It’s a popular narrative that’s nearly a cliché. A high-powered executive chucks it all—international travel and a salary big enough to support a small country—to turn a long held passion into a career. Alabama goat cheese maker Tasia Malakasis did just that, becoming the embodiment of today’s artisan food movement.
After nearly a decade managing a global marketing team that worked with software startups, Malakasis purchased Belle Chevre creamery in Elkmont, a rural community in Limestone County near Huntsville. A variety of goat cheeses and goat cheese-based products are produced at Belle Chevre (the French word for goat and pronounced shev), and its cheeses have received numerous national awards.
Her serendipitous route from Internet marketing executive to goat cheese maker began several years ago when she took a career exploration class at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. On a trip to Manhattan, Malakasis stopped in the specialty food shop Dean and Deluca, where she spotted a distinctive looking cheese that turned out to be Belle Chevre. Here was a cheese made just 15 miles from where Malakasis was raised. It clearly was one of those “this is meant to be” moments.
“I could not get Belle Chevre out of my head, ” Malakasis recalls. “I contacted the owner and found out that it was listed in the World Encyclopedia of Cheeses and had been served at the White House. The more I found out about it, the more intrigued I became.”
Before following her passion, Malakasis returned home to Huntsville and got a call from a headhunter, for an Internet marketing job in Philadelphia. The straightforward career track offer was “almost too good to be true, ” she says. She took the job, the lure of security and convention, but only briefly.
After an informational interview in 2006 with Belle Chevre founder and owner Liz Parnell, Malakasis veered from her path and stepped down her salary.
She quit her big regular job and went to work at the creamery without pay—a due diligence period that lasted six months. A single parent, she and her young son lived on her savings. While learning to make goat cheese, she also worked on an acquisition. Parnell was in her 70s and ready to retire. Malakasis purchased the business in 2007 and officially became a cheese maker. Since then, the creamery’s year-to-year revenue has doubled in four years and in one year tripled.
Since Parnell started the creamery in 1989, Belle Chevre cheeses have been marketed in specialty shops, like Dean and Deluca and the Cheese Store in Beverly Hills, and in larger outlets like Whole Foods Market. In an effort to make goat cheese more accessible and increase distribution, Malakasis has expanded into Costco, Kroger, Publix and other mainstream grocers. The growing company now has 16 employees and relies on goat milk from several area farms.
Of all the food stores that carry Belle Chevre, Malakasis is especially proud that her cheeses can be found in the dairy case of the Elkmont Piggly Wiggly. “I love that the local economy wants to support a local product, ” says the 41-year-old cheese maker. “Ten years ago, Liz Parnell couldn’t give goat cheese away in Alabama.” About 30 percent of her sales today are in the South, although it’s difficult to know where products end up, since a significant portion of her sales are to distributors.
Products include classic goat cheese and fromage blanc, along with sweet breakfast cheeses (fig, honey, cinnamon and coffee), grape leaf-wrapped chevre, pimento chevre, olive oil-marinated chevre with herbs and sun-dried tomatoes, and cranberry and walnut-topped goat cheese. Cheesecakes are a new addition and offered online only. Malakasis also is considering some new lines: ice cream, sandwiches, and body care products.
Chef David Bancroft says he can depend on the consistent quality of Belle Chevre cheeses. “The flavor and super creamy texture surpasses all others, ” says Bancroft, formerly at Auburn’s Amsterdam Café, who is opening his own restaurant in downtown Auburn. “We’ve had other goat cheese makers in the area, but not like Tasia.”
Malakasis recently published a cookbook, “Tasia’s Table: Cooking with the Artisan Cheesemaker at Belle Chevre, ” which includes recipes and stories from her creamery and is meant to demystify cooking with artisan goat cheese. Recipes come from her cultural influences, both southern and Greek.
When away from the creamery, Malakasis is often sharing her entrepreneurial knowhow. She was part of a More magazine-sponsored conference on women reinventing their careers and recently spoke at Harvard Business School. Her product development and marketing background has allowed her to create a national brand, one known for creativity and quality, she says.
“I’ve always wanted to have a company of my own, and all I ever wanted to do was leave Alabama, but I never really did, ” she adds. “Now I’m back home, immersed in a food culture that is uniquely southern.”
Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.
By Jessica Armstrong