Most of us would be happy to have one great, financially lucrative, idea in a lifetime. Miles and Lillian Cahn had two and both have left legacies that keep their memories alive.
Just as World War II was ending Miles Cahn, recently released from military service, and his wife, Lillian, entered the leather business, joining Manhattan Leather Bags. The five-year-old firm was headquartered in a family-run workshop in a loft on 34th Street in Manhattan where a half-dozen leatherworkers made wallets and billfolds by hand.
The Cahns were knowledgeable about leatherworks and business but it was Miles Cahns’ observation that the leather used in making baseball gloves became softer and suppler with use that would set his business apart. Cahn soon developed a process that made the leather in his products stronger, softer and more flexible. And, because the leather absorbed dye well, this process also created a richer, deeper color in the leather.
And then, in the early 1960s, Lillian Cahn gave the company the impetus it needed to become a world leader. Recalling her childhood in Depression-ravaged Wilkes-Barre PA, she urged her husband to use his luxury leather to produce a new version of the paper shopping bags she carried as a girl to deliver her mother’s homemade noodles to customers.
“I scoffed at first,” Mr. Cahn, who died at the age of 95 in 2017, said in an interview. “In New York, there were a lot of handbag companies and at that time stores were all buying knockoffs of bags made in Europe. But my wife prevailed.”
Lillian Cahn’s design became the first successful Coach bag. “It became a classic,” Mr. Cahn said. “We started having loyal customers.”
Cahn went on to create the dozen other handbag designs that became the first generation of the Coach line and his wife became the company’s showroom impresario and media agent.
The Cahns expanded and guided their business through the next quarter of a century, overseeing a growing line of products and the marketing of their goods in department stores across the United States and abroad.
By the early 1980s, Coach was selling about $20 million in handbags a year, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest. But the Cahns were tiring of the game. Already owners of a 600-acre estate in Gallatinville NY, they were ready to fully devote their time to their next great idea. In 1985, they sold Coach handbags to the Sara Lee Corporation for a reported $30 million and turned their full attention to Coach Farm, their growing goat farm and artisanal cheese production business.
Oddly, the goat farm and cheese production grew out of their previous business. By the 1980s, the Cahns were able to enjoy extended vacations and, opening a Coach store in Paris, fell in love with the city and all things French—including goat cheeses, then little appreciated in the United States.
The timing was perfect, just as the farm-to-table movement took hold. In California, Laura Chenel had started making chèvre in the late 1970s and Alice Waters famously featured the cheese in her signature Chez Panisse salad. A Vermont cheesemaker named Alison Hooper made her first domestic chèvre and launched Vermont Butter & Cheese; and in the Catskills, Sally Weininger was making a Gouda-style cheese with goat’s milk.
Ever canny, the Cahns saw the growing market and decided “we had New York City, the biggest market possible.” They started in 1983 with a herd of 200 French Alpine goats—which now stands at about 1,000—and started making cheeses. Accountants and other sober-minded sorts attempted to dash their enthusiasm but Cahn was enthralled by his vision of hand-crafted artisanal cheeses and engaged famed master cheese monger Steve Jenkins in his dream.
Also joining the team was Marie-Claude Chaleix, who once made prize-winning goat cheese in a village near Bordeaux. Ensconced on the New York farm, Chaleix began tutoring a group of local women in cheese production, starting at about 150-200 pounds of fresh goat cheese daily, all made to exacting standards.
When the cheeses were debuted in 1985, they were an instant hit, finding a niche with high-end grocers and restaurants. The success ended the Cahns’ country idyll. “Rushing back and forth between Coach Farm and the Coach leather factory (on West 34th Street), we had lost all sense of which was ‘back’ and which was ‘forth,’” Cahn wrote in his 2003 memoir, The Perils and Pleasures of Domesticating Goat Cheese: Portrait of a Hudson Valley Dairy Goat Farm.
It was a situation that eased somewhat with the sale of Coach Leathers, allowing the Cahns to settle full-time on the farm and devote their efforts to the cheese business. As more and more farmers began producing fresh goat cheese, it was Jenkins who guided the Cahns into the next step, producing aged goat cheeses.
An early ’90s Coach innovation came about accidentally when an aged cheese log was left on a rack too long, putting on a tough coat of mold and drying out. Beneath its armor, creamery workers discovered a delicious hard cheese similar to a Parmesan yet with the salty taste of an aged blue. Christened Grating Sticks, they became a signature product.
By the early 2000s, the Cahns, now in their 80s, were ready to slow down. They sold the farm but Mr. Cahn secured a conservation easement to protect the land in perpetuity. And in 2007, they sold the business to Best Cheese, the American arm of a Dutch firm. In 2009, it bought the herd as well.
Today, Coach Farm remains faithful to the traditional methods of the French farmstead cheesemaker, Artisanal cheeses are made in the white-tiled creamery from milk freshly drawn from some 500 to 600 individually named does in the connected milking parlor. The animals are milked twice daily, before dawn and in late afternoon.
Each doe produces about a gallon of milk a day, a fraction of the 80 to 100 pounds produced by a good milking cow. Each gallon of milk translates to slightly less than one pound of cheese.
The intelligent, curious animals, who have a lively sense of fun, live a good life at Coach Farm. They live in different barns on the farm depending on their age and are kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They have constant access to inside or out and rock piles are available for them to jump on and frolic about. Their diet, so essential to good milk production, includes alfalfa hay grown on the farm as well as daily supplements of grain and clean water to drink.
Coach Farm products are not organic but they are free of preservatives and antibiotics and the farm is operated as sustainably and naturally as possible. By law, all fresh cheeses and milk products aged less than 60 days must be pasteurized.
The farm is located on 105 Mill Hill Road in Gallatinville NY. For more information, visit the link below.