Carlos Yescas and his company Lactography are changing the game for traditional cheese makers in Mexico, ensuring that their ancient cheese making traditions will continue and garnering acclaim and awards at the world's most prestigious cheese competitions along the way. We sat down with Carlos to learn more about his company that he runs with his sister Georgina Yescas and are honored to welcome him as a speaker at our Roots Conference this year. We know that his presentation at Roots will inspire you as much as Carlos inspires us!
What was your motivation to start Lactography?
Lactography, the business, started wanting to bring to market the amazing cheeses of people we had met in Chiapas and who had worked with us for years. We quickly realized that all the worked we had been doing to get cheese makers up to speed in practices and flavor, was being lost because they could't sell their product. The store came from the demand of our clients to have a permanent location. Also, to tell you the truth, Georgina started selling to friends and family to do something. She had just lost her job in the worst possible way (got sick, went to the hospital and her boss came to fire her at the hospital) and wanted to do something different. I had been working with cheese makers for a long time, my mom and Will had been envolved in visiting cheese makers, and also in promoting them. Will even started documenting people in his now defunct blog, but we were now living back in NYC working on our PhDs. In a trip to Mexico to see cheese makers in Chiapas, I got my sister to come and she fell in love with my work and decided to start selling to help herself and them.
Please tell us more about the company and its goals?
We are changing at the moment. We want to help more cheese makers. We want to open a second store. We want to become a larger distributor. The reality is that this is just now becoming a business for us. We have not had profits or salaries ever. That's why I have another job. However, the big question is how to do this, while keeping our integrity and being responsible, not over extending ourselves. I would love to tell you that we are the same as when you first meet us in Mexico. But the issues of the Mexican economy are really hitting us and the cheese makers. We need to decide how to be happy with our decisions. Sorry. That was TMI.
Since, I moved back to the US. Georgina has transformed the company and started to pay even more attention to women cheese makers. I think this is terrific and have supported her. We think that empowering women in rural communities would have a bigger impact towards making Mexico a better place for everyone.
How do you see Lactography benefiting the people you work with in Mexico?
I think the most obvious benefit is that they have a place to sell their products. That is no small gain, since in Mexico the custom is for rural people to beg people to buy their products. We don't do that. They come in, they tell us their price and we pay that. If their cheese is not to what we like, we help them to get there and then bring them in. To this point, there has not been a single cheese maker that we have turned away to try to help them. However, to be able to keep doing that we need more places to sell ourselves and more consumers, and that is hard.
What is the most rewarding aspect of running Lactography?
I used to be the interaction with cheese makers. But since I moved back to the US, I have less chances to do that. So I guess the best part now is to see people using our cheese. When I see a morsel of cheese in a picture from a restaurant or people post their cheese pictures on instagram, I get really happy. For my sister, that is really different. She now deals with admin and also cheesemaker relationships. She probably would tell you that she likes getting the spotlight of the media to her cheesemakers. She worked really hard to have the El Gourmet magazine feature Regina Olvera and her avocado leaf cheese.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of it?
We want to be very professional, have the best product available, and treat our cheesemakers and employees in the best way. The problem is that that is costly and other people are copying our model but doing it in the cheap. That means that we have more competition, which makes our small profits even smaller. But I guess the most frustrating part is when I see chefs and stores saying that they only use the best product and I know they stop buying our cheese and now carry lower quality product. I guess that is a common complain from distributors. There are a lot of fakes in Mexico.
Tell us a bit more about the individuals you work with, share an interesting story or two about them, and also tell me about a few of your favorite cheeses that you distribute?
I really don't have favorites. I like them all. They all have a place and a moment, and when I'm in Mexico, I try to eat them all, at least once. In the fridge in the US, we have 5 right now, plus the stuff I buy here. We basically run on cheese. I think Judith Flores is an amazing cheesemakers. She makes our Queso Panela, which is sold exclusively to Enrique Olvera and a small amount in our store. We worked together for about 4 years, before we had the perfect taste for this cheese. But the reward is amazing. People eat it and immediately say things like "just like the one I used to in when I visit my grand parents in the provinces," or "I have never tasted cheese like this, you can really taste the milk." She just moved her cows to a bigger lot, they are pasture raised and with her dad they are growing the company.
Please tell us about the cheesemaking traditions of Mexico and how does Lactography fit into its preservation?
We have had around 180 years of cheesemaking. Our styles are very specific, and we have great diversity from north to south. However, because the biggest milk conglomerates in Mexico are in the center and north. The styles of cheese original from those areas, as the ones that have taken over in supermarkets and also now in street markets. Our work is to try to find and bring those cheeses that are disappearing, while encourage other cheesemakers to make new styles.
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Images courtesy of Lactography.com.