John William Macy Interview
(Cheese Sticks)

Since 1984, John Macy’s all-natural, twice-baked sourdough treats have been getting rave reviews!!
We wanted to find out how John Macy came to create such an unusual product, and so we did.
John Macy fills us in.

Q – Are your cheese sticks to be found primarily in the gourmet section of supermarkets?
A – Yeah, pretty much. When we started out it was exclusively small, I guess they called them gourmet stores at the time, or speciality stores, cheese shops starting in New York City. Just little stores. And just over the last, well, we’re 25 years in maybe a little bit more, its gravitated particularly in the last 10, maybe 15 (years) into mainstream supermarket sales. Usually in the supermarket it’s placed in the Deli corner or Deli island with the other speciality crackers like bagel crisps and pretzel flats and flat breads, above or below the cheese island, near the Deli, or gourmet section.

Q – To be in just the gourmet section is not really good for your sales. What I’ve found is when a product is placed in the gourmet section; it’s in a corner someplace. You need to get it with other similar products.
A – Well, it sort of depends on the store. It doesn’t mean that our product is going to be misplaced in the store. It’ll still sell to the people that find it, but, it isn’t as pronounced in appearance as it might be. I still don’t entirely understand how items are located. It’s organization to organization. It’s also what kind of coverage we have in the way of our brokers. How frequently they’re into the stores. How active they are. They might just do something on their own. They might ask, ‘Who’s the manager of the Deli? You really should put this someplace else’. Sometimes they can make it happen. Sometimes they can’t. Maybe the store guy will say you gotta call corporate. It’s a real mixed bag.

Q – Cheese sticks. Was that something that was a family favorite?
A – It really was not. If you looked at the side of the box, the story is pretty true there. I started catering right after I got out of college. It came straight away out of that. I was just looking for something to fill out my roster. I’m a caterer. Oh yeah, what do you do? I was just kind of making things up, what seemed good to me. I played around when I was in junior high, in the late 60’s with croissants. This was kind of new at the time. The arduous preparation appealed to me. So, I adopted that methodology of layering butter in with dough and substituting cheese basically. So, it took a little while to evolve but, it was just something I was drawn to. They came out well. It got a good response. Worked on it a little bit and when it was time to focus on one thing that sort of presented itself to me.

Q – Did you study anything related to cooking in college?
A – I started in engineering which is good and still kind of useful, in terms of a systematic approach to problem solving, and finished in education. I worked a little bit with my aunt and uncle. He was very good actually. He was trained as a French chef and then did catering in New York. I worked with him a little bit and picked up some good tricks. Didn’t do any cheese sticks with him, but, it was a good push to get somewhere in the catering world. Certainly by comparison to the world he was doing and even in comparison to the work caterers I subsequently came to know that bought our cheese sticks for their parties, the catering I did was pretty small. It was pretty low key. Not as sophisticated.

Q – I’ll talk more about the catering in just a minute. But first, did it take a lot of money to launch this cheese stick co.? 
A – It really didn’t. I mean, not nothing, but more than I thought it would take. That’s got to be a common supposition on the part of prospective entrepreneurs that they could do something for a song. Well, surprise Number One. It was at least in two stages. I set about executing the idea of a free-standing cheese stick business if you will. I wasn’t catering at the time. This was after I moved to New York City and I hadn’t been catering for a year or two. I was just kind of tweaking the recipe and biding my time. That was not expensive. Just making cheese sticks in my loft with a little bit of equipment for gosh, less than $2,000. An oven, an old sheeter and a very simple poofing box that allows us to control our yeast dough to rise at a predictable rate and a predictable volume. Just a box that has a constant 104 degree temperature and 80% humidity. That was it, pretty much. Maybe a refrigerator too.

Q – How can you do that without Health Inspectors coming in?
A – I wasn’t selling anything. This was just to sort of play with the recipe. I think I probably made some batches for friends for Christmas presents, that kind of thing. But, I was not selling out of my loft. But, let me back up. I think that’s a good point. I think I did get one small account from the product I was making at home, very small that I was making. But, if was useful because I could see that it would sell. It was helpful and eventually illegal I suppose. But, it was pretty innocent.

