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A winning recipe: Specialty cheese maker wins 2014 BDC Young Entrepreneur Award

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Shep Ysselstein, Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese

As one of five brothers on the family dairy farm, Shep Ysselstein’s dream was to tap into his community’s rich history of cheese making and launch his own specialty cheese plant that would use milk from the family farm.

There was only one problem—Ysselstein knew little about cheese. But that didn’t deter him. He left Woodstock, Ontario, and travelled across North America and even to Europe to gain the experience he needed.

Back home, he took advantage of government programs, overcame production setbacks and regulatory challenges, and founded Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese.

A big break

A big break came in the spring of 2013, when Gunn’s Hill entered the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, the nation’s premier event for cheese makers, and took first place in its category. “That, combined with our previous marketing efforts, really catapulted us from a local success to a bigger name of interest across Ontario,” Ysselstein says.

In the months that followed, Gunn’s Hill cheeses came to be in such high demand from specialty shops and grocery chains across the province that Ysselstein’s team couldn’t keep up. It was the classic challenge for a young business—finding the capital to expand manufacturing capacity to better serve a market begging for product.

Gunn’s Hill received a kick‑start for its growth plans, when Ysselstein, 31, claimed the $100,000 grand prize in BDC’s 2014 Young Entrepreneur Award contest.

Expands production

Gunn’s Hill is using the grand prize to build a 2,000‑square‑foot, climate‑controlled curing and aging building for its cheese. This will double annual production to 60 tonnes and allow for new lines of premium aged cheeses that will boost the operation’s profitability.

Doubling production capacity will also double the workforce and set the stage for Gunn’s Hill to obtain regulatory approvals to sell cheese beyond Ontario.

The expansion can’t happen fast enough. “Honestly, I am short on everything right now and can’t make enough cheese in a day,” Ysselstein says.

Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese has created employment and new economic activity in Woodstock’s rural economy. It’s not an easy industry. In the past year, for example, there have been concerns raised about increased European imports undercutting the Canadian market.

Keeps the faith

When Ysselstein decided it was time to get Gunn’s Hill started, he faced two big challenges—start‑up capital and a host of regulatory hurdles.

In addition to loans from his father and one of his brothers, Ysselstein took advantage of several government programs intended to stimulate job creation and economic development in the area. With these programs, he was able to secure, on favourable terms, loans as a start‑up business.

Patience was his greatest ally in dealing with regulatory hurdles and his own lack of experience.

A patient approach

“If I could do it all again, I would know what to do and could do it quicker,” Ysselstein says. “But for the most part, the regulations are there for a reason, and things go much quicker when you work with the regulators instead of against them.”

Gunn’s Hill also suffered a major production setback at the outset. The culprit was clostridium tyrobutyricum, a bacteria that produces acids and hydrogen gas that can affect taste and make the cheese crack and bubble.

This “blown cheese” is still perfectly edible, but it doesn’t make the cut for regular retail sale. “We lost a lot of inventory, and months of work were wasted.”

Ysselstein carried on and salvaged what he could by selling at a discount or donating to local food banks.

Paying it forward

Today, Ysselstein isn’t only an award‑winning cheese maker. He’s also an enthusiastic mentor for other young entrepreneurs in need of guidance in getting their own ventures started.

His most basic advice strikes at the heart of what it takes to succeed as an entrepreneur.

“If you want to do it and you’re willing to put in the work, you can do it,” Ysselstein says. “You have to know what’s different about your product—why people will want it—and make sure there’s actually a demand for what you want to do.”

Lessons learned

  • Go wherever you must to gain the experience you need to create a successful business.
  • Remain focused on your goal and don’t be disheartened by setbacks.
  • When it comes to financing, take advantage of all opportunities, including friends, family and government programs that support local business and regional economic development.
  • Do your marketing homework. Validate your idea through research to confirm there is a demand for the product.
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