Artisan Cheese Company Uses Social Media to Boost Biz


In my travels between my home base in New York City and my part-time home in Sarasota, Florida, I have developed an affinity for a few small, local businesses making major impact in social media. When I decided to do a piece on a small business making a big social impact, I immediately knew which one I would choose to feature. There are many excellent options to be found in my little corner of New York City, where one can find every specialty good and service in its own little nook on a side street between bustling Avenues. However, I don’t believe I have ever encountered a business that does both components – excellent product/service and innovative social media impact – as well as the small but very mighty Artisan Cheese Company in beautiful Sarasota, Florida.

I confess I am not a neutral observer; I have been a fan and patron of this little cheese shop at the bottom of Sarasota’s Main Street for quite some time, nearly as long as it’s been open. But as I watched the business grow and noticed the social media influence the company was having, I knew I had to speak with proprietor Louise Kennedy Converse, affectionately known in my household as “Cheese Louise.”  

On a recent visit, I asked Louise and her cheesemonger, Megan Greenberg, about their social media strategy as well as their particular point of sale solution. I asked Louise to speak a bit about how her company has used social media to leverage their excellent products and make waves across the web, far beyond Sarasota Bay. Louise was kind enough to provide some wonderful insight into how her small business has been able to use social media to drive traffic at the point of sale – both in store and online.

The POS News: What is your other retail/hospitality experience, and how did you arrive at the decision to open Artisan Cheese Company in Sarasota?

Converse: My husband I had lived in Sarasota from 2002 – 2008, but with the call of the recession, I was pulled back up to Massachusetts, where I’d lived earlier, and back to a program job at Harvard University. But we knew we wanted to return to Sarasota as soon as we were able to get back down here. So after four years in Massachusetts, I left the stresses of my high-level administrator’s job and returned to Sarasota to create Artisan Cheese Company. I like to say that, “we’re talking cheese here, it’s just cheese.” It’s very hard to be stressed about cheese.

I have a background in graphic design and marketing, and I’ve always had a passion for all things cheese, and food made in small batches. At heart I’m a storyteller, so what I try to do at my shop is re-tell the stories these amazing artisans create to my customers in Sarasota and beyond.

A stint in the restaurant business as a bartender, along with some waitressing and catering during my twenties, turned out to be a great training ground to learn how to engage customers. [This experience,] along with an ongoing love affair with food, travel, and design, shaped what and how I want to eat – whether it be at a restaurant, or when I invite friends into my kitchen. The cheese shop is just an extension of that. Everything I’ve done before has led me to this retail venture into specialty cheese and food.

How did you become interested in using social media to boost business?  Do you use it personally outside of the business, and did this help you to integrate it into the store?

I’ve always been fascinated with technology and I would characterize my level of interest as serious “geek”. I got plugged in back in 1995 when I was back working at Harvard when Windows 95 and Netscape burst on the scene. I was an early adopter and found that it made my work and research so much easier. I’ve never looked back.

Fast forward to now – I’m still a techno geek, and for the last six years, I’ve been a social media evangelist. I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, Twitter since 2008, and Instagram since the summer of 2011. It only made sense that when I started my business I would employ all three platforms as a marketing and communication tool. I created Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts eight months before we opened the business, as I wanted to create a buzz well before we opened our doors. I used my personal social networks as my test market to start liking my Facebook page for the shop. Social networks, even online networks, are driven by norms and networks of reciprocity, and I’ve spent years cultivating my online presence. The cross over from my personal sites to a business based social network has been a fluid and organic shift, as I continue to expose a little of who I am with my various accounts. A documentarian in Ireland, Roger Overall, uses Artisan Cheese Company’s online presence as an example of how a business can successfully use Instagram [to boost sales]. He calls what I do as “lifting the veil”. And of course he has been following me on Instagram and Twitter since the beginning. My Instagram images simultaneously go to Twitter and Facebook in one click. The perfect trifecta. 

What point of sale system do you use, and do you find that it works well for your needs?  If not, what would improve it?

