STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For many people with a penchant for creativity, their talent isn’t confined to just one medium. For Chereen Leong Schwarz, creativity is a way of life. And now, it’s a way of making a living, too.
Leong Schwarz, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area of California, is a trained chef, earning her degree in food science from the University of California at Davis and then attending culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in the Napa Valley. She and her husband, Rob, followed friends to Steamboat Springs in the winter of 2012, and Leong Schwarz had the opportunity to practice her craft locally at Bistro C.V. and Mountain Tap Brewery.
Eventually, Leong Schwarz landed at Elkstone Farms, where she works as a farm employee and culinary instructor. She continues to teach monthly classes as she grows her private chef business, Wilderbean Provisions.
However, cooking is only one of two successful creative businesses Leong Schwarz has developed over the last few years. She is also a self-taught knitter who now sells hats through her company, Smeeny Beanie Knits.
Just a year after moving to Steamboat, Leong Schwarz found herself coming home from busy late night shifts and wanting a quiet activity to help her unwind. She decided on a craft that would keep her hands busy and be “the perfect snowy hobby” during Colorado winters and so she decided to knit beanies.
She turned to that contemporary well of knowledge — Youtube — and soon was playing with color, seeking out new materials and reverse engineering knitting patterns from pictures.
“What started as a hobby, I became obsessed with. I loved it,” Leong Schwarz said. “You can only give so many hats to your friends and family.”
Leong Schwarz’s passion project quickly turned into a side hustle as her Instagram followers began asking to purchase her products.
“I’d never thought about it, but sure,” Leong Schwarz said.
When she decided to take her business to the next level, the ever-resourceful Leong Schwarz turned, once again, to the online community. She listened to business podcasts and enrolled in a month-long course about opening an online shop. In 2018, she began to sell at local markets, and in January 2019, she opened her Etsy shop.
Leong Schwarz said she finds support from other makers on Instagram.
“I literally have friends that I talk to on there almost daily,” she said.
The image of the isolated, starving artist is obsolete thanks to online communities, and Leong Schwarz’s experience is no exception. Her business has grown as a direct result of the connections she’s found in the knitting community, and she plans to begin attending national conferences on the craft this year.
Leong Schwarz’s business ventures are inspired by the unique character of Steamboat — a natural, sustainable, real and adventurous community.
As a private chef, she loves preparing food that she harvested at the farm earlier that day and serving it in the comfort of her clients’ homes. As both a chef and a knitter, she doesn’t consider what she does to be “fine art,” like oil painting or photography, but rather, art that is accessible and functional for an outdoor lifestyle.
Leong Schwarz is a snowboarder, skier, camper, mountain biker and rugby player, so it’s important to her that her products can easily transition from backpacking and resort riding to going to happy hour and floating the Yampa.
Just like her culinary ingredients, her wool is sourced from ethical and sustainable vendors, and she donates 5% of her profits to the National Park Foundation. Though she has been asked whether she would ever hire fellow knitters as employees, she said she is not quite ready to give up the personally handmade aspect of her products.
She recently launched a luxury line of 100% Peruvian and Merino wool products that are sold at Linden Co. Floristry. Her standard line is available at Ohana, and all of her products are sold online at smeenybeanieknits.com.
“I never thought that my little hobby would actually become a profitable business that could sustain my life,” Schwarz said. “It’s amazing.”
Routt County is home to a diverse collection of creative people & practices. Inspired individuals thrive at our crossroads of the wild outdoors, rustic grit, and fun lifestyles. To share your creative story, contact Sarah Valentino at firstname.lastname@example.org.