Patience — Learning an entirely new dynamic with family members requires a lot of patience. You are seeing each other in different functionalities than you’re used to. My parents, though they knew of my career, had never fully understood the scope of what I do until we started working together. And it took some time to recognize that there is a level of authority here that I think was somewhat uncomfortable for them to adjust to.
As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Brier.
Diana Brier is a national cheese expert and Owner and Director of Cheese at Valley Cheese & Wine, Las Vegas’ oldest cheese and wine shop. She has worked for a plethora of esteemed companies including Whole Foods, Harmons Grocery, Deer Valley Resort, Rogue Creamery, and more. Brier is also one of 45 people to hold a Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator certificate from the American Cheese Society (ACS) and most recently earned her ACS Certified Cheese Professional title, making her knowledge and palate very rare.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I always say that cheese found me rather than me finding cheese… While working in finance and teaching dance on the side, a medical emergency briefly ended my life and I came back from that incident with a resolve to find something I was truly passionate about. I applied at Whole Foods because I was curious about food retail, and my interviewer asked me if I’d be interested in cheese. I said of course, but I didn’t know ANYTHING about cheese at the time. I was a Velveeta and ro-tel kind of girl, being from Texas! But after my first cheese 101 class, it was over. Cheese, for me, is the perfect marriage of art and science; a celebration of human survival and creativity. It is deeply rooted in tradition, yet evolves as the world around us does. It is a perfect creation; a love language. It’s the very thing that roots me to the earth. It has been my passion and my career ever since.
Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?
Sure! My mom Terry, dad Burgess, and I all own the business together. This was all my idea; they thought they were retired! I am the Store Manager and Director of Cheese. As Store Manager, I handle the day to day operations — The general vibe and experience you have here are mostly under my direction, though mom and dad’s input is always welcome. As the Director of Cheese, I curate the selections and handle the ordering and receiving for cheese, charcuterie, and any non-wine areas of the shop. And of course, I’m always mongering. My dad and our on-staff sommelier co-curate the wine program, and dad does the wine ordering. He’s also our office guy and handles most of the back-end administration. With guests, mom is like their concierge — there to guide them around the store if they wish, tell them stories of the changes we’ve made or the art we’ve put in, just generally makes your experience here pleasant. But she is also the cog that keeps the store turning. She’s become a little merchandising fairy, coming behind big waves of customers to set the store back to beautiful. And of course, we all pinch hit for each other when and if we can. We’re a family, after all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?
Haha, lots of stories to share here. I think the one that sticks out is the one that really illustrates the full circle nature of cheese and how I have been in different elements of the supply chain. As the cheesemake supervisor for Rogue Creamery in Oregon, essentially I signed off on all of the cheeses that were made there. Due to health issues I had to resign in November of 2018, just after production of our most famous cheese, Rogue River Blue (a seasonal cheese). I said goodbye to that cheese as it was ageing in the caves at RC. The next year, it won the award of best cheese in the world, an unprecedented feat for a domestic cheese. I was already in Vegas at the time and couldn’t find it anywhere. Fast forward to 2020 and as the new owner and director of cheese, I had an opportunity to bring it into my shop this past fall. When it arrived, it was like seeing a long lost friend. Seeing it again was so emotional for me, as it was just a baby when I left and I didn’t handle it again until it had been declared ‘best cheese in the world’. It was a powerfully emotional moment for me to hold and care for that cheese once again.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Haha! As a baby monger at Whole Foods, I had NOT been introduced to the world of washed rind / stinky cheeses yet… and I was still unfamiliar with alternative milk types (such as sheep and goat cheeses). Since we were a new store opening, other mongers came from other stores to assist with the cheese island. One of them was cutting a cheese called Tomme du Berger, a mixed milk washed rind French cheese. Since I didn’t know cheese was SUPPOSED to smell like that sometimes, I mistakenly thought that the monger who came in to help had horrible personal hygiene, and I was deeply offended by the aromas that surrounded him at the time… to the point where I just couldn’t work with him anymore. (!) Since he was mostly there to do production, he didn’t explain the cheese and so I just didn’t understand until several months later, by which time I felt like a huge jerk for assuming it was a personal hygiene issue. Haha. And one of the main lessons that I learned from that, and that I still pass on to those wanting to explore cheese, is that sometimes the aroma (or the ‘nose’) is far more pungent than what lies within. Smell and appreciate that smell, but don’t let the aroma of a cheese be the solitary deciding factor. That cheese was actually delicious… so months later when I learned about it, I decided to put it out for samples. Made two children cry. So I also learned not to feed obscure stinky cheeses to young children. Lol.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We REALLY make you feel like you walked into our home. It is warm, friendly, familial, and inviting here. And more than just that: this is the only place in town with massively qualified experts in their fields working together to create a harmonious and memorable experience. Being the only Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator in Las Vegas, as well as an artisan cheesemaker and affineur, well, it allows me to break down what you’re tasting in the deli to the finest, most meticulous details. You can get as little or as much information as you wish. Same with the wine. We have an amazing staff of onsite sommeliers. When you grab a bottle, they’ll let me know what the tasting notes are, and I can pair with cheese. Conversely if you grab cheese first, I’ll let the somm know the flavor profiles and they can pick a match from there. It’s a totally different experience and business model than anyone has in Vegas. And I love it. And of course, we are family owned, LGBT+ owned, and women-operated. We rock. Haha.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Lots of projects in the works at VCW. I really have the vision to get cheese more accessible in Las Vegas. There is a profound lack of cheese knowledge, cheese education, qualified cheese professionals, and carefully curated selections in Las Vegas, and I am proud to be at the forefront of that. Many of my projects involve other local businesses with fun and unique collaborations to help one another through the crisis of the pandemic. As we move our way into a newer normal, I intend to roll out more group friendly programs aimed to help people really navigate their way through the world of artisan cheese.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
On my very first day in cheese, I met a woman named Sheri Allen, who became my mentor and fairy godmother in cheese. I think she sensed that I was meant to do this, because since that day she has mentored me every step of the way… from Whole Foods to Rogue Creamery and then again to Vegas. She is an internationally recognized cheese educator and I’m grateful to have her guiding me through the industry. Thank you, Sheri.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’ve donated to wildfire victims from 2020, but to be totally honest my success in the industry is somewhat recent. I’m looking forward to participating in philanthropic efforts in the future, once the pandemic is past us.
In the meantime, I continue to focus on people. This time in our lives has been unprecedented and difficult for everyone in some way, and I’ve found that the best way for me to show love and goodness is to share the love I have for what I do with the people seeking it out. Cheese is a symbol of human adaptation and survival. Cheese is goodness. Cheese is love. And we could all use a little of that these days.
How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?
I’ve seen so many variations of family businesses, especially in this industry. They’re all different. So for me, my definition is specific to my experience. A family business is a collaborative effort, just like a family unit is. It’s not everyone for themselves here; it’s more of a mentality of a ‘how can we accomplish this as a family’. We have a strongly woven together team that didn’t require a whole lot of team building, per se. We’ve been building this team our whole lives.
In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?
There is a level of respect between the co-owners that can only exist between people who fundamentally and intrinsically understand one another. In regular businesses, you usually haven’t been through all phases of life with your business partners. In a family business, you know the journey your partners have been on, because usually, you’ve been on it with them.
What are the unique drawbacks or blind spots that family owned businesses have?
I think since there IS such a strong emotional bond between families, it is a little easier to get overly emotional about business things, which is not something I expected or have navigated before.
What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?
Definitely compartmentalization; ensuring you don’t let the business overtake the personal aspect of the family. While they’re closely woven, it is important to have family time without business talk, and, conversely, it’s important to be able to address business issues without leaving the conversation feeling differently about your family. For us, it’s all about communication. We check in with each other. When we talk offsite, we always say whether the conversation is meant to be me speaking to my parents or me speaking to my business partners. Have boundaries, communicate them, and always, ALWAYS remember that loving each other at the end of the day is what will drive both the business and your relationships with each other forward.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?
Employees already start out somewhat disadvantaged because they’re not part of the family, so we make a concerted effort to treat everyone as though they ARE family. Again, boundaries are important, but no one should ever feel particularly left out of anything. Our employees are an extension of our family. And the way we treat each other should reflect that.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?
I think leadership has no room for ego. In a business as small as ours, I strongly feel that if you can’t do the job yourself, you have no room to direct the operations of said job. Am I highly credentialed? Yes. Am I the owner and face of this business? Yes. But I am also in at 4am to build boards on busy days with the team, or cleaning toilets in the back? Also yes. I constantly check in with my staff to ensure they’re not overwhelmed and are happy. And if they’re not, I am ready to fix it. You cannot lead a team without being part of it.
Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Patience — Learning an entirely new dynamic with family members requires a lot of patience. You are seeing each other in different functionalities than you’re used to. My parents, though they knew of my career, had never fully understood the scope of what I do until we started working together. And it took some time to recognize that there is a level of authority here that I think was somewhat uncomfortable for them to adjust to.
- Adaptability — We jumped headfirst into a small business acquisition during a global pandemic, and since we are ALL first time small business owners we had the challenge to not only adapt to day to day operational stuff, but we have constantly had to adapt our business model as the world changes around us. We adapt to each other’s needs as well. Flex in and out as needed, flow to the work. There are no hard lines here.
- Boundaries — I’ve mentioned it before, but never let the business get in the way of your familial bond.
- Trust — this goes beyond just the trust you have with one another as a family unit, but extends to our staff as well. It is so important to be able to take a day off here and there without having to constantly worry or check in. We trust one another to keep driving the business forward even when one of us is absent. That trust allows for a better work-life balance, which is key to not burning out.
- And of course, Love — A lot of my questions have touched on this one. This is going to sound corny, but love is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Even if it’s been a rough day, when my parents and I part ways for the day/week/whatever, we always make sure to let each other know how much we love and appreciate each other.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be Brave.” Something my grandfather said to my mother during his battles with cancer, and something she has said to me my whole life, be brave has been a simple mantra I have carried closely with me. My journey to cheese was fraught with hardships too. Every illness, every surgery, every big scary career decision (buying a small business during a global pandemic, anyone?), it always just boils down to this: be brave.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I mean, there are tons of cheese celebrities in our industry — makers, affineurs, mongers, that I would LOVE to sit down with sometime. But really, the only person I’ve ever had on my bucket list to meet… EVER… is Michael Bolton. Right before my open heart surgery, my survival for which was about 50/50, I drove from Utah to Oklahoma to see him in concert just in case I wasn’t going to make it. I’ve just always loved and appreciated him. When kids my age were listening to poppy stuff in high school, I was rocking the Time Love and Tenderness CD. His music is timeless and loveable, as is he. I saw him again right before Covid hit and concerts stopped being a thing. I’ve read his autobiography countless times. The man is talented, funny, and just… I love him. I hope he likes cheese. 😊
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
This is a tough question. Inspiring a movement to bring good to people, for me, always will involve cheese. It is good. It is good FOR you. And it’s drastically underrepresented in Vegas, which was one of the deciding factors in me moving here. I’d love to be making cheese here someday in the near future, and even mentoring kids who have an interest in this industry. As Anthony Bourdain said, food is everything we are. It is a movement in its own. If I can be the person who leads the cheese charge in Vegas, it will be anything I’ve ever needed.
Important to note: The pandemic has highlighted the importance of protecting small businesses. In Vegas, we have a strong culture amongst locals, and I am firmly rooted in ‘be local, buy local, support local’. We regularly collaborate with other local businesses, and I’m also extremely picky about the offerings of the shop: we try to source from other family-owned small businesses whenever possible. While this doesn’t necessarily inspire a movement, it firmly roots me in one.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website! Valleycheeseandwine.com is always up to date, and we’re on social media too. (Instagram and Facebook) I’m also known as ‘wonder woman of cheese’, so it’s easy to find and follow me personally.
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.