The Littles’ focus on local extends beyond their products. Ten years after founding their company, the couple opened the Cheese Shop, a restaurant and bar which serves as a culinary and cultural hub in the Thomasville community, allowing the company to connect with its customers on a personal level. In the summers, they run a Farm Camp, where they educate children about healthy eating and environmental awareness.
With a passion for creating delicious cheese and a dedication to sustainable production and community enrichment, Sweet Grass Dairy has established themselves as not just a company, but as a force of positive influence.
Mood of Living Q&A
Mood of Living: Where did you both grow up and how did those environments affect your career paths?
Jeremy Little: I grew up between north-western Ohio and the “space coast” in Florida. My younger years were with my mother in Ohio and my high school years were in Florida with my father. Both environments were very busy, with hard working parents and high expectations.
Jessica Little: I grew up in south Georgia on a dairy farm. I showed dairy cattle in 4-H and fell in love with sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry from a young age. When I went to college, I got bit by the restaurant bug and realized that food is such a great platform to tell the story of the importance of agriculture and animal husbandry. Cheese combined all of those things together into one.
MoL: Where did you go to school and what did you study there?
Jeremy: I have a B.A. in Psychology from Florida State University with a minor in Spanish.
Jessica: Well, I jumped around to several different colleges to gain experience in as much as possible. I played basketball at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL and eventually transferred to Georgia State University to work in great Atlanta restaurants while earning my business adminstration degree.
MoL: Where and how did you meet?
Jeremy: We both worked at the same restaurant but on opposite sides— I was BOH and she was FOH.
Jessica: We met while working in the same restaurant in Tallahassee, FL. Jeremy worked in the kitchen, and I was a server. Great food and wine is definitely our love language.
MoL: What did you do before running Sweet Grass Dairy?
Jeremy: 95% of my working history has been in various aspects of the food industry from fast food to managing kitchens of incredibly busy buffet-style restaurants.
Jessica: I worked in several wine and cheese shops as well as several fine dining restaurants in Atlanta.
MoL: What was your relationship to the culinary and food product world before Sweet Grass Dairy?
Jeremy: To be honest, a joke. I thought that I understood food because I watched Food TV and read cookbooks. It wasn’t until I got involved in the actual process of truly “producing” food that I actually started realizing how much I did NOT know about food. I am in constant pursuit to learn more daily, and the food business does not disappoint.
Jessica: Even when we were dating, we would save up all of our money to go eat in restaurants that we read about or saw on TV. We traveled to Ming Tsai’s restaurant, Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Massachusetts because of his cooking show on American Public Television in 1999. We have had great culinary adventures searching for great oysters in Apalachicola, Vietnamese food in the West Bank of New Orleans or a whole hog barbeque at Scott’s-Parker’s Barbecue in Lexington, Tennessee.
MoL: What does quality of life mean to you?
Jeremy: Quality of life is something I ponder all the time. We are in the business of making people happy and nurturing through food, and it can be a very stressful lifestyle on those of us that are producers. I am studying more eastern philosophy, and recognizing that I am happiest when I can be mindful of the present. I have learned (in some circumstances, painfully) that I thrive in circumstances where I can treat things as they are, and react to them, and not compare or contrast them to what I think they “should” be.
Jessica: The balance of work, fun, travel, and family. We are very fortunate to get to spend a lot of time with our 4 boys. They get to travel with us for work and are exposed to a wide range of food, restaurants, farms, and people in our industry. We also live within 30 minutes of my parents and both of my brothers and their families. We try to get together every Sunday for family dinner. I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. We need all the help we can get!
MoL: What is your favorite way to serve, cook with, or eat your products? Could you share your favorite Sweet Grass Dairy recipe with us?
Jeremy: in a lot of ways I am a purist and I most enjoy eating our cheeses as simply as possible in order to fully appreciate the cheese, but we have four kids, so we have a pretty diverse line-up when it comes to using SGD cheeses. There is really nothing better to me than a grilled cheese sandwich using our Georgia Gouda and Thomasville Tomme cheeses, and some garden tomato soup.
Jessica: We make a lot of quesadillas, tacos, mac and cheese, cheeseburgers, and cheese omelets in our house. We can give you our bourbon bacon pimento cheeseburger recipe which is a big hit at our cheese shop in Thomasville.
MoL: What are three products you always have in your kitchen at home?
Jeremy: I am very much ingredient driven, so I really like anything that reflects terroir— we have a pretty awesome collection of olive oils, and spices (espelette pepper seems to not go away either), vinegar/citrus— acidity is everything!
Jessica: Great red wine, a selection of different olive oils from around the world, and whole bean coffee from Ethiopia, Costa Rica, or Colombia.
MoL: Going back to the importance of family, how do your own children interact with Sweet Grass Dairy?
Jeremy: I would be interested to know what their own responses would be. I would suspect they cannot recall a time when there wasn’t this building in our backyard and UPS trucks, milk trucks, etc. I think they just consider it part of the norm since this is all they really know. They all interact to varying degrees depending on their age and interest level which changes depending on their individual motivations.
Jessica: We have sons that are 14, 12, 9, and 7 years old. Our older two boys help on the farm with the gardens, feeding up the animals, collecting eggs, etc. They also help in packaging in the cheese plant, booth set up for trade shows or bussing tables at the Cheese Shop. There is no shortage of chores or jobs for them to help with around here. The two younger boys are eager, but not much help at the moment.
MoL: Do you believe they have been able to learn about sustainability and entrepreneurship through your work?
Jeremy: Yes, for sure. They see Jessica and I working, traveling and doing what needs to be done. Cheeses need to be flipped late in the evening, boxes need to be packed early in the morning. They see us handling the different needs of the businesses as we encounter them. Its part of our lifestyle, not simply a job.
Jessica: Growing up in a very entrepreneurial family, I can say, yes, I think so. I believe that my parents were able to teach us work ethic, how to value employees, how to work as a team, and leadership through their actions. Both of my brothers are entrepreneurs and even studied sustainable agriculture in college in New Zealand before coming home.
MoL: Looking forward, do you ever seem them taking over the company?
Jeremy: That’s not a primary concern at the moment. Raising confident young men is the priority, and exposing them to as much as possible to realize that the world is a vast and diverse place. The path they choose is their own.
Jessica: We don’t think about that much actually. They have to leave the farm and get life experience before we can talk about them coming back. My parents made us go learn something that we could bring back to make the farm a better business before we could return. I would say the same thing to them. There is so much more to life outside of Thomasville, GA. They have to go experience something else first.
MoL: Outside of Sweet Grass Dairy, what do you most enjoy doing?
Jeremy: Cooking for my family is one of my greatest pleasures. Also, travelling and eating which ultimately leads to learning from the experiences. My work is a constant evolution, which is both exciting and frustrating at times, but it also pretty awesome knowing that I can take my inspirations and apply them to what I do at SGD and at home.
Jessica: Traveling and eating. I love continuing education. Last year I had the great opportunity to participate in the Georgia Mentor Protege Program through the Georgia Department of Economic Development. I was able to learn so much from businesses such as AFLAC, Home Depot, Coca-Cola, and Cox. I passed my certified sommelier exam last year through the Court of Master Sommeliers which was an awesome experience. This year I just took the Certified Cheese Professional exam through the American Cheese Society. Maybe I will take up a foreign language next??
MoL: What do you love most about Thomasville?
Jeremy: I have always appreciated the “feel” of Thomasville as being very genuine and humble. People know you by name, and I feel like everyone has the intention of supporting the people in their community, not just those in their immediate circle.
Jessica: The sense of community. Thomasville is a gem with the people that have chosen to settle here to raise their kids. It is truly a diamond in our state.
MoL: What advice would you give to anyone interested in visiting the area?
Jeremy: I would suggest getting as personal of an experience as possible. Stay at the Paxton House, walk around downtown— visit our local businesses and restaurants, get to know the real pulse of our community because that’s what makes the difference. If you don’t experience it, then you are missing out.
Jessica: Don’t come in the brutally hot summer! The fall and spring are the best times to visit. Thomasville is rich in history. Make sure to visit some of our historical sites while in town.
MoL: Jeremy, what’s your favorite thing about Jessica? And Jessica, what’s your favorite thing about Jeremy?