I use ShopKeep as my point of sale. I knew that I wanted to utilize a low profile tech platform as a register. I didn’t want to go old school and use a cash register from Staples, as the reporting would have been a nightmare. After all, this is a business, and tracking sales is a key to its success. I spent a solid six months researching different POS options. It had to be simple to use, robust in the back end, and I didn’t want to be locked into a contract with equipment that [would be obsolete] the minute I drove it off the lot, so to speak. And since I’m a Mac user, it had to be Mac based.

I spent hours and hours hassling presales folks at ShopKeep over the phone until I could understand how it worked. Their presales by phone was not great, in fact they could use some help there. This is a big step for a small business, so people like me really do our homework up front. I like that it operates in the cloud, and that I can adjust my inventory from my couch if I need to. All the girls in the shop find it easy to use as they’re used to working with iPads, so it’s easy to learn.

At first, one of the obstacles to moving forward with ShopKeep on the iPad is that the iPad system only allows for a certain number of dedicated buttons, but when you’re at the register we find that we don’t really rely on the buttons other than the ones on the first two pages. For most things we search using a name of a product, or we scan using a USB Bluetooth scanner. (Editors note (2013) – Shopkeep informs us their system currently allows 270 buttons, and a pending update will increase that.)

Shopkeep has great customer support, and they’ve spent a good deal of time trouble shooting various issues having to do with hardware compatibility. And they did really well fielding our questions as we were getting set up.

On the negative side, ShopKeep does not yet have a solution for gift cards. They do not integrate with a scale, and for our business that would be key.   However, I am confident that they’re working diligently in the background as no doubt there are many other POS systems coming up behind them nipping at their market share. A big blow was when they parted ways with Shopify, as we were just about to build a Shopify ecommerce website to integrate ShopKeep and our online presence. As such, we’re going to a WordPress solution for our soon-to-be-released ecommerce site. I have my fingers crossed that they might be turning to a WordPress solution.   

Overall it’s a good system for our small shop with a growing inventory, and I’m going to stick with them. Plus, our customers love it. So there’s a novelty factor at the register, which hopefully takes a bit of pain away from the tally of the receipt.

I considered Square register, but it just wasn’t enough. I wanted to use my own merchant account, which was important to me. We have a Square register on the iPad as a backup in case ShopKeep goes down, and I do use Square on my phone if we do offsite events. There are elements to Square that I like such as customer recognition, but I’m hopeful that ShopKeep will get there at some point.

Share some examples of how social media, especially Instagram, has brought people into your store.artisancheese

I use Instagram to keep in touch with some of my artisanal vendors and cheesemakers, as well as customers. But it also connects me to my fellow cheese retailers. We’re always encouraging each other, or if we have a question, we field it using an Instagram feed. I love it when my Instagram followers come into the shop – people from Ohio or Indiana.

A few months ago some customers stopped in after a lady who works the information desk at the Tampa airport told them about us. She happens to be one of our Instagram followers and told them to stop in and see us. So Instagram can reach people who are already looking for cheese related places, like ours. I’ll post a new cheese at the shop, or a pantry item, as will my head cheesemonger Megan Greenberg, and we’ll certainly notice a bump in sales of that cheese. People come in and ask for that new chevre we posted, or that new jam.

We also found a few of our products and cheeses via Instagram and Twitter. It’s a really good way to stay connected and to show those vendors where their products are. I’ve heard that so many times the makers lose the trail of where their cheeses go, so Instagram gives them a window into what we’re doing.

And just last week Jamie Oliver started following us. I’m sure he’ll unfollow us at some point, when he finds out that I’m just a cheese fan girl in Florida, but for now I’m over the social moon.

(Photos by Neil Alexander) 

Editors note: Sept 2013 – ShopKeep reports that their system now offers the following additional features:

Splitting Checks:
The recently released version 1.6 of the ShopKeep app includes split tenders and redesigned receipts. The split tender feature allows two or more different forms of payment in a single transaction, typically cash and credit card or multiple credit cards.

Customer Recognition:
ShopKeep works with PayPal Here, which allows customers to ‘check-in’ at their favorite stores and pay with nothing more than their phone and face.

ShopKeep also allows merchants to identify their best regular customers and capture email addresses to provide promotions or updates


For more on Artisan Cheese Company, visit their website here.

Follow them on Twitter.

Connect on Instagram: @artisancheesecompany

Like them on Facebook. 

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