The Power of Vision: Jessica Little of Sweet Grass Dairy

Jessica and Jeremy Little are second-generation owners of Sweet Grass Dairy, an artisan cheese-making company located in Southwest Georgia. The milk for their cheese is sourced from her family’s fifth-generation dairy farm, which raises barn-free cows grazing on grass 365 days a year. The creamery was started by Jessica’s mom, Desiree Wehner, to better tell the story of their sustainable grazing method and the high-quality milk it produced. Sweet Grass Dairy has since grown into a national brand, available in all 50 states.

I spoke with Jessica to learn more about her personal journey coming back to her roots in Thomasville, Georgia, and what she sees for the future of Sweet Grass Dairy.

Could you just talk a little bit about the history of Sweet Grass and how the company got started?
My parents were actually dairy farmers for many years. My dad’s a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and I grew up on the dairy farm and fell in love with sustainable agriculture and humane animal husbandry through 4H. So I showed cows growing up and just loved agriculture, but I also knew by the time I graduated high school, I did not want to be a dairy farmer. So I went off to college, studied business, and while I was in school, I got bit by the hospitality bug. I worked in restaurants, and I met my husband, who is now our head cheesemaker. 

In the meantime, my mom had this vision of really telling the story of cows on grass. Less than 5% of all the cows in the whole country can be farmed in an intensive grazing management style year-round, and due to our very mild winters and unlimited water, we are able to keep our cows on grass and it gives this milk a really different flavor profile. It was her vision to really tell people the story of this really unique farming method and this regenerative agriculture through cheese. 

So I started going around in Atlanta, taking cheese to all these chefs to see if there was even a market for it, and it turned out chefs were really excited about it. Then Jeremy wanted to move to South Georgia to pursue this career path, but we really thought we were only going to be here for a couple of years, to pad his resume, and then he was gonna be this great chef somewhere. 

But after just a couple of years, we knew that we were onto something bigger than ourselves, and we really just fell in love with this industry. So in 2005, my parents gave us the opportunity to buy the creamery part of the business. We still source all of the milk from my family. And my brother is now the fifth-generation dairy farmer in our family to continue the tradition. So we hope for opportunities for future generations, although it’s not looking likely right now. But the kids are all too young to really know what they want to do, so you never know. 

I mean, I said never. So I’ve learned, never say never. So as soon as my kids are like, “I’ll never move back to Thomasville” I just say “All right, we’ll see. We’ll see about that.”

What was that like to come back and take over your family’s legacy and this vision of showcasing the grass-based milk from your cows?
I think ignorance is bliss. We did not know what we were getting ourselves into. So I was 21 when came back and was not happy to leave Atlanta, this incredibly fun, dynamic, exciting city to come back to our tiny little sleepy town of 20,000 people. But I remember calling my parents when I got my first restaurant job, and I started complaining about my coworkers. Nobody really knew how to work. Nobody was doing the closing checklists and I didn’t understand why they weren’t, and my parents just started laughing.

That made me realize that although I hated growing up and having a summer job from the time I was 10, it really taught me a great work ethic and what it means to be part of a family and chip in. So when we came back, we weren’t afraid of hard work. We were just scrappy. We would drive four hours every other weekend and sell cheese at farmer’s markets in Atlanta because there were no local farmer’s markets for us. And we were just cold calling chefs, asking, “Are you interested in local cheese?” Luckily chefs are very curious by nature, and then once they tasted the cheeses, it wasn’t a super difficult sell. 

In the end, I really found that I not only have a love of sustainable agriculture, but I have a love of entrepreneurship and the lifelong quest to learn more. As an entrepreneur, how much are we learning all the time? It is the best opportunity to just learn and grow so much.

Speaking of learning, what would you say has been your biggest lesson that you learned along the way?
There have been many, but I’ll tell you one of our most painful lessons and one that I’m so thankful that we went through even though it was truly a lesson of failure.

I’m an extremely competitive person, and until this point, anything that we had really ventured out to try to do, we were able to. Sweet Grass just grew. Whatever Jeremy wanted to make, we could sell. And I think that we kind of got this false sense of success pretty early, even though it was hard and we were scrappy, we had never really lost.

So we opened a cheese shop that turned into a wine bar in 2010, and then we had so much success with that locally that we really wanted to fulfill this restaurant bug that Jeremy and I both had. So in 2013, we opened a more fine dining restaurant, even though the two restaurants were only a hundred steps from each other in our tiny town of 20,000 people. We really thought we were going to be able to draw in more people and be a destination location.

We hired an amazing chef who was very talented but did not share our same vision of what we were trying to do. He was also not from this region. We did not do a good job of writing the vision and explaining it to our team and sticking to our guns. That restaurant actually went under about a year in.

