Family inspired Darë Vegan Cheese (pronounced “dairy”). Gwendolyn Dare Hageman grew up chatting around a block of grocery cheddar and crackers – her dad’s favorite snack. When her sister went vegan, she wanted to make a delicious cheese they could all still enjoy together. It was a practical decision too, though: “I was like what do we need, what can I do well, and what’s not in the market. I just knew it’s what Asheville needed.” Read on for the rest of the story behind Hageman’s company.
“I was living with my sister,” Gwendolyn explained, saying, “She was vegan and would always be so excited about a new cheese she got. She would make something, and I’d be like ‘it’s good’ through my teeth…but I wanted to give my sister something better.”
Gwendolyn ended up taking a Mountain BizWorks Foundations Business Planning course in 2018 with her sister, originally thinking about starting a vegan catering business together. When she kept thinking about the cheese idea, though, it felt right. They ended up not working together on a business, but Gwendolyn still created her business with her sister in mind.
While Gwendolyn isn’t (always) vegan herself – even winning the Judges’ Choice Award at the WNC Battle of the Burger award in 2017 – she has always loved the challenge of creating delicious vegan options. At the time of the burger award, she “was running the kitchen at the Salvage Station, and I had a vegan cashier. She worked in a barbecue joint, so I made sure that my special was always vegan…she inspired me to make something for everybody.” Darë Vegan Cheese was created with this idea at its core.
While Gwendolyn’s business idea was steeped in family, inclusion and a market need, there was also a bit of serendipitous magic in it. The business’ name is a prime example. While discussing her business dreams with a friend, they wrote “Dare” with an umlaut over the “e” on a napkin. “I said, ‘shut up, that’s it.’ I was like I’ve always wanted a pun as my life’s work.” In addition to having Dare as part of her name (after her grandmother, who was named after Virginia Dare), she also grew up in Dare County, North Carolina. “I thought, ‘okay now I have to learn how to do this…all of the things fit.”
Serendipity doesn’t make for a completely smooth sail, though. She hit a wall that affected all entrepreneurs: COVID-19. It may seem like Darë Vegan Cheese has been around forever due to its popularity, but it officially launched in 2019. Gwendolyn had about six months under her belt when the pandemic hit. She lost her backup job as a server at Chestnut – the basement of which held her cheesemaking operation. “They let me continue to use the kitchen even though they weren’t open upstairs,” she explained. “The fact that I lost my job was a fire under my butt. I was like alright, well you know the thing that you were holding onto to feel safe? It isn’t there anymore. So, you have to do this. You have to live.” She began selling her cheeses at farmer’s markets in a time when more people were shopping local and outdoors, too, which helped Darë grow the way she needed for its – and her – survival.
Now, almost four years later, Darë is thriving. The company moved into a new space in 2022. This, too, Gwendolyn accredits to serendipity. “We were in the basement of Chestnut, and we were starting to bump elbows a little bit. So, I was like okay, well I’m just gonna write down the things that we want [in our next facility]. The next day, I searched online just to check and see what was out there- our new facility popped up, hitting every single thing on my list,” she said. The landlord, upon meeting Gwendolyn, said “I think you and I are cosmically aligned.” Gwendolyn laughed, saying, “Sometimes I feel like I made up how wholesome this journey has been, but it’s really just the truth.”
For a company inspired by family and giving all cheese lovers a seat at the table, you might not be surprised that it’s run with a lot of love for Darë employees. “I started a company to provide a better life for myself, and then to extend it to everybody else. That’s the point,” she said. “It’s been a priority from the beginning to challenge myself to be a different type of business owner and support people the way that I wanted to be supported in my past jobs.” This is evident in their current facility. The lobby is warm and inviting and cozy, and, while the production rooms are food-safe and sterile, the people inside are jovial, hardworking, and exude pride in what they’re producing.
She continued, “Our slogan is handmade artisan, and it’s not something that can really go away because of the thoughtfulness of our product.” Gwendolyn described her employees as science nerds, praising their understanding of cheese culture, the temperature, the time, and all the specific details a human has to have their hands on to make Darë products. “If my employees feel supported and loved, and they love each other, it extends into our product,” she said. “People taste the love.”
Past Help + Future Dreams
As mentioned, Gwendolyn’s Foundations class with Mountain BizWorks kicked off her business in a way she hadn’t anticipated. It set the stage for future support, too: When it came down to funding time, Mountain BizWorks was her first thought. “[Getting loan funding] was honestly a fairly easy process, and it happened pretty quickly. It was perfect timing.” Darë Vegan Cheese was also the recipient of a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA, which has a current funding cycle open for new businesses.
Now, when asked about the future of Darë, Gwendolyn says she’s open. “Whole Foods is our big move this year,” she shared. “It was hard for us to move facilities, absolutely. It took us many months last year to get our ducks in a row to be like okay – come on big account we’re ready for you now.”
While Darë is in mom-and-pop retail stores across 41 states, Gwendolyn considers Darë a regional brand in its current iteration, noting the mistakes of other businesses that have scaled too fast and lost some of their magic. “There’s only so much sustainable growth that we can do and still hold the values that are so important to me,” she said. And while not opposed to the idea of acquisition someday, she’s excited about where she is. “We’re three years in, so I have no idea what three years could bring if three years have gotten us here. I’m always open to the possibilities of life.”
Advice for Others
One of Gwendolyn’s favorite parts of her job is helping other people see that it’s possible, first, and then giving them little tips she’s learned along the way to support them. Her top two bits of advice at present?
- Don’t make it so hard on yourself. “There are so many people and resources – especially in our community – that want to help,” she said. “Once I started asking for help, it made me a better person in every aspect of my life. The resources we have in WNC are incredible as an entrepreneur, and if you’re not tapping into at least one of them you’re doing yourself a disservice.”
- Don’t burn out. She laughed, “I know all entrepreneurs are going to burn out a little bit.” But she has learned that self-care has to be a priority, too. “I reached the point where I was so into the business, I was just going 80 hours a week. I was like, ‘I’ve created this beautiful thing and I’m not fulfilled. Why?’ Your life can’t be just that.” When she started filling her own cup, it overflowed into her business and made her life outside of it better.
The final big question: What is Gwendolyn’s favorite cheese on their roster? “Pepperjack is still mind-blowing for me. If someone has never tried our cheese, I will want them to try that one.”
Visit darevegancheese.com for more information about Darë (again, pronounced “dairy”) and where to buy.