Inspiration
How Two Manolo Blahnik Executives Became Award-Winning Farmers
Arethusa Farm started with cosseted cows, added a dairy and a restaurant, and took off.
IMAGE ARETHUSA FARM AND SAM DANGREMOND
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Upon opening the doors of the main barn at Arethusa Farm, you'll find a hallway lined with photos of champion cows and a glass showcase filled to the brim with sparkling gold trophies. Stenciled in big black letters on an overhang is a friendly reminder: "Each cow in this barn is a lady, please treat her as such."

That is, perhaps, an understatement—at Arethusa, the animals are treated like royalty. What began as a moderately sized dairy farm has now become one of the best not only in North America, but around the world.


Arethusa's owners George Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis certainly never intended to get into the farming industry. They were (and still are) powerful fashion executives: the president and vice president, respectively, of Manolo Blahnik USA. But when the prospect of a golf course or housing development threatened to replace the barns and pastures in 1999, Malkemus and Yurgaitis were compelled to jump in—particularly because their home overlooks the farm.

In addition to keeping the landscape as it had been, they restored the property's heritage; it had been a working dairy farm since 1815. Every barn on its rolling acreage, flanked by miles of preserved wetlands and forest, is architecturally simple and traditional, fitting the area's historic character.

"People sometimes think there are two totally separate things that we do—our shoe business and the farm—but we approach everything the same way," Yurgaitis says. “We have a certain style of making it what we want it to be." And their standards are high.


Arethusa now produces cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, and ice cream.

A few years into owning the land, they hired two experienced breeders in hopes of producing superior cows, whose genetics could be sold to other farms.

Their plan worked. Two of Arethusa's cows, Melanie and Veronica, made history at the 2004 World Dairy Expo by winning the titles of Supreme Champion and Reserve Supreme Champion. Never before had one farm landed the top prize for two cows—a feat akin to Secretariat winning the Triple Crown.

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Arethusa expanded its barns and began adding new additions. "So we had this little world, and all of a sudden, we built a multimillion dollar world here," Malkemus says, laughing. "We wanted to be low key, but can you drive down the road and not see this huge place?"


The farm hosted an international cattle sale called Global Glamour in 2008­—the glitzy auction booklet played on Gucci’s logo—where one of the Holstein consignments fetched $1 million.

Still, both owners have a passion for their venture that goes beyond the financial incentives. "To me, it begins with the love of animals, and to bring the farm back to what it was 100 years ago," says Malkemus. "What we have tried to do is to support the industry and bring it back to Connecticut."

The farm currently has a staff of 20 and 300 to 325 cattle consisting of three breeds: Holsteins, Jerseys, and Brown Swiss. Embryos are sold internationally—as are some offspring—and Arethusa's dairy products can be found in retail stores like Eataly, Dean & Deluca, and Whole Foods, as well as the farm's own stores.


Arethusa owners George Malkemus and Tony Yurgaitis

"It takes a lot of effort and focus to continue to breed such great cows," says farm manager Matt Senecal, who adds that producing high-quality milk for their dairy products is of equal importance.

The owners are so proud of their milk, in fact, that they label it with the tagline "Milk like it used to taste." It's a nod to the milk Malkemus grew up drinking in Texas in the 1950s.

Malkemus and Yurgaitis want the farm, which is now open for tours on Saturdays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., to be a model or industry standard for what can be done with the right investment. "It’s the team that is behind everything we do. There’s so much talent under the roofs of Arethusa," says Yurgaitis. "I think talented people attract other talented people—they want to be part of a great team."

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"Whether it’s Manolo Blahnik or whether it’s the farm," Malkemus says, "it’s all based on passion. If you're passionate about something and have the time and the energy—as well as the capital to invest in these projects and nurture them along with the right people—that’s why I think we’ve been so blessed to have the success that we’ve had."


A few of the cow's many prize ribbons

THE DAIRY

A renovated brick firehouse in nearby Bantam is the home of Arethusa Farm Dairy and one of its two retail stores—another is in New Haven. The stores offer the farm’s rich ice cream and their own cheeses, milk, butter, yogurt, and eggs.


Arethusa’s nine artisanal cheeses (ranging from fresh farmer’s cheese to aged-rind styles) are made from milk that cheesemaker Matt Benham describes as "spectacular and rich, pure, and clean tasting. From a cheesemaking perspective, it’s a beautiful blank canvas with which to work." He describes the character of their cheeses as “mild, milky, with a little sweetness, and tangy."

THE RESTAURANT


In what was an old general store next to the Dairy, Malkemus and Yurgatis envisioned creating a wine and cheese bar inspired by the Italian region of Puglia to showcase Benham’s handiwork. Once they found Dan Magill—a chef who had trained at the Culinary Institute of America and with Daniel Boulud—and realized he was, in Malkemus's words "way beyond wine and tapas," it became a full-fledged restaurant.

For the second year in a row, Arethusa al tavolo (or Arethusa "at the table") has been named by OpenTable as one of the 100 best restaurants in America. It serves seasonal New American fare with a focus on the milk, cream, yogurt, ice cream, butter, and cheese made from Arethusa cows.

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As Magill explains, "The top of the menu includes the Julia Child quote, 'If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.' Everything stems from the Dairy. It's a dairy-themed experience."


The old fashioned is made with Litchfield bourbon.

Signature menu items include a lobster and avocado salad, served with a miso-ginger dressing, and a strip steak.

Soon, Arethusa Farm will produce not only dairy but also much of the produce for the restaurant. Work recently began to clear a five-acre parcel of land that will serve as Arethusa Gardens, with its produce earmarked for Arethusa al tavolo.

A post shared by Arethusa Farm (@arethusa_farm) on

THE COFFEE SHOP AND BAKERY


Originally purchased to handle overflow parking from the Dairy and restaurant, a small property across the street has been transformed into a coffee shop that rivals the chicest cosmopolitan bakeries.

In April 2016 Arethusa a mano, or Arethusa "by hand," began serving Stumptown coffee alongside New York-style bagels and pastries like pains au chocolat and croissant muffins. The cream cheese is produced in-house, of course, and Pastry Chef James Arena even makes the crackers by hand.

THE ARETHUSA OWNERS' LIFE IN NEW YORK CITY

The owners of Arethusa Farm have another life in Manhattan, where they spend the bulk of their week. George Malkemus is president of Manolo Blahnik USA and Tony Yurgaitis serves as vice president of the company known for its high-end fashion footwear.


George Malkemus and Manolo Blahnik

Manolo Blahnik, who has been designing whimsical, stunning, and carefully crafted shoes since the 1970s, expanded his European presence by opening a store on Madison Avenue in 1979. After hiring Malkemus, a former marketing copywriter, to be his U.S. business partner in 1982, sales took off. The television show Sex and the City helped bring Manolo Blahnik shoes to the attention of a wide audience.

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While Malkemus and Yurgaitis run one of the most powerful luxury footwear brands in the world in New York City, they seem just as content with their life in Litchfield County, where they manage a team of 115 across all of Arethusa's burgeoning businesses. People, that is. The 300 "ladies" in the barns are a bonus.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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