It was really, really painful to have those life lessons of failure. But when I look back on it, I am so thankful because we learned the power of vision, the power of explaining the why to our whole team, and being true to who we are.

I also learned the value and the investment of time. A restaurant can be extremely time-consuming, and it took away a lot of time with our children, plus we were not really focused on developing the cheese production side of the business. As entrepreneurs, we get to choose how we spend our time, and that restaurant was a money pit and a time pit – a bad investment. It was an incredibly difficult life lesson, but I’m thankful we went through it.

On the flip side, what makes you feel the proudest of what you, Jeremy, and your team are doing?
One thing that does make me really proud is that I think Sweet Grass Dairy has a really unique company culture. We’ve worked really hard at fostering servant leadership and more open-book finance, with lots of transparency to make sure that people know that their work is meaningful and that they have a say in their future. And that everybody matters. I am really proud that we have employees that will stay 7, 8, 10 years employed at Sweet Grass. And that’s not very common anymore.

What would you like your legacy to be?
I hope that my kids will always know that the impact that Jeremy and I have made in this business wasn’t about us. It was a bigger picture. I hope that we make an impact in our industry by really telling the story of family-owned, grass-based, handcrafted cheeses that can come out of our country, a country that doesn’t have a long history of cheesemaking. 

I hope that they’re proud of the fact that we never gave up and that we were continuing to innovate, even when it seemed hard. And that we were not afraid to be visionaries and push the boundaries. And I think about my own parents, that my mom very much is a visionary and my dad is a doer. They are such a good combination, and they’re not afraid to make a mistake. I think it has made me a better entrepreneur because I know that it’s not the end of the world and we’re going to make mistakes. So I hope that we can pass that on to our children as well. I find that so many people are afraid to take risks because they’re afraid to fail. And the reality is that we’re all going to fail. It’s how you handle it that matters.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
The easiest one is my mom, for sure. She is one of my very favorite human beings on the face of the planet, and if I can be half as great of a mom as she is, then I’ll know that I’m winning in life.

She really is a visionary. She is one of the toughest human beings that I know, and also so kind, and such a big cheerleader, and a soft place to land. But I’ve also learned, do not ask if you don’t really want to know, because she will tell you the truth, whether you’re prepared to hear it or not! 

I will also say in our industry alone there are rock stars in the cheese world that are all women. There are some great men cheesemakers as well, but this industry in the United States is built on the shoulders of great women.

It’s been so exciting to have these conversations and to be included at the table on a national level with these incredible women that are now in their fifties, sixties, seventies that want to help the next generations of 20-, 30- and 40-year-olds make an impact on this industry. So I could pick up the phone and call Judy Schad [of Capriole Farm] or Allison Hooper [of Vermont Creamery], and they would give us really great feedback on what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. In this industry, women have made an incredible impact and I’m so proud of that for sure.


Jessica Little is the co-owner of Sweet Grass Dairy, a family-owned creamery handcrafting cheese in Thomasville, Georgia. Their cheese features the high-quality, grass-based cow’s milk from her family’s fifth-generation barn-free dairy farm. To learn more about Sweet Grass Dairy or to order their cheese, visit their website: SweetGrassDairy.com

Serving Up Love: Dora Herrera of Yuca’s Restaurants

Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, which her mom, Socorro Herrera (affectionately known to longtime customers as “Mama”), opened the stand in 1976 with her husband, Jaime, to share a taste of her home-style Yucatán cooking. The restaurant has garnered thousands of loyal customers and critical accolades over the decades.

Dora is an engaging storyteller with a lot of wisdom to share. I spoke with her to learn more about the history, legacy, and future of Yuca’s, and what she has learned as she has led and grown her family’s business. 

Could you talk about the history of Yuca’s?
My mom always had a dream to have a little place where she could feed people – a happy place that when people come in they are just relaxed and feel like family. No pomp and circumstance, none of that. Just Hey, good to see you. Let’s eat. Let’s share stories.

One day somebody at work with my sister said, I think I found the place your mom was looking for. My mom saw it and said, Oh my God, this is beautiful. And everybody else thought it was too small or too ugly. And she just looked at them all and said, This is perfect.

Initially, she did everything herself: cook, cashier, hostess, everything. But since she made really good food, very quickly it got to the point where she was asking for help. Then my brother and my dad started working. The turning point was my brother standing on the sidewalk and waving cars over and saying, Hey, we just opened, we have great food. Come in and try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll give you double your money back. People would hear that deal and pull in and try it. Of course, we never had to give any money back, but people walked away with a story. 

