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Beyond the Trophy: The Long-Term Impact of a Cheese Contest Win

A Guest Column Offered by Kirsten Henning, WCMA Events Manager

As the lotto saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Maybe that’s why, year after year, the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest breaks records for entries.  For a chance at the big win, hundreds of cheesemakers, from the artisan newcomers to the most seasoned of masters, are eager to compete.

A victory at our contest – really, any industry contest – comes with more than a trophy for the mantle.

There’s a healthy dose of respect from your peers, media attention, a morale boost for the team at your plant, and perhaps the biggest prize of all: increased consumer demand.

You need look no further than your neighborhood grocery store for proof of that fact.  In 2016, Emmi Roth USA’s Grand Cru Surchoix, the World Championship Cheese Contest winner, flew off the shelves.  Emmi Roth USA President and Managing Director Tim Omer reports the company will sell eight times the amount of Grand Cru Surchoix this fiscal year, compared to last, as a direct result of the championship title.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk with Richard Guggisberg, President of Ohio’s Guggisberg Cheese, a company that took top honors at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for its Swiss wheel, with an impressive score of 98.496 out of 100.

Our chat gave me great insight on the impact of a big contest win and, with Richard’s permission, I have the chance to share it with you.

KH: Richard, did you know you had a winner, when you entered the contest?

RG: Certainly, no, but in the back of my mind, there was that hope.  We knew we had a special piece of cheese.

KH: So, what was your reaction, when the big announcement came?

RG: I was completely overwhelmed.  It’s quite an achievement, something that you get to share with the people close to you.  Our win was a team effort – Team Guggisberg Sugarcreek – and so, there was a lot of back patting happening around here.

KH: A few pats on the back were in order.

RG: You know, you work for years and years and years on products, striving for quality, for perfection.  When that effort is recognized, it means something.  It’s a validation of time and talent – and not just for the cheesemaker, but for everyone in the plant.  Even our farmers consider it a point of pride, that their milk is made into our cheese.

KH:  That’s wonderful.  What about reaction outside of the plant?

RG: We got a lot of attention and publicity from the win, inquiries from packagers.  We use the USCCC emblem on our labels, emails, and in a lot of advertising.  We have the trophy on display in our retail store for the customers to see.  The win has helped our business grow.

KH: And Guggisberg Cheese is growing!

RG: Yes, we’re already making 30 million pounds of product each year.  And, now, we are completing a full factory revamp that will help us triple in production without impacting the quality of our product.  My father, Alfred, who started the business back in 1950, he was a Swiss immigrant.  I wish he was alive to see all of this, because I know he’d be so proud.

KH: You have a lot to be proud of, too.

RG: Certainly, this is a high point in my career.  But, we’ll be entering the contest again.  We think we have another nice Swiss cheese on our hands.

There are no guarantees, when a cheese is competing against thousands of others, to be named the U.S. Champion.  But, as Richard said to me, there’s always hope.

For any of you considering entering, remember, you can’t win if you don’t play.