Peggy Smith and Sue Conley (’75)

Category: Accomplished Alumni | Awards

Photo: Peggy Smith and Sue Conley (’75)
Passionate. Determined. Intelligent.

The duo of entrepreneurs are helping to revive the UT Creamery.

These three words aptly describe Peggy Smith and Sue Conley (’75), two University of Tennessee, Knoxville, alumnae who struck out on a cross-country road trip 45 years ago and found culinary success in Northern California.

Cowgirl Creamery, for which Smith and Conley were distinguished with a James Beard Award in 2006, produces artisanal cheeses that are sold locally in San Francisco and nationally through brands such as Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma.

“Our journey started in Knoxville,” Conley said. “We decided that we wanted to see the USA and bought a hippie van—a baby-blue Chevy—and the ’70s were an exciting time to see the country. We ended up in San Francisco with the idea of making a short visit but ended up staying because we were inspired by the food scene. We had co-ops and ways to buy food directly from farmers, and the concept of farmers markets was just getting started. There was a new energy around trying to make food more delicious and more nutritious.”

Central to that food scene was Chez Panisse, a restaurant in Berkeley founded by renowned chef Alice Waters. The restaurant can be described as an ingredients-based restaurant, in which fresh and local ingredients occupy a prominent role. Smith became determined to work at Chez Panisse, and ultimately did so for 17 years prior to the launch of Cowgirl Creamery.

“Working at Chez Panisse I saw how we really connected with the famers and different purveyors, coaching them on what we really wanted to cook with at the restaurant,” Smith said. “We found other people were really quite like-minded, and there started to be a growth in businesses that really concentrated on these principles. It was a collaborative effort, where pockets of people worked together to improve ingredients or bring something new to the market. It was a very fruitful time.”

When Smith and Conley opened the Cowgirl Creamery in 1997, they followed their dream of celebrating organic craftsmanship and local, sustainable agriculture. Over the years, they built a runaway success that eventually became part of Emmi AG, a Swiss milk and dairy producer.

Now the two associates are generously supporting their alma mater with gifts to the University of Tennessee Creamery. The Creamery, which currently produces “All Vol Cheese,” is seeking to expand its footprint to include products such as ice cream. The Creamery’s business plan is currently in development and calls for involvement of students from across the university—from food science and hospitality and tourism to marketing and business administration.

Having the advice of accomplished culinary entrepreneurs such as Conley and Smith, who have navigated the intricacies of building a business, is sure to help students as they learn their trades. During a recent Zoom appearance in a seminar at the UT Institute of Agriculture, both women already expressed a number of innovative ideas.

“Flavors with local associations, like nonalcoholic moonshine or whiskey, aren’t out of the realm of possibility,” Smith said. “Other options with local associations could be berries or just linked with local products that are out there. You have to have a balance of interesting flavors, but also ones that are really accessible. I mean, you should always have a good vanilla or chocolate, but from there you can go wild.”