My mom’s a great cook, and she also has this charisma. Love just shoots out of her and people start loving her right away. So we started building all this, and my parents spoke very little English. As they made friends with the community and the people started becoming regulars, people would come and tell my mom stories or share their angst, not aware that she didn’t understand a word. She would say This customer came and was talking to me about, well, I think it was his wife. I’m not sure. I just smiled and touched my heart and he left happy, but I have no idea what he said! I told her that if she made him happy, that was all that mattered. 

With that combination of things, people started taking notice, and then we got a review in the LA Times. And at the time, we didn’t know how big the LA Times was, and we didn’t know what a big deal it was to get the centerfold of the food section, all to ourselves as a first article. The reporter who wrote the article showed up and she was there from nine to five that day answering the phones, because she knew my mother didn’t speak a lot of English. People loved that the reporter was at the location. So they started coming and we never looked back from there. In the 46 years that we’ve been in business, we’ve had Vanity Fair, GQ, USA Today, LA Times, New York Times, Gourmet. Just incredible opportunities to shine. And the funny thing is 46 years later, when we get an article we are still excited and surprised. I like that. We haven’t gotten jaded.

How did you come into the business?
Because I love sports. And I can explain that! I went away to college at Brown in Rhode Island, and I told myself when I got there, I would try everything. I wouldn’t stick to what I knew and a narrow life at college. I’ve always been an active person, so I joined the fencing team and the soccer team and the ice hockey team and the rugby team.

I had never been on a varsity team before, and I just loved it. And when I graduated, I didn’t want to stop. So in order to continue to play soccer and ice hockey, I decided I would work for my parents. That way, if there’s a trip to Mexico or Canada or Philadelphia or wherever to compete, I would be able to say to my parents, Hey, I love you. Can I have the weekend off? So that’s how it started. And every year I would tell my mom at the end of the year, Come January, I’m going to go find a real job. 

And my mom, of course, would say, Okay, thank you, honey. We appreciate all the years you worked for us. And then January would come and go and it would be December and I’d say the same thing. And then one year I realized that I really didn’t want another job. I enjoyed what I was doing. I enjoyed working with my mom. She’s always been my best friend, so that was a no-brainer. And once I realized that it was just like, okay, we’re in it together for the long haul. 

Do you have a favorite memory since your mom started the business?Our trip to New York to receive the James Beard Award. It was an award that we didn’t know existed. We were nominated by a customer who we didn’t know was a food writer. To be nominated for the most prestigious culinary award in the United States was just astounding. 

The big story was that we got the invitation and it said it was black tie. My mom asked, Do you think I should wear my regional costume? Or should we go buy me a dress? And I said, regional costume all the way, no question about it. She kept asking because she didn’t want to look like a fool. And everybody was like, yes, of course, you have to dress in the whole Yucatan thing and the shawl and the flowers on the side of your hair.

Patric Kuh, the food writer who nominated us, met us in New York. He came to a room and he was all like, oh, you guys brought Porto’s. Porto’s is a bakery in Glendale, because we didn’t know if we were gonna be able to find food or not, so we figured we’d bring breakfast at least. And he sat with us for hours. Then the day of the event, an article came out by him, and it was basically my mom trying to figure out if she should wear this or not. He weaved a fabulous story and at the end, he talks about her coming out and shining as she wore her regional costume. 

But the joy in my mom’s face that day was just astounding. And then to, to see all the love just bestowed on her. Within five minutes of meeting her, people were calling her Mama. This one guy was on his knees, adoring her. At four in the morning when we were leaving the after-party, some guy chased her out to the taxi and was kissing the window to say goodbye. And the taxi took off and his lips just slid across the taxi window. My sister and I were just like, oh my God, Mom, who knew you were such a heartbreaker?

When they announced the category we were in they popped up a photo of the hut. And my mom was like, OOOOH! I said, Mom, you knew! She was like, Oh, I just got excited. But the beauty of it was in the theater, there must have been like 600 or more people there. People were like Oh! and then laughing joyfully, and then clapping. We didn’t know how many of our customers were in New York or throughout the country that flew in for that. Not only did we get an award, but people love us. And then at the party, as we were walking around, they had all these chefs from throughout the United States, feeding us and we’re walking around and here’s a customer here’s another customer – we had no idea how many famous chefs were eating at Yuca’s. That whole evening was just amazing.

Is there a life lesson that stands out to you, anything that you kind of learned along the way that has made an impact on how you run the business?

I went to Brown and I didn’t know how to play sports. One day I saw a girl with a soccer ball. She was dribbling down the hall and I was like, Wow! And so she stopped and she says, Do you like soccer? And I said, I don’t know. I’ve never played it. And she goes, Well, let’s go. So I went and she was teaching me the basics. And then she said that there’s a tryout for the soccer team. I got picked for the team and then soccer season was over people were asking me what I was going to do next. 

They said, Come play ice hockey with us. And I said, I would love to, but I don’t know how to ice skate. And they said don’t worry about it. So I went and I told the coach that I didn’t skate. And he goes, Well, that could be a problem. I tell you what, spend 20 bucks. Get a used pair of skates, and come try out. If you don’t like it, you’re out 20 bucks.

Well, I tried it, and I was hopeless, but I loved the team camaraderie and working hard. They called me the Human Zamboni because I didn’t know how to stop. I would just go around in circles. They also called me Scrapper because I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up. 

When the first season was over and the next year came, I told myself that if I was still ankle bending, I’m not doing this. And I got on the ice and I was smooth and I could turn and I could stop. And it was just fabulous and I played for four years.

That experience has stayed with me over the years. Whenever I’m faced with something that I think is impossible, I think back on not knowing how to ice skate. I learned how to ice skate. I played for four years. I got athlete of the year my senior year. And it was all because I decided to try. 

What would you like your legacy to be?
We had three young women from the Yucatán visit us back around 2013. They wanted to do so many things. They would say, Oh, I wish we could do this. And I’m like, I know someone. We would call and they would say, of course we’ll give you a backlot tour or whatever. And then whenever anything came up, they would turn and say, Dora knows people! 

So I guess I’d like to be known as the person who knows and loves people because it wasn’t only that I knew them, but there was a connection. Because you can know a lot of famous people, or people who can help you along in life, but unless you have that emotional connection, it doesn’t really mean much. So I guess I want to be remembered for love.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I would say the women in my family, like my mom, my aunt, who’s my mom’s sister, and my sister. In fact, the four of us got to cater the Super Bowl Tailgate Party together.

The women in my family are strong, so I want to acknowledge those strong women that let you spread your wings and also let you know that they’re there underneath, should you fall. Having that support lets you try things that will stretch you.

And they always told me, This is your dream. Go for it. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to have all your ducks in a row in order to go and try something. Giving me permission to be bold and daring was huge.


Dora Herrera is the president of Yuca’s Restaurants, known for its Yucatan-style cooking and community involvement. Now with two locations, the original “Hut” in Los Feliz and a second location in Pasadena, Yuca’s remains a Los Angeles institution. Learn more at YucasLA.com.

Reviving the Road Trip: Stephanie Stuckey of Stuckey’s

Stephanie Stuckey is on a mission to revive her family’s brand. Started by her grandfather, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey, Sr. founded Stuckey’s as a roadside pecan stand along Highway 23 in Eastman, GA. Stuckey’s eventually became a roadside empire with its peak in the 1960s. With 368 stores in over 30 states at its height, Stuckey’s was known for offering kitschy souvenirs, clean restrooms, and its famous candies.

I spoke with Stephanie to learn more about her personal journey to restore her family’s legacy, how she has refocused the brand, and the opportunities she sees for the future.

Can you tell us the story of your entry into the business and what it has taken so far to start to bring Stuckey’s back?
I had a full career doing things other than food and the family business. I was a state representative for 14 years. I’m an attorney. I was a public defender for over a decade. I practiced environmental law and headed up sustainability for the city of Atlanta. And the last chapter of my career, I thought, would be environmental advocacy.

Then I got a completely unexpected opportunity to buy my family’s failing business. And it had been out of our family’s hands for a long time, and frankly was six figures in the red when I bought the company. We didn’t own or operate any restaurants, we only had a handful of licensed locations. We had a dusty rented warehouse full of merchandise that hadn’t turned in while.

So it was a challenge, but what I bought was a brand and it was a brand that I believed then, and definitely believe now, has sticking power. And so that’s what I believed in when I made the investment. My life savings are all sunk into reviving this brand.

In a little over two years, we’ve turned it around from $2.4 million growth in sales to over $12 million gross in sales and in the red six figures to a little over a million net profit, all of which we’re reinvesting in the company. And the way we have turned it around is through food and manufacturing.

We really went back to our roots. We started as a pecan stand on the side of the road. And so we went back to that. We bought a candy plant, a pecan-shelling plant, and a fundraising business. And the majority of our profit is being driven through the sale of our snack pecans, our in-shell pecans, our candies that we manufacture ourselves now and shell ourselves. And we’re selling to retail outlets from a mom and up store, like a gift to grocery chains and convenience store chains all over the country.

The future is bright for us. We’re looking at investing in a distribution facility that we will own instead of renting and we are expanding our candy production with new equipment and new space.


In your social media content, you really emphasize both the history of Stuckey’s and also the history of a lot of roadside stops and interesting historical brands along the way. Why is history so important to you and to the Stuckey’s brand?

I have a nostalgic brand, and I firmly believe in embracing what you truly are. And I’ve gotten all sorts of advice about how you manage nostalgic brands. But I went back to my roots in politics, which is you start with your base. The first thing I had to do was to shore up our base. We have generations of people who stopped at Stuckey’s on their road trips as kids. And those people are not only still alive, but they’re successful and have money to spend.

So I went after that demographic and those folks want to hear our story. They want to hear the history. I’m not selling to everyone everywhere, and it’s not just selling our product. It’s the story. And it’s creating a community and engaging.

I would put out the stories and I look at the analytics and I look at who engages and it’s working. So if something works, you do more of it. For example, my post today on LinkedIn was about the Big Texan Steak Ranch, because I literally had 20 people reach out to me and say, have you ever been to the Big Texan Ranch? I had about 20 people ask me if I have been to The Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, the Kentucky Fried Chicken. So I put that out yesterday and it got crazy engagement because that’s what people told me they want to hear.

Sales and marketing is a two-way street. It’s not just you. Family businesses that have persisted, the ones that are still around into the third generation and beyond, are the ones that get that.

Has there been a favorite memory since you came into the business?

There have been so many, but I’ll pick one, which I like to call my Scarlet O’Hara “I’ll never go hungry again” moment. It was right after I bought the company, and I decided to embark on a road trip because I realized that is what this brand is really about.

And so I started my road trip and I stopped at Stuckey’s, of course. And I went to this one store that looked terrible. It was in Marion, Arkansas. It literally had a hole in the roof from a tornado. And I just sat in the parking lot crying. I just could not believe that that is the condition of the wonderful company that my grandfather built and put his life’s work into.

I finally like forced myself to go into the store and that didn’t look much better, I’ll be honest. But what gave me hope was that there were people in the store. And they actually seemed pretty happy to be there! And I just thought, wow, if this brand can translate past generations where people still remember our good days, and they’re still incredibly loyal despite the downfall, what if we actually had the stores looking good? What if we actually had great products to sell, because our products had been outsourced for decades and frankly, the quality had suffered. So that gave me hope. It made me think, okay, this brand actually has sticking power.

Now in full disclosure, I have yet to get the financing I need to start owning, operating and renovating stores. I get people messaging me every day saying, “Oh, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but I went to one of your stores and it looks terrible.” It’s not a big news flash. If someone wants to give me a million dollars, I’d happily do that. But right now we are focusing on what we can do right now to drive profit, which is through manufacturing.

What would you like to be remembered for?
The road trip. Professionally, I want my legacy to be about celebrating the joy of exploring America, and not just the big cities, but the small towns, by car.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
I know people always say their mothers, but that is because it is true. My mom gave me a great gift. When I bought the company, she had six boxes of archives that my grandfather had left my dad, her husband, and that was just an incredible gift.

And then I had this point early on when I was deciding whether or not to buy the company. And there’s a moment of tough love. My father is a wonderful man and I love him, but we’re not perfect. And he sat me down and he said to me, “You have never even run a lemonade stand. What makes you think you can run Stuckey’s?” And I was just struck by that. Suddenly I had all this lack of confidence. He was right. I’d never run a business, not even a lemonade stand. So what did make me think I could do this?

And my mom is the one who said, “You can do this. Look through these archives, look through these boxes, read how this company was founded. And guess what? Your grandmother did a lot of it. She just never got the credit.”

So I think too often when we tell the stories of family businesses, you read about Sam Walton and Colonel Sanders. You don’t read about the wives, but guess what? A lot of times, the wives are just as involved, just as critical. They just didn’t get the credit. So all these women who never got the credit, who were in these major businesses that I admire in food, they’re the ones who I think should get a shout out.

Stephanie Stuckey is the CEO of Stuckey’s, a family-owned roadside chain offering motorists a friendly stop where they can relax, refresh, and refuel. Stuckey’s is known for its Southern hospitality and candies, especially its world-famous pecan log roll. To learn more about Stuckey’s, visit their website: Stuckeys.com

Recipe for Success: An Interview with Shobha Patel of Gharana Foods

Shobha Patel is the founder of Gharana Foods, a manufacturer of authentic ethnic snacks that focuses on premium, clean label snacks with no artificial colors, flavors, or preservatives. ​​She started Gharana Foods with just one snack – chakri – making it in her kitchen.

As word of mouth spread about the quality and flavor, the business grew as well. 18 years later, Gharana Foods is now a thriving business with a large production facility, and the next generation, led by Shobha’s son, Amit, has entered the business to help scale the operations and help their parents take a step back.

Shobha shared her remarkable story as a woman who never had any aspirations to start a business, but through commitment, determination, and dedication has built a strong premium brand that is sold in ethnic food stores all over the country.

How did Gharana Foods get started?
There were such limited food options when we immigrated to America in the 80s. Communities would always form to help give a sense of home and support however we could. We were selling different types of food to local families and the one small local Indian store. In 2004, my husband was laid off. We started the business as a need to support our family.

Did anyone else in your family ever start a business?
I grew up in a small village and my father owned a small tobacco farm. It was enough to support the family, but wasn’t very big. After I got married, my brothers took over and grew it into a larger successful business that now supports the entire town and the subsequent generations.

Did you ever think about starting a business yourself when you were younger?
Older Indian culture is very male-centric. I remember thinking growing up that I didn’t want to have to rely on someone for money or support. I never thought to myself that I would start a business, but I know I always wanted to be able to do something myself.

What has been your proudest moment since starting the business?
We started the business in a 1,000 sq ft retail space with no expectations in 2004. In 2011, we moved into a 4,000 sq. ft warehouse space. The day we moved in, I couldn’t believe it. It was such a sense of pride to be able to see something that I built grow into something this big. We’re now in over 8,000 sq. ft. and looking to expand again.

What has been the biggest lesson you learned along the way?
I never worked a job before starting the business. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t realize how hard each stage of the business would be. There are three things I personally learned – keep yourself calm as much as possible when dealing with employees, never panic in the face of challenges, and, most importantly, never give up. There were days I would wake up and just want to stop, but I pushed through by believing in myself and having my faith.

What would you like to be remembered for?
When we came to America, we didn’t have much money, but we survived. Growing up, I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what, but I wanted to accomplish something that I would be able to give to my kids. I’m proud that my son, my daughter, my son-in-law, my daughter-in-law, and, now their kids, are involved and running the business. It’s a dream come true.

This is Women’s History Month, so I’m curious if there has been a woman in your life who’s made a big impact who you want to acknowledge?
Unfortunately, I do not. In my head, I wanted to prove myself and do something in my life. I was blessed to be able to get the chance and be successful.


The Patel family owns and operates Gharana Foods, a premium snack company that manufacturers authentic Indian snack foods from recipes developed by Shobha Patel. The company is widely known for its chakri, a uniquely shaped snack recently featured in the Wall Street Journal. To learn more or purchase snacks, visit gharanafoods.com.

Living Her Passion: Interview with Diane Sauvage

Diane Sauvage is the director of INTERVAL, an export sales company headquartered in France that represents twelve French dairies, exporting their cheese and dairy products all over the world. Originally from Paris, Diane worked at Interval for thirteen years before taking a three-year hiatus, after which she and her husband purchased the company last summer.

I spoke with Diane to learn more about her journey and the future she sees both for the primarily family-owned dairies Interval represents, as well as her new global family business.

What has your professional journey been like? How did you end up in the cheese industry?
My journey has been in food my whole life. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work in food because that’s my passion. I wake up each morning thinking, “What am I going to eat today?” I had the opportunity to start working for a large chocolate company, the first producer of chocolate in France. I joined the company to do their export in Ukraine and the United States. And I really loved it. After three years I wanted to be in the US because I really loved doing business with the US. I was able to get an 18-month contract through a program in France called VIE, which helps French companies develop their exports. The only one that was offered in New York that was not in finance was Interval, in the cheese business. I was one of the last ones to apply, and I gave everything to get it. And that’s how I ended up in the cheese industry.

Are you happy with the way it worked out?
I am very happy in cheese. The big difference between cheese and chocolate is I can eat cheese at every meal! But really it is the stories of the producers behind the cheese that I Iove the most, the stories about the producer of milk, and why each cheese was created. These stories are the best part for me.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned along the way?
Humility, definitely. And to have a good vision of where you want to go, who you are to begin with, and why you do this – because the why makes you really do it every day. For us, the why is that we really want the family businesses that we represent to stay independent. For these businesses to create value, export is a very good option. So we have a big role in helping them create value, and to keep the production of cheese where it is right now, and not only in big companies. So that’s our why.

Can you tell us about the moment in which you have been the proudest of what you have accomplished so far?
It’s funny but I was really proud when I did my goodbye party at Interval. I did a goodbye and then a hello again three years later when we purchased the company. So it’s very interesting. At the goodbye party, all the nice words that I got from our producers, our customers, it was really wonderful. I felt I made an impact and I did a good job. You don’t really feel that very often. So that was a moment where I really felt that. And that’s what matters for me. I want to make sure I bring what a customer needs and do a good job for them and for our dairies.

What was your dream profession when you were a child?
Maybe being a chef. Or an opera singer, but I didn’t know how to sing! I grew up in a family where food was at the center of our life. It was always the food for me. My grandma always said that as long as you work in a bank, you’re fine. But I knew that was not my thing. I need to taste what I sell, like what I sell, and enjoy it every day. So for me, I’m really where I am supposed to be.

Did you have a favorite meal growing up that still makes you think of your childhood when you eat it?
My favorite meal is roasted chicken. That’s a very traditional meal every Sunday, a whole roasted chicken. That would be my last meal also. With cheese, of course!

What is your vision for Interval’s future?
The future is to expand our sales and have offices in other countries other than in the US. Right now we just have two in the US, but we will be expanding to a more global presence.

This is Women’s History Month, so I’m curious if there has been a woman in your life who’s made a big impact who you want to acknowledge?
I would say the women in my family because when I think about it, all the women in my family were/are very strong women. My sister is an everyday support, my mom was an inspiration of hard work and my grandmother was an example of generosity and warmth.

My grandma on my mother’s side worked in a nonprofit her whole life, and she was the president. She would go to the hospital to make children smile. She was one of those grandmothers that go and play with the children that have cancer. That made a big impression on me because I was going with her, and sometimes it would be very hard to see kids like that. She kept on going until she died actually. It was pretty impressive.

My mom also was a very hard worker and had so much courage. She was never afraid of climbing the big mountains. She would just go for it. She created two businesses from scratch, and still found time to be a mother. I grew up with a mother and a business owner, so that also made a big impression on me.

Last but not least my sister is the best family manager I know – she holds everybody together with grace… including me. Her advice is just the best for me, it helps me to always see the glass half full.

Diane and her husband Nicolas are the directors of INTERVAL, an export agency and ambassador of French regional dairy products. They lead a team of multicultural, passionate experts in the export of French cheese. Since 1981, INTERVAL is the export department of 12 French dairies, all specialized in terroir products. INTERVAL exports nearly 5,000 tons of French cheeses, butter, and creams, to North America, Europe, and Asia. If you want to learn more about INTERVAL, please visit their website: intervalexport.com

Deep Roots: An Interview with Staci Willson of Sunnyland Farms

Staci Willson and her husband Alex are the 4th generation owners of Sunnyland Farms, a unique pecan farm, processor, manufacturer, and catalog retail business.

Located in what has long been known as the “Pecan Capital of the World” Albany, Georgia, Staci and Alex are continuing to honor their family’s legacy, and build a bright future.

I spoke with Staci to learn more about the company’s history, her personal journey as a business leader, how she and her team have handled the pandemic, and the opportunities she sees for this growing family business.

Knowing that Sunnyland is a 4th generation family business, can you tell us a bit about the history of the company?
Sunnyland has a unique story. It started when my husband’s great-grandfather inherited beautiful pecan groves down here in Southwest Georgia, originally around 5,000 acres. Our groves today are around 1,700 acres, all planted with beautiful pecan trees. Alex’s granddad was a Harvard businessman, and after World War II decided he was gonna come down with his wife Jane from Atlanta and move to the agriculture hub of Albany, Georgia. They were already selling some of the Willson family pecans to college friends, etc., and thought there just might be something to that!

So they moved down here in the late 40s and started to cultivate the farm and started the mail-order business in 1948, just selling Sunnyland pecans. And from there it started to flourish. Then they started to add praline pecans, candies, cakes, and added other mixed nuts to their products. Developing relationships with nut farmers worldwide was crucial for maintaining Sunnyland’s standard of “Only the Best.” We still benefit from these relationships today, purchasing the highest quality almonds from California, Macadamias from South Africa, and gorgeous Cashews from India.

In the seventies, Larry, Alex’s dad, who is the third generation, came back and started to help his dad modernize the growing operation. He was one of the first pecan farmers in the industry to implement irrigation. He planted new and upcoming pecan varieties, which we are bearing the fruit from now. Pecan trees take 15-20 years to mature, so you really have to implement a long-term plan to see it through fruition.

With that long legacy, what are you and Alex doing now to keep it thriving?
Right, so Alex is the fourth generation. We moved back about six years ago and since we have been involved, we’ve been working on really modernizing the catalog business, the online business, the SEO, and all of the digital marketing and sales aspects of the business.

My thumbprint has been on most of the catalog business, recipe development and PR/Marketing. Our catalog is still a huge part of our business, we mail almost 3.2 million catalogs a year nationwide! You would think in the modern age, it might not be, but it is. And we’re really trying to minimize packaging and become greener. We’re working on sustainable energy as well, using some of our pecan shells to fuel our shelling plant.