Jeremy: Jessica makes me a better person. She has always been a very positive, and has been able to keep me focused on the positive. She is always up for a challenge and trying to find ways to say “YES” to make things happen. Our life together has been an awesome adventure, and continues to get more exciting and enjoyable.
Jessica: Hmm, there are so many things to appreciate and value about Jeremy. He is first and foremost an amazing dad and husband. He’s thoughtful, caring, generous, and funny. He’s an expert at trouble-shooting. He has an amazing palate and is one of the best cooks on the planet.
MoL: What have been the toughest and most rewarding parts about running Sweet Grass Dairy together?
Jeremy: Working with Jessica can be challenging. She is very much a visionary, and wants things to be a certain way, where as I am the person trying to figure out how to make that come to life. Things rarely go right on the first try. I think we’ve learned through our working relationship that the needs of both the business and the family are different at different times and we have managed to embrace that as opposed to fighting it, which has not always been our approach. We continue to get better—working together—- which is extremely rewarding.
Jessica: Well, we have very different management styles. I am more of a visionary. I can see the big picture, but I have a hard time with the details. Jeremy is much more focused on the small moving parts and can help execute just about any plan. It is very rewarding when we work together to create 1, 3, and 5 year plans and see them implemented successfully.
MoL: How do you maintain a work-life balance since you live and work together?
Jeremy: I am not quite sure we “maintain” anything. It’s a moving target. Work changes, schedules change, interests change. We have to keep an open mind, and remain flexible which is not one of my strong points but I am getting better at it.
Jessica: It’s a process that we haven’t quite figured out yet. Date day or night is important. Having regular conversations about what we need and want out of the business and family life. Jeremy is always my first draft choice if I had to pick a teammate to accomplish any of my goals. He would go to the moon to help me if need be. I am very type A and need to keep “accomplishing” goals to feel fulfilled.
MoL: What advice do you have for married (and unmarried) couples who want to start a business together?
Jeremy: I would do some sort of personality assessment to line up working/management styles and see how they interplay with one another. We did this several times last year from different approaches. Jessica and I are fortunate that we are very much opposites and fill in where the other person can lack. I would suggest this because the more I have learned about Jessica through these sorts of personality assessments the more I have been able to understand her decision making process, and her behavior in certain circumstances. You can know someone backwards and forwards but when you are put into stressors of entrepreneurship, it can completely change and you have to know how to work with it, not just avoid it.
Jessica: There is no such thing as over-communication. Make sure you have a strong base of people that support and love you that you can ask for help when you need it. Create a solid business plan and keep reviewing it on a regular basis. Make sure that you are both evolving in the same direction.
MoL: What does conscious living mean to you?
Jeremy: Having a genuine awareness of the choices you make. There are a lot of people that don’t really think about their decisions…..
Jessica: Being conscious of the land, animals, people, and resources. We need to do everything that we can to create healthy soils, children, cows, employees, and ourselves so that it is all sustainable. Not wasting resources but being aware of everything that we can do to make sure everything we touch is better when we leave.
MoL: What advice can you give somebody who wants to live a conscious life?
Jeremy: With Google at your fingertips, you have access to so much information. Find out what is important to you, seek it out, and support it. The last part may be the most important because if you want to have great things in your community, you have to support it, otherwise, it goes away. You can’t underestimate the power you have, especially in a small community and what your attention can do in the lives of those trying to do something worthwhile.
Jessica: Know where your food comes from and how it has been raised or grown. Know your local farmers and artisans. Know why it is important to support producers that are committed to making the world a better place. There are so many resources out there on composting, recycling, and reducing our waste. Get educated.
MoL: Tell us a bit about the history of Sweet Grass Dairy and the philosophy central to your mission as owners and as a company.
Jessica: As you might already know at Sweet Grass Dairy, we are dedicated to producing high quality, flavorful cow’s milk cheeses that are a true expression of our unique terroir. Jeremy and I purchase milk from my parents’ dairy farm located 30 miles from our cheese plant. My family is dedicated to farming sustainably in a New Zealand rotational grazing method and upholding the highest level of humane animal husbandry. We live in the only area of the United States where we can graze cattle 365 days a year due to our mild winters and unlimited water from the Floridian aquifer. We do not even have a barn to house our cows. Our goal as cheesemakers is to make cheeses in an old world style to let the true flavors of the grass based milk shine through to the final product. We are trying to change the American perspective on food and are dedicated to educating the American public on the importance of knowing how our foodstuffs are grown, raised or made.
MoL: What does being a responsible business owner mean to you?
Jeremy: Considering how your decisions affect those who support you, both within the organization and externally.
Jessica: Being sustainable. Sustainable for the land, the animals, the employees, and financially sustainable for longevity.
MoL: As business owners and individuals, who inspires you and how do you work to inspire others?
Jeremy: I am inspired by people’s different voices. Everyone from leadership executives, to chefs to artists, musicians, etc. Voices carry very personal messages, and I try to be a good “listener” and use their messages and experiences to help inspire not only myself, but others.
Jessica: I am really inspired by Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s, the late Sam Beall from Blackberry Farm, and all the other members of the Fellowship of Southern Artisans, Chefs and Farmers through the Southern Foodways Alliance.
MoL: Which charitable efforts do you support and how do they relate to Sweet Grass Dairy’s mission?
Jeremy: Since we make our living by feeding people, it our mission to feed those in need. We support our local food bank efforts. We also believe the idea of “health” in our nation is severely misunderstood, so we strive to present people with opportunities to learn about the true origins of our food so they can make educated food choices. We are also in support of Seed Life Skills which is an organization based in Athens, Georgia that aims to teach youth about conscious consumer economics.www.seedlifeskills.org
Jessica: We support two main causes: eliminating childhood hunger and promoting sustainable agriculture education. We have been able to be a part of No Kid Hungry events, UGA education, as well as conservation efforts through the Georgia Conservancy. www.georgiaconservancy.org
MoL: What differentiates you from other cheesemakers?
Jeremy: From a cheese perspective, we are always trying to find better ways of expressing the quality of the milk in its purist form.
Jessica: Our biggest differentiator is that we can graze cows 365 days a year due to our mild winters and unlimited water. There is no other area of the country where you can graze cows with this much grass year round. We don’t even have barns for the cows since they don’t need them.
MoL: Can you tell us a little more about barn-free farming, as well as your commitment to hand-crafted products?
Jeremy: Our products are always the center of our attention. We do the work that is necessary to achieve and maintain the level of quality we demand and our customers expect.
Jessica: Yes, we farm in a New Zealand rotational grazing method which means that the cows are rotated to a new pasture every 12 hours. This ensures that the cows only eat the most nutritious and high energy grasses and we are able to sequester the carbon back into the pastures. There is an amazing TED Talk by Dr. Alan Savory that is worth checking out to see the benefits of rotational grazing.
MoL: Do seasonal changes affect cheese production? If so, are you able to produce certain types of cheese at different times throughout the year?
Jessica: We are not as affected by seasonal changes here as we have grass year round. We are able to make high-quality, grass-fed cheeses all 12 months. We are also very fortunate that we can source the milk that has the best components for cheesemaking from one of three family farms owned by my parents or brother. They are all staggered in their seasonal calving schedule so we get high quality milk all year long.
MoL: Can you speak on Sweet Grass Dairy’s commitment to sustainability and humane farming? How does your commitment to sustainability affect your final product? How are you able to extend this mission of sustainability into your local community?
Jeremy: Our cheese shop is a good example of how we do this in our community. It’s a platform for our brand but it’s also a place where we support like-minded producers that share the same values about animal husbandry, sustainable farming practices, and responsible stewardship for future generations. Our team at the shop is trained to be able to share the stories of these purveyors we support and why we choose to support them. It plants a seed about what we find valuable about our offerings at the cheese shop without being overly “preachy” which is NOT what we are trying to do. We want to educate so people can make their own informed choices.
Jessica: Gosh, this is a really long answer. The dairies are all in the process of the organic certification. This is a three year process that will ensure the highest quality milk possible. My father also grows all of his own non-GMO corn as a high energy supplemental feedstuff for the cows as needed. Our commitment means that our cheeses are higher priced than other cheeses in the marketplace. We share our sustainability locally through our Cheese Shop in downtown Thomasville.
MoL: How did you come up with the idea for the Cheese Shop?
Jeremy: On top of what Jessica said, the more engrossed we became in the wholesale side of our business, the further we became removed from the end consumer.. I think we were looking for a way to reconnect with the end consumer on a very personal level and the cheese shop has provided that platform.
Jessica: Jeremy surprised me with a trip to NYC where we stayed in the West Village for a week like locals. I was tired of complaining about not having a casual place with good cheeses from around the world, great wines, cocktails, and craft beers in our small town. Within two months upon returning home, we created a place that we would want to shop and eat at on a regular basis. It turns out we were not the only ones in this area that were looking for a casual but delicious place to go as well.
MoL: As a hub for individuals who love food, wine, travel, and community, would you ever look to expand the Cheese Shop to other locations?
Jessica: I have learned a long time ago to never say never. I would honestly love to expand the cheese shop to more locations. The Cheese Shop is the brick and mortar way for people to interact with our brand. It would be awesome to have more locations for people to be able to interact with us.
MoL: What experience do you want visitors at the Cheese Shop to have?
Jeremy: One that exceeds expectations. I like the idea of being able to try new things, and start that unspoken conversation about “trust” that allows us to go further down the rabbit hole and present new and interesting things. In there is this underlying principle of trying to hide complexities in dishes but present them as simply as possible in the hopes that it opens up a conversation between the guest and our staff and allows us the opportunity to discuss with them….but only if its of their interest. For us in the kitchen, it’s about great food. Period.
Jessica: Friendly and knowledgeable service, delicious foods that have some “safe” and some “adventurous” options, wine/beer/cocktail treasures, at a place where you can go with your family or on a date night.
MoL: In curating the food and wine menu for the Cheese Shop, were you able to partner with other local artisans that share the same respect for sustainability? If so, were you able to use locally-sourced products to create menu items? What did that creative process entail?
Jeremy: The creative process is difficult to put into words. Its trying to take our inspirations and new experiences and put them into a “conversation starter” at the cheese shop. If someone asks, we can go further into detail about the creative process, if not, then we hope at the very least, they enjoy their experience at the shop.
Jessica: Yes, we try to use as much locally produced foodstuffs as possible. We also feature like-minded artisans from around the world. We like to say that we offer the service of limited selection of storied ingredients. Some of our favorite local vendors are Turkey Hill Farm, Full Earth Farm, White Oak Pastures, Blackberry Patch, Georgia Olive Oil, Richland Rum, Shermer Pecans, and Emily G’s.
MoL: How has family played a role in the creation and success of Sweet Grass Dairy?
Jeremy: Yes. We could not be where we are without the support of our family and friends.
Jessica: Fundamentally. My parents believe in giving opportunities and not hand outs. We would never have been able to purchase Sweet Grass Dairy without the opportunity from them. Also, as I mentioned earlier, it takes a village to raise 4 children when you have two businesses and 40 employees.
MoL: How did you name your different cheeses? Are there stories behind the individual names?
Jeremy: I would say both “stories and inspirations”– sometimes it an inspiration of the finished product having certain characteristics, other times it’s an homage to someone or something….you never know where that next inspiration will come from. Those types of moments are very rewarding for me because my work because extremely personal.
Jessica: Yes, each one has a story.
Green Hill–named after my parents’ flagship dairy.
Thomasville Tomme–named after our hometown.
Asher Blue–named after our precocious and fun-loving second son.
Griffin–named after our artistic and adventurous third son.
Lil Moo–fresh cow’s milk cheese named by a sous chef that I used to work with in Atlanta.
MoL: Which cheese is your most popular and why?
Jessica: Green Hill. We have won 10 awards at the the superbowl of American cheese competitions, the ACS, over the past 14 years. Green Hill is a double cream cow’s milk cheese made in the style of a camembert. It is rich, buttery, and a great vehicle for our grass-based milk.
MoL: Can you speak on the importance of teamwork in building and running Sweet Grass Dairy?
Jeremy: There was a time when we tried to do it all ourselves, but that time has long since passed. We are a team. We will always be a team. We will always work and becoming a better team.
Jessica: Teamwork and trust is absolutely imperative. I need to know that our production team is following procedures to make the safest and highest possible quality cheeses when I am on the road at trade shows. They need to know that I am not going to oversell or ask them to do something that is not possible. We are all united in our vision of cultivating an inspired American food culture through our cheeses.
MoL: What goals do you want to accomplish for Sweet Grass Dairy in the future?
Jeremy: To continue striving for success. I would like to see the quality and consistency of our cheeses continue to become better, and more reputable. We have come a long way, and are continuing to make great strides to produce better cheeses. I also have a lot of cheese ideas. I would love to have an opportunity to give my ideas a try and see what happens.
Jessica: We want to continue to put the south on the national cheese map. We want to be a national brand. When a new cheese shop is opening up in Seattle, Phoenix, or Boston, I want the cheesemonger to immediately think Sweet Grass Dairy when thinking of cheeses from the South. We are excited to add new cheeses to our product line over the next couple of years as well.
MoL: What advice can you give to others interested in building a sustainable food-focused company?
Jeremy: Learn as much as possible about what you are trying to do, especially the food safety perspective, and figure out where you fit into that equation. For the remaining parts, find people that are better than you at what you are trying to do and surround yourself with them.
Jessica: Go visit as many producers in your proposed industry as possible. Every single business will have something that you like and something that you don’t like about it. Don’t feel like you have to reinvent the wheel by yourself. Learn about local and state resources whether it is a state university or local economic development department.
MoL: What has been the hardest part of your journey in building and running Sweet Grass Dairy and how have you overcome it? What has (or have) been the most rewarding?
Jessica: The hardest part has been when we tried to open a fine dining restaurant in 2013. It was a completely miserable experience as we just didn’t have the time, manpower, or capital to invest in what was needed. We lost sight of what was really important for about two years. We lost a lot of money and the love of business while disappointing our community and supporters at the same time. Of course, I can now look back at it as hard earned, painful life lessons that we clearly needed to learn. I think we gained some humbleness, gratefulness, appreciation, and respect in each other in how we handled our failures.
There are many rewarding parts about SGD. I love being able to spend my life so closely entwined with my partner. We are just getting better and better at working together as we learn what is important to each other in the business. We have always highly valued our family time and the ability to support each other in our personal and professional goals.
I also love the moments when it feels like we are cultivating an inspired American food culture. We host a Farm Camp each summer for roughly 100 kids. They get to work in the garden, cook with ingredients that they have harvested or made, play with farm animals, and learn about recycling, composting, and small things that everyone can do to make the world a better place. It is so rewarding to see a kid that is bringing heavily processed foods and sodas with dye and high fructose corn syrup in the beginning of the week completely change by the end. They are asking their moms for carrots and cucumbers with ranch dressing and turkey cheese roll ups with water by Wednesday or Thursday. We don’t give kids enough credit. They want to be a part of their food decisions and when you see that little lightbulb moment on their faces, it is worth all of our efforts. Anything that we can do to tell the story of sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry is rewarding.
Lastly, it is very rewarding to see our employees take an opportunity and run. Because we were given such a unique and incredible opportunity to purchase SGD, we feel strongly that we need to in turn offer opportunities to our team. We have arranged great stage opportunities with some of our chef heroes for our kitchen team, invested in continuing education courses such as Zingtrain or conference such as The American Cheese Society, and continually strive to create a unique working environment where everyone feels valued. Quality of life for everyone at SGD is important and rewarding.
Jeremy: I agree with Jessica. That was a miserable time for many reasons, but fortunately we were able to keep it from unravelling and losing everything. I honestly do not know a more stressful time in my life. I felt like I was constantly holding my breath.
Communication is also a challenge for us. There are a lot of moving parts to our business and you can have everything running smoothly, and then all of a sudden one piece gets out of line. Hopefully you catch it quickly before it gets too far off track. We have these sorts of situations all the time, and they are typically the result of errors in communication so we are constantly working to try to communicate more effectively and also confirm that whatever it was that was being communicated was actually understood as intended. You can never over-communicate is what we have learned.
Our business is very much a roller coaster. I’ve learned to appreciate the times when things are good and not be overly hard on myself. In the past, it was easy to constantly push and find things to complain about but that was counterproductive and really just unnecessary. We set goals, we communicate those goals, and we go after them diligently with a few positive steps and maybe a step or two backwards, but there will always be new goals to go after. The journey is the part we have to embrace, and appreciate because you never really know when it will end.