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Virtual trade shows provide opportunity to connect, spotlight innovations in packaging

By Alyssa Mitchell

Photo courtesy of Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese
RETAIL READY — In order to meet increased demand for pre-cut retail sizes of cheese, Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese recently invested in new packaging equipment. With the new machine, the company now can package blocks of cheese from 5.6-ounce, