Kurt Dammeier and Sugar Mountain

Posted by Joseph Phillips on Friday, October 21, 2016 at 11:45 AM PDT

Kurt Dammeier is the founder of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which has become the Seattle cheese icon.  Dammeier spoke at the Albers Executive Speaker Series on October 18th, under the theme of artisan brand marketing.  Dammeier focused on his passion for good and wholesome food, which includes Beecher’s cheese, but also other enterprises such as Pasta & Co., Maximus/Minimus, and Liam’s.

Dammeier is a Puget Sound native, entrepreneur, and leader on the Seattle food scene. After the Dammeier family's high-tech printing company was sold in 1994, Kurt began investing with the proceeds. In 1998, he founded Sugar Mountain Capital LLC (SMC), managing investments in real estate, private equity, and public equity. In 1999, Kurt joined the food community by forming Sugar Mountain as an operational arm of SMC. Sugar Mountain started with the purchase of Pasta & Co., but has grown to include Beecher’s, Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro, Mishima Reserve, and The Butcher’s Table.

Dammeier framed his talk as really about “Marketing to Millennials,” and noted that normally he was speaking to an older audience, so with students in the audience, it was more like telling Millennials how they think and see if they agree!

The presentation began with the “Brand Tenets” of Sugar Mountain.  They include:

Trust – the most important tenant is that customers develop a sense of trust with the product.

Experiential – it is not just about the product, but the whole experience that goes with use of the product, including the store or restaurant atmosphere.

Intelligent – assume your customer is smart!

Remarkable – make sure your product is remarkable.  That gets you publicity.  He gave the example of producing cheese in a city environment is unusual and helps make Beecher’s remarkable.

Consistently good – high quality needs to be a consistent part of the customer experience.

Full flavored – consumers do not want something they can make at home.

Charity – Sugar Mountain donates 1% of sales to the Pure Food Kids Foundation.  The foundation works to inform fourth graders about healthy food issues.

Dammeier also said you do not want to advertise to millennials – they think that advertising means your product is not good enough to build positive word of mouth opinion!

In the Q&A that followed, Dammeier admitted that he does not do market research as it is commonly understood, but instead relies on a focus group of one, namely if he can get passionate about something he should be able to persuade others to get passionate about it.

He also said that Sugar Mountain is not trying to create a strong connection between all the businesses.  They all are pursuing the same brand tenants, and when one business captures a consumer’s interest, the others should be able to do that, but he wants consumers to discover that for themselves rather than preach that to them.

In response to a question about the great customer service at Sugar Mountain companies, Dammeier noted the importance of empathy in responding to consumer complaints.  The customer may or may not be right, but their perception is their reality.  You cannot tell them they are wrong, but you can be understanding and empathetic, without apologizing.

When asked about which social media platform seemed to be the most impactful for Sugar Mountain, he mentioned Instagram as being especially powerful. 

He also fielded a question about the decision to open Beecher’s and The Cellar in New York City.  He shared that there is so much going on in NYC, that to get anyone’s attention and have a chance at being successful, he had to “go big.”  It was a big risk to sign a 20 year lease on 8500 square feet at 20th and Broadway, but it seems to be working out!

A member of the audience asked what impact the next recession would have on Sugar Mountain, and Dammeier responded that he does not try to predict the business cycle and make plans for it.  He said that weather was a more impactful variable for him, noting that the most recent stormy Seattle weather led to a notable drop in restaurant traffic.  He also noted how tight the labor market was in Seattle, and that it was hard to find good people for all levels of his organization, ranging from server to president!  Unlike many other restaurateurs, he said he was in favor of Seattle’s $15/hour wage law and embracing that agenda.

Finally, he noted that both Seattle and New York are visited by many tourists, and by having locations on Broadway and in Pike’s Place Market, he creates a demand for products such as Beecher’s Cheese all around the world, not just in those two markets.

Kurt Dammeier is passionate about good, healthy food and has created a number of successful businesses around that passion.  It was a great opportunity for our students to hear from a successful entrepreneur who demonstrates how following your passion can create a thriving business organization like Sugar Mountain!