Sarah Conley, 36, is "an internet grandmother." She worked with several major digital publications in New York City for years before returning home in 2017 to become the Director of Marketing at Sweet Freedom Cheese, the only cut-to-order cheese shop in Arkansas. This is how her 12-year career in fashion led to a life in cheese.
I started as a microbiology major at the University of Arkansas and when I realized I couldn’t wear a pink lab coat to the lab every day, I was just like, what am I doing with my life? I became a fashion major. We call it “apparel studies” here because in Arkansas, we are the home to major corporations like Walmart and Dillard's, so apparel studies primarily teaches you how to be a buyer. I loved it, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.
I was the girl who had her computer with her every single day in class [Ed. note: That was unusual in the early '00s!]. I knew who Penelope Cruz wore on the red carpet the night before and every little detail about everybody's dresses. In 2005, I actually got an internship with a [now-defunct] fashion blog, which is especially crazy because it was the very, very early stages of blogging.
[The internship sent me to New York] Fashion Week because my boss had invitations to insane fashion parties that she couldn't make. But then this really weird thing happened while I was [at fashion shows]. My boss had this rival who was sitting front row at Oscar de la Renta, and they had these two factions of bloggers who followed each of them. And after Fashion Week, I watched them turn the tides of internet opinions against each other. I thought “...this is not the kind of thing I want to do.”
I went home to Arkansas and tried to get my life together. That led me to the realization that ,at the end of the day, there was no reason I, too, couldn't be putting my own opinions and content out into the world, just like my boss and her rival had been doing. I ended up starting my blog in 2006, mostly because I was talking excitedly about Olivia Palermo in the socialite rank days. Does anyone remember that? I very vividly remember the letter she wrote to her fellow socialites, including Tinsley Mortimer, that was basically like “why don’t you like me?” [Ed. note: It was a big deal for anyone who even vaguely cared about fashion and celebrities in the year 2006.] I wrote about lip balm and whatever else was happening in the pre-Gossip Girl era.
The blog took off. I started contributing to outlets like Elle, Style.com, BlogHer, and more. I formed relationships; I actually ended up working for the other person that my former employer tried to turn everyone against. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?
Through that gig, I became the community manager at a website called Coutorture, which was purchased by Sugar Media, which…none of these things exist anymore. But my role there primarily was to educate all of the 200-300 fashion industry streetwear bloggers about the industry's happenings. Between that and my own blog, I began honing my own voice. Still, with my "apparel studies" background, I also always had one foot in marketing because you gotta pay the bills—if you’re not a super influencer, you gotta get shit done, you know?
[The site] helped me connect with marketing agencies where we put fashion brands like David Yurman and Nine West on social media. Like, we literally created their social channels. We did the first live-stream runway show from Bryant Park, which is just crazy to me, especially because I’d been backstage at the last year's shows. The whole full-circle moment there is still kind of staggering to me. It was incredible. For years, I worked with all these wonderful companies.
But then, in 2016…my life shattered. I got cancer. Then I fell in love with someone. I moved to England with him in 2017 and I stayed there for six months. By the time I was ready to come back, my whole life had fallen apart. My apartment in New York had been packed up, and things just really disintegrated. So I came back to Arkansas with my tail between my legs and tried to figure out my life. You’re on this track, especially in New York, you know? Everyone around you is learning new and interesting ways to get attention and position themselves, and it was a constant race. I didn’t know what I would do without that, as it had been so integral to my identity. So what did that mean that I was going back to Arkansas? Was I a failure? I was trying to take care of my physical and mental health, and I didn't know what to do.
Coincidentally, my mom has a friend. And that friend always had this dream of opening a cheese shop. And that friend had gone on this cheese quest around the U.S. meeting all these cheesemakers and learning everything she could about cheesemaking. She decided to open a retail, cut-to-order cheese shop in Fayetteville instead.
I mean, listen. I love string cheese. If you show me Cabot cheese, I get real excited. I still have very basic cheese taste. But she was doing this all on her own. She had put her entire life on hold. I just knew this woman was putting her heart and soul into something, and I knew I couldn’t stand by with the skills to help her and let her do this alone.
I had to work very hard to convince her to let me help. My mental health was very bad, but I was like “you have no content strategy, you have no idea what you’re doing with your emails, you have no idea what you’re doing from a marketing perspective. Please let me help you.” We started working together in July of last year. The shop officially opened in October. We had a line out the front door of the market hall for four hours.
Formally, I’m now the director of marketing at Sweet Freedom Cheese. I oversee social media, our email newsletter, and I handle high-level marketing projects. For example, there was a food festival at the end of June. We saw about 3,000 to 3,500 people a night over the course of three days. It took place at our market, which is the 8th Street Market. Part of my responsibility there was to find a way to engage with the public and help them understand what it is we do at the cheese shop.
We live in an area that a lot of people may not be familiar with, but it’s Walmart’s home office. You have extremely affluent people who are used to a level of service and maybe don’t want to be outside with 3,000 sweaty people. We tried to capitalize on that and give them education and sampling and a high-level experience. They could go out and experience the festival if they wanted to, but they could also come in and make mozzarella with us one night. That was a big production, but there is always something on the calendar.
It’s so funny how much I have learned about cheese and how much my marketing background has even made me really helpful at the shop, which is not something people realize at face value. But marketing, retail, fashion, and cheese are not that different. Once I learn about a cheese, I’m able to tell customers all the interesting things about it and talk to them in a way that lets them know I’m passionate about it. There are so many special details like that that you can bring out and that helps to convey the value of the product, whether it's an $8,000 dress or a $35-a-pound cheese.
It’s been really great to actually see the social impact—like if I post about something and people come into the shop asking for "the last thing I saw on your Instagram”—because I’ve worked with so many big brands. And, sure, I could look at click data and use tracking on Google Analytics to see what the conversion is for how much cheese we sell—that’s fine. But it’s not the same as seeing the people who are coming in because of the work that you did. It’s truly the most rewarding job of my career and I’m really happy.
I've also been able to connect with people on an even simpler level. We love to help people figure out cheese! Do not be afraid to talk to the cheesemonger behind the counter [at an artisanal and/or cut-to-order cheese shop]. We can help people whose favorite cheese is, say, Velveeta! We don’t cheese-shame! If your favorite cheese is Velveeta, we’re gonna help you find something similar in flavor profile or texture.
Please remember—I love Cabot. I used to be embarrassed by that! But at Sweet Freedom, we actually have Cabot cloth-bound cheddar, which is made by the Cabot cheesemakers in partnership with Jasper Hill farms. They take wheels of Cabot cheese, wrap it in cloth, and put it in their cellars to age. We call it a designer version of the Cabot cheddar I know and still truly love. There are always entry points with cheese—maybe you don’t like blue cheese! But you should at least open yourself up to the possibility that you might actually really love it! Listen. The only way you’re gonna know is if you put it in your mouth.
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