Is there anything else that is unique about the company and your team?
I know I focused on the Willson men, but a legacy that Sunnyland has always had is a husband and wife partnership. And that started way back with Jane and Harry. They really were ahead of their time and Jane took such an active leadership role in the business. It continued with Larry and Beverly in the seventies, and now it continues with me and Alex, so it’s really a joint partnership and a beautiful legacy to continue.

We’re very, very proud to say that most of our workforce is 80% female. We have had really wonderful lifetime employees across the board as well. We just celebrated 44 years of retirement last week with one of our very best long-term employees. And that’s really something we’re proud of. It’s not an uncommon thing to have multi-generations working here, like we’ll have a mother and a daughter working in a department together.

How did you and Alex decide to come into the family business? Was that an easy decision?
We were living in Nashville at the time when Alex and I met, he was in the financial industry and I was working in the food industry. We were in our late twenties and I remember asking him, as you do in planning for your future, do you ever wanna go back and step into your dad’s/granddad’s footsteps? And I was asking myself, do I want to go back and be a part of this farm, this business, and this family? He never would rule it out and I wouldn’t rule it out either. It took us probably about five more years to make the final move down here from Atlanta.

In the end, the one thing that we wanted to do was make a difference. We love this community, and wanted Sunnyland to grow and thrive as an employer. We decided we can make a bigger difference by moving to Albany than we could by working in our respective industries in Atlanta. We can make a difference and continue a beautiful legacy of giving back.

And I was just fascinated with the farm, and the recipe development is something that I loved. It was really a no-brainer. It was a beautiful lifestyle change from Atlanta down here, and a great place to raise the family, and really put our roots down and give back.

On a personal note, is there someone who you looked up to as a hero growing up?
I would definitely have to say Julia Child. I come from the beverage and food hospitality industry, and she was just such a pioneer and leader. As a female within that industry and gaining the respect she did and continues to have, she is someone that I’ve always looked up to. I’m not a chef, I’m a cook, and I love all of her recipes, and her personality, and just her fearlessness. She had so much courage to lead in the male-driven, culinary world. Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a cup of coffee with her and discuss these things!

What is the biggest leadership lesson you have learned along the way?
Definitely flexibility. Since we’ve moved back, we’ve dealt with devastating weather events, like Hurricane Michael where we lost 5,000 trees, a whole crop. Then we are dealing with the new digital marketing landscape that exists now. And then COVID. So we’ve been in constant crisis management since we moved back.

Now dealing with inflation and production shortages that affect our business from start to finish. So I have really had to work on flexibility. Things are always going to change. The life cycle of the business cycle is going to go up, and it’s going to go down.

And you manage that through embracing leadership within. We are very, very big on individual voices and we appreciate honesty and directness from our management leaders. We couldn’t do it without them.

What do you want your legacy to be?
Wow. I would probably say commitment. Commitment to things that matter. Commitment to quality. Commitment to roots, to people, our team, to family, to Sunnyland. I moved around a lot in my life prior to this, and joining this family and this business and everything… roots mean a lot to me. I want to invest in people’s futures. We’re going to figure out ways to thrive in the middle of these crises. I think that’s something that we’ve done and will continue to do.

This is Women’s History Month, so is there a woman in your life who’s made a big impact on you who you want to acknowledge?
Oh my goodness, there have been so many. I would probably go all the way back to my middle school chorus teacher, Miriam Walton in Richmond Virginia. She was so dynamic and so energetic. She led by example and encouraged my growth as a performer and singer. She had so much energy and passion for what she did. We still keep in touch and I’m proud to know her.

She encouraged me to step out and have courage, and believe in my talent. Getting up and singing a solo was difficult in middle school, but she encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to do that. And I think that honed some amount of leadership, learning to push through fear and knowing what courage looks like. And I know that may sound silly in middle school at a spring concert, but I look back at that and I really appreciate the influence she had on me.

That’s great. I think middle school is one of the most difficult times to stand up yourself, but if you can do it in middle school, you can do it forever.
Right. You know if you can do it in that moment, then you can do it forever, and in many other eras in your life.

Staci and Alex Willson are co-owners of Sunnyland Farms, a 1,760 acre farm nestled in the heart of Pecan Country in Albany, Georgia. Since 1948 Sunnyland has been the premier provider of gourmet Georgia Pecans, nuts, chocolates, dried fruits, and assortments of gifts for all occasions. Their incredible gourmet, heart-healthy and Kosher-certified snacks and pecans are the perfect treats. To learn more about Sunnyland Farms, visit their website: sunnylandfarms.com

Photography by David Parks