The creamery at Sona Creamery near Eastern Market has remained unused since the adjoining restaurant and wine bar opened in January 2014. But last Friday, wife-husband owners Genevieve and Conan O’Sullivan pulled encyclopedia-thick slabs of cheese curds out of a jacuzzi-sized cheese vat, then chopped them up into squeaky bite-sized pieces for the first time. An inspector from the D.C. Department of Health looked on, occasionally taking photos on his phone to document the process.
The O’Sullivans have had to literally rewrite food production rules in D.C. to even get to this point. But after more than a year and a half of navigating regulatory hurdles and buildout issues, they’ll finally sell their first housemade cheese this weekend. It’s a long time coming not just for Sona, but for the District as well. As far as the owners are aware, the cheesemaking operation will be the first ever in D.C. The O’Sullivans hired freelance writer Whitney Pipkin (an occasional Y&H contributor) to look into the history of cheesemaking in the District. “She did a public records request and all that, and we can’t find anything that was commercially operated,” Genevieve says.
The O’Sullivans initially planned to open the creamery around the same time as the bar and restaurant, but the buildout became far more complicated than expected. A core drill was sent through the concrete building six times just to get the boiler system installed. “When we talked to our creamery friends, they’re like, ‘Yeah, those are city problems,’” Conan says.
“There’s no blueprint to do this in the middle of a city,” Genevieve says. While there are some urban cheesemakers elsewhere in the country, they’re few and far between. The O’Sullivans say they’re aware of fewer still that have a hybrid creamery, retail shop, restaurant, and bar setup like Sona. Windows between the dining room and production facility allow diners to see the cheesemaking in action. The creamery is also visible to passersby on the street.
Anywhere else in the country, a creamery would be regulated by the state’s agriculture department. In the absence of such an agency in D.C., the O’Sullivans have worked primarily with DOH and petitioned for variances in the food code that are specific to aging and curing cheese. “If you were to try to age cheese at the accepted refrigeration standards, it wouldn’t age, it would die,” Genevieve says. They’ve been allowed to bring raw milk into the District because they’re not selling it as a product. They will pasteurize the dairy themselves or age it according to federal standards.
DOH says it’s received guidance on how to inspect creameries from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as sought input on inspections from other parts of the country. The health department is specially training certain people to inspect the creamery, so the business won’t just get a random health inspector coming in who doesn’t know about the process.
For the moment, no cheesemaking license exists in D.C., although a spokesman for D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs says they’re “exploring a number of new licensing categories, including one for a commercial cheesemaker.” Instead, the creamery has a caterer’s license. “They don’t have a classification that even comes close to fitting us,” Genevieve says.
Even though the process has taken a long time, the O’Sullivans say working with DOH has been relatively smooth. The fact that D.C. government officials have already updated regulations regarding food trucks, breweries, distilleries, and charcuterie makers over the last few years has helped lay the groundwork for cheesemaking. “All of this new manufacturing is what’s really new to them, because for so long, D.C. didn’t produce anything,” Genevieve says. “When all you were doing was going in and inspecting restaurants, it’s a huge change.”
Conan says the health department official they first met with way back in 2013 “lit up” when they talked about their plans, having recently worked with D.C.’s new charcuterie makers. “We’re sitting there and the health inspector’s telling us, ‘Yeah Three Little Pigs [now Straw Stick & Brick], super cool place… I can eat boar’s head all day long,’” Conan recalls.
It also helped that the O’Sullivans had previous experience in the regulatory world—although not as it pertains to cheese. Before moving to D.C. from Olympia, Wash. in 2012, Conan was executive director of the Washington State Recycling Association. Genevieve was previously director of communications for the National Association of State Foresters. “That little modicum of regulation that we both speak I think helped us actually be able to do this,” Conan says.
The O’Sullivans got into cheesemaking as hobbyists. “We’re project people. There’s some zen in project stuff for us, and so cheese naturally just appealed to us,” Conan says. “It’s like 90 percent process, 5 percent terror, 5 percent magic.”
As they started getting more serious, they begged friends who had creameries to let them come learn more. Conan also took cheesemaking classes at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and the couple joined the American Cheese Society, through which they got to know more of their ilk. “Cheesemakers are super open and they’re super willing to tell you what you’re doing wrong,” Conan says—as long as you’re not after their recipes. “One good cheese recipe can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The Pacific Northwest already had plenty of cheesemakers, but in D.C., they saw the chance to break into a burgeoning food scene. The couple already had family here and visited regularly. “D.C. really grew on us. We both started to feel like locals anyway,” Genevieve says. “And when we decided we were going to do this business, and just seeing how D.C. was finally finding its foodie self, it just made a lot of sense to us.”
The O’Sullivans plan to begin by putting housemade cheese curds on the menu, which they’ll also pair with poutine as soon as this weekend; goat cheese will follow next week. They’ll also produce a few styles of brie, which take four to five weeks to age. Meanwhile, the Smithsonian has given the O’Sullivans permission to harvest herbs and flowers from the Victory Garden to use for their cheeses. But their real dream is to cover a wheel of brie in cherry blossoms in the spring. “That would just be magical for us,” Conan says. They’d also like to collaborate with DC Brau to produce a brie washed in Penn Quarter or another beer.
Harder cheeses like gouda take at least three months to age, but the O’Sullivans will likely wait six months to a year “when you get that little bit of crystallization, that pop, like a parm would have,” Conan says.
As they become ready, the cheeses will, of course, be available at Sona’s bar and restaurant. The O’Sullivans have also been in talks with the likes of Whole Foods and Nationals Park about possibly carrying their products down the line.
But for now, they’re are just happy to be scooping curds out of the cheese vat.
“I’m pumped,” Conan says.
“It feels like Christmas,” Genevieve says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery