WCMA Notes: Specialty Growth Brings a Parmesan Partnership

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News ,

Amidst positive news about large-scale cheese production plants planned for the next few years, key moves continue in the value-added space as well. This column has asserted before that the dairy industry is healthiest when small to mid-sized cheesemakers are growing – capturing the attention of media, chefs and retailers, providing a pipeline of new cheese styles and burnishing the image of U.S. cheese abroad.

Around the nation, value-added investment continues apace:

  • Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery is just months from its first batches of muenster and flavored natural cheeses at its greenfield plant in Menomonie, Wis.
  • Sartori Cheese is expanding its packaging facility 25 percent in Plymouth, Wis.
  • Cacique is building a new, $88 million Hispanic cheese operation in Amarillo, Texas.
  • Kansas Dairy Ingredients is investing $45 million to make a variety of value-added cheese styles at its plant in Hugoton, Kansas.
  • Agri-Mark is investing in its Chateaugay, New York, plant to assure a future for its renowned cheddar, pepper jack and muenster cheeses.

Less publicized is growth and change for Eau Galle Cheese, the quiet, skilled manufacturer of authentic 20-pound wheels of Parmesan in Durand, Wisconsin. Eau Galle’s growth is a tale of perseverance in the pandemic, and a new partnership that promises a strong future for this third-generation factory.

Every maker has a story from the spring of 2020, and none more harrowing than cheese companies wedded to the foodservice market. “All orders simply stopped,” Steve Bechel, president of Eau Galle Cheese told WCMA. Orders for his Parmesan soared a month later – April 2020 – when the wholesale cheese price fell to $1.00 per pound, and then orders plummeted again with record-setting price increases last summer.

“We had one thought: How can we sustain this family business for another generation?” Bechel said.

The story of Eau Galle Cheese sounds like a Green County, Wisconsin, tale displaced to the bluffs of western Wisconsin. Leo Buhlman earned master cheesemaker status in Switzerland before emigrating to Green County, Wisconsin, in 1927. Seeking his own plant, he travelled north to Rice Lake before service in World War II interrupted his plans.

In 1944, the Navy steam fitter returned to Wisconsin and learned of a closed factory in Eau Galle. Leo rebuilt the plant himself, producing big Swiss wheels in copper kettles.  In the early 1960’s, he and his son John shifted production to wheel Parmesan, later constructing a new plant in nearby Durand. Steve Bechel, now a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, married the cheesemaker’s daughter and Parmesan wheels continue to roll off a state-of-the-art production line today.

Bechel, the incoming president of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, described the decision in 2020 to discuss partnership with Cheese Merchants, a hard cheese conversion company based in Bartlett, IL. Cheese Merchants was founded in 1998 by Pasquale Greco, and his third son Bob took the reins of the company in 2006. Bob Greco told WCMA he holds to the principles his father began: converting hard Italian style hard cheeses with the single goal of superior quality cheeses at a fair price.

“Steve reached out to me to discuss a new partnership; I didn’t hesitate for a second. Eau Galle has been a long-time supplier for Cheese Merchants, and what intrigued me was the ability to partner with a world-class cheesemaker that had a facility with lots of room for expansion and the possibility of creating other specialty cheeses,” Greco said. 

In April 2021, Greco and Bechel completed the formation of a new entity – Eau Galle Cheese Factory LLC.

“We have this great opportunity to merchandise our traditional wheels like you’d want them to be sold – in whole wheels and wedges” for the deli, restaurant, and retail trades, Bechel said. “We’ve already seen production take off,” he added, with volume up 40 percent and Cheese Merchants national reach opening new markets for the plant’s award-winning Parmesan. Eau Galle completed an all-new brine system in 2020 and is already planning an expansion.

Like many manufacturers, Eau Galle’s opportunity for growth has encountered the tightest labor market in memory. This mid-sized operation, already lean with 32 employees, is looking to automation to make future growth possible.  “We have the opportunity to remove the toughest jobs – the most repetitive – and offer good-paying, higher-quality work for people,” Bechel said.

Bechel sees a great future for his farm partners and his employees. “Cheese Merchants has been a great partner.  It’s a hard-working company that wants to reinvent the hard Italian cheese market – it’s a great marriage of their marketing know-how with our skill in cheesemaking.”