Q – You moved from a New York City loft to a storefront?
A – Yeah. I was already in New York mind you. It was Astor and Broadway. Storefront rents were going up at that time. This is early getting on mid 80’s I’d already started to see the real estate boom start. The Village is general, Greenwich Village where I was kind of looking and Soho were ‘hot’. The boarders were being pushed out and that was pushing up rents everywhere. But, I got a space between 1st Ave and Avenue A in what was called the East Village which was also becoming popular, but also bordering up against some rough and tumble neighbourhoods. So, it wasn’t coming up super fast. That kind of kept it down a little bit.

Q – And then,  I don’t know what happens first, you left New York for the West Coast and then New York for New Jersey.
A – Well, they all happened, but at different times. The sequence is in broad strokes, B.U. (Boston University) from ’71 to ’75. Returned to the hometown to check it out for a little while, Santa Barbara, didn’t do much there. A little bit of catering. Moved to Santa Cruz in ’76 or thereabouts. I was there until ’79 doing catering. Then I moved to New York City to be with my future wife Joy, future and current. I was in N.Y.C. ’79 ‘til ’86. I moved out in ’86. But, in those years I was still in the loft making the trial batches, the one illegal account if you will. I got the place on 13th Street in the Fall of ’84 and the renovations took 4 or 5 months because we got stopped by the building inspector to file a building permit and all that kind of stuff and finally opened the space on 13th Street in ’85, May of ’85.

Q – Were you in the catering business on Martha’s Vineyard for 10 years?
A - That’s a bit of a exaggeration. It’s sort of a simplification, not that we’re trying to deceive anyone. It was summer gigs mostly. I was working for a co. that did all kinds of things to attend to the needs of people vacationing on the Vineyard. House cleaning. Cutting lawns. Parties. Clam  bakes. So, I was involved with that for a couple of years. But, 10 years is a stretch.

Q – Did you cater to some famous people on Martha’s Vineyard?
A – Really not. I mean, there were people you’d bump into there that had some big names, but, I can’t remember doing any celebrity catering.

Q – So, how big would you like to see this co. get and how big are you today?
A – You know, we’ve got about 60 people here. I guess the only honest answer is, I’m not really sure. We’ve had some success of course but we’ve grown fairly steadily and not meteorically.  When you’re starting from zero, you’re first couple of years no matter what your sales are, are gonna be off the charts. It’s infinite growth. But, once we establish a sales base it sort of averaged anywhere from kind of a disappointing year, it might be 5% growth to an exciting year. It might be 30% year over year. Last year, 2010, was something like that. I don’t know exactly I think it was somewhere between 25 and 30%. So, that was a good bump. It won’t be that this year (2011). It’s very exciting that rate to growth and can be profitable if you don’t lose control of things, but if it goes too fast I just lose track of what’s going on. I enjoy all the pieces. I enjoy understanding what each new piece of machinery does. I like to know who’s working here. Something about them. How the team works as a unit. I’ve not really been in a co. with hyper-growth, but I think it would be harder to do that, to keep track of all that.

Q – How did you know cheese sticks as a product would work?
A – Well, I didn’t. It sort of harkens back to the catering, the fairly humble catering I went to emphasize. It was small time. And, it wasn’t the only thing I made that was popular. To make it with some regularity at different functions and have people respond positively – I noticed! Then another thing we did which I think was important was in the summertime at least in the places in Santa Cruz where I was catering, we did a number of things for the college. UC Santa Cruz, which is very slow in the summer. To make up for that Joy, my future wife and I, ,my current wife, made up a concession booth to take on the road to county fairs in Northern California. Cheese sticks was on of the things we made and sold. It was kind of like a test market, to put ‘em out there. People didn’t know what they were. Call ‘em what you will. Cheese sticks. Give me three of those. And then they’d come back for more. So it’s like, maybe there’s a business there. That’s about it really. And then one stop at a time after that. You get in deep enough and encouraged enough you keep going. That’s pretty much what I did.

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