WCMA Notes: More Lemonade in this Lemon of a Year

WCMA News,

In a time of unprecedented challenges, positive anecdotes as big as new dairy plants continue to arise among dairy processors across the U.S.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association returns to its look at manufacturers who are facing these challenges and are making lemonade out of this lemon of a year.

After a slow spring, Renard’s Cheese in Algoma, Wis., saw retail sales take off in 2020 at their two popular retail outlets in Door County, Wisconsin, and at retail grocery chains. With domestic sales secure and export sales growing, this small Wisconsin specialty cheese plant has green lit a plan to build an all-new factory, retail outlet with restaurant and deli, and packaging and warehouse complex encompassing 60,000 sq. ft. just south of the family’s historic cheese plant.

Governmental approvals for the site and construction plans are cleared, according to Chris Renard, third generation cheesemaker, and groundbreaking will commence in late spring of 2021.

Door County, Wisconsin’s popular destination along Lake Michigan, saw visitor numbers rise to unprecedented levels throughout the summer and fall, despite the cancellation of all traditional event draws, as tourists sought outdoor diversions to enjoy. This caps ten years of growth, Renard said, noting their company has grown from a total of 14 employees at two retail stores and the factory in 2010, to 74 full and part-time employees this year.

At the new greenfield facility, Renard’s will continue to cheddar and mill hand-made cheese in open vats, and sell traditional wheel cheddar, jacks, Colby, farmers, and mozzarella string and whips under a new Renard’s Artisan Cheese label.  Flavored cheeses and new Cloverleaf Reserve, a cheddar/gruyere blend, are a growing part of the profile. Renard’s will cure and package to exact weights in its new plant, Renard said.

Export sales of artisan cheese into the Middle East, Japan and Korea are a promising growth area for Renard’s Cheese, and part of the reason for a new facility. “I see big growth coming in overseas markets,” Renard said.

The pandemic-fueled rise in home food preparation saw a marked consumer trend toward organic foods. Organic Valley was ready. “Organic dairy sales have been strong because of our position in the retail space,” said Adam Warthesen, Director of Government and Industry Affairs for the LaFarge, Wis., based organic giant. “As more and more people cook from home during the pandemic, we have seen increased demand for our organic products.”

The cooperative notes that its work in building a broad U.S. supply chain paid off in 2020. “We have created strategic redundancies with over 90 co-processors across the nation to ensure we can keep trucking milk, crafting cheese, and making healthy, organic food despite natural disasters, pandemics, or other challenges,” Warthesen said.

Organic Valley sees consumers relying on premium brands in the organic space that deliver on taste, quality and healthfulness. “Sales gains have not slowed,” Warthesen said, and value-added products such as shredded organic cheese and OV’s 100% grass fed product line are experiencing strong growth. “We’re encouraged by these results and what they mean for supporting our small family dairy farms and cheese plants in Wisconsin and across the country,” Warthesen said.

Agri-Mark, with its popular Cabot and McCadam lines of cheese, saw retail cheese sales explode this summer as the initial surge in the pandemic eased at their production sites in the Northeast, notes David Lynn, Senior Vice President. “Our branded cheese sales are outpacing retail sales from the previous year, and outpacing the category,” he noted. Cabot has begun a long-term exploration of future capital projects to increase cheese production, Lynn added.

Cabot and McCadam workers readily adopted protocols to stop the spread of COVID-19 in their plants, Lynn said, and embraced the idea of serving the nation as essential businesses.

Trends in the pandemic altered the growth curve of convenience and snack sized products, Lynn said, while bars, chunks and shreds more than made up the difference in sales. He believes the rise in food preparation at home, and tight incomes, will continue this trend.

Artisan cheesemakers may have been hardest-hit as the pandemic shuttered restaurants nationwide.  And yet, there are success stories in their ranks, as well.  Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, famed maker of Rush Creek Reserve and Pleasant Ridge Reserve, reports that online sales have jumped 200 percent in 2020.  By chance, Uplands upgraded its website prior to the COVID-19 crisis, and with a small staff and facility, Hatch moved quickly on order fulfillment efficiencies. The small factory added shipping containers for on-site storage of packaging materials and redesigned its packaging for cost-effective delivery.  With new systems in place, Hatch expects to build on his business growth in the year ahead.

Saputo Dairy USA has held to its core values while stretching to pursue new avenues during the pandemic. For retail markets, Saputo reports retooling certain manufacturing facilities and adapting its marketing and innovation pipeline, including new packaging formats, to align to consumer demand. A spokesperson noted the company is seeing some bright spots in the foodservice segment, particularly with quick-service and pizza chain restaurant partners that can accommodate food pickup and/or delivery.

Retaining core values means Saputo has ongoing food donations and financial contributions, totaling nearly $3 million in the U.S. The health and well-being of its employees is the top priority, the spokesperson noted, with Saputo enhancing safety measures and maintaining its commitment to no layoffs until further notice as a result of the pandemic.

After a major plant expansion in 2014, Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda, Wis., was ready for growth and growth never stopped. “This spring, we found ourselves back in the cheddar business when foodservice sales slowed, but our strength in jack cheeses and flavored styles really took off on the retail side,” said Scott Meister. Since spring, foodservices sales, about half of Meister’s business, have recovered and overall sales volume is up in 2020. “Our plant manager and his team have managed to double the production capacity that we thought the 2014 expansion could handle,” Meister said.

These manufacturers and certainly more are charting a path toward growth as the economic and workforce impacts of the pandemic remain. And one fact points to opportunity amidst the chaos: consumers are seeking out dairy products more than ever before.