques of the day along with our recommendations for growing the tourism arm of the company. When it came to the hike, the interns were vastly underprepared. We recommended that San Lucas find two or three trails of varying difficulty, that way the tourists could pick the trail based on intensity. Second, “Grandma’s Stop” was located on the Pan American Highway, a heavy-traffic area. They could use the restaurant to publicize their cheese by offering free samples or using the cheese to make dishes. Finally, the endeavor to make San Lucas a tourist destination is difficult for one (fairly) young company to strive for independently. Thus, we recommended that they partner with other businesses and artisans in the area to better structure their tourism industry. For example, maybe someone who lives near the Incan Ruins can lead hikers there while those with horses can organize horseback riding.
Lauro Jr. emphasized that San Lucas Cheese Company really wanted a presence on social media, so we made a Facebook page and featured some of professional-grade pictures of the establishment and cheese (shout out to Hyun for an incredible job with the pictures). My group went one step further. Trip Advisor is always looking for additional hot spots as tourism sites, so we began the process to establish San Lucas Cheese Company as a Trip Advisor recommended spot.
Sadly, my group was not able to try any of the finely aged cheese of San Lucas Cheese; at the time, they did not have any ready to sell or sample. Nevertheless, after a wonderfully enjoyably productive day, I rediscovered my passion for cheese. Kraft American Singles just don’t cut it.