Co-Founder, Mad Cheese - Artisan, plant-based cheese and charcuterie. www.madcheese.com
In her career, Heather Donaldson has worn many hats – server, artist, graphic designer, piano teacher, realtor and food stylist for Hollywood productions (more on that later) among them. Now, she and her husband Reggie have opened the doors on a joint venture back home in Ohio.
Don’t let the name fool you, however. There’s nothing maddening or cheesy about how Main Street Ventures has helped bring the couple’s latest dream to life.
Mad Cheese – which takes the first half of its name from the Madisonville neighborhood where Reggie grew up – opened the doors on its first brick-and-mortar store in late October 2023. Specializing in all-vegan cheese and charcuterie plates, Mad Cheese offers a variety of fresh and aged selections as well as gluten-free, plant-based meat substitutes. The physical location is just the latest achievement for the true mom-and-pop company, which received a $30,000 grant from Main Street Ventures in spring 2022. Donaldson says that Leap grant was used to set up the company’s new production kitchen, equipment and part-time help to run it.
Opening a business, let alone having a physical shop, was not in the plans for Donaldson and her husband back in 2021. Originally moving back to their native Cincinnati from Los Angeles help care for her husband’s parents, Donaldson says the origins of Mad Cheese date back to 2019 with a simple challenge: Helping the environment by undertaking a vegan diet for one week. She figured it shouldn’t be too hard to get through the experience given that she was already working in food in the film industry, which produced some interesting memories and also inadvertently helped prepare her for her next career even if she didn’t know it at the time.
“I was creating food that actors actually eat during a scene. There’s a lot of science involved because it must stay edible under really hot lights for long periods,” Donaldson recalls. “I worked on an episode of ‘Fuller House’ and they wanted four gigantic turkeys roasted that looked exactly the same … That was an all-nighter of roasting turkeys. I didn't have a commercial kitchen, so I was doing it out of our apartment.”
A week of eating vegan, she says, turned into a month. While the couple was feeling great about their choices, the same could not be said about their commercial brand cheese and charcuterie options.
This led to researching recipes and aging her own cheese in their two-bedroom LA apartment. With the onset of the pandemic, Donaldson says she and her husband were visiting Cincinnati, continuing to make cheese the entire time. Since she already had a big network in town, Donaldson began giving samples to friends, leading to “strangers calling and asking me to place an order.”
Considering the popularity of her creations coupled with the health benefits, she told Reggie that she thought it could be the makings of a good business. His response? “Go for it.” Utilizing her network once again, the spouses-turned-business-partners struck a deal to set up shop in the kitchen at the Unity Center in Walnut Hills.
They haven’t looked back since.
“After the first few days, I got 200 emails, and I was not prepared for that. I realized I’d need a sign-up button, a website, online ordering – and the business has just grown like that ever since,” Donaldson says. “It's like this big snowball that we're trying to keep up with and every time we feel like we're starting to get a handle on things, we take another big step like this space. All of the sudden, we're like, ‘Oh, we're now busier than we were a month ago. How do we do this?’
WHY MAIN STREET VENTURES MATTERS
While still in the throes of figuring out operations with their new storefront in Madisonville, Donaldson says they would not be where they are without Main Street Ventures’ support.
Crediting MSV for the initial push to help begin their startup, Donaldson highly recommends any aspiring entrepreneur to reach out for help in expanding theirs.
“We couldn’t have grown like we have without them … I've actually referred several people to Main Street. Main Street creates this sense of community; that's really wonderful in Cincinnati amongst entrepreneurs,” she says. “Take advantage of all the resources they have to offer and don't be shy. If you are passionate about what you're doing and you believe in it, then don't give up. Believe in yourself, keep pushing forward and ask for help when you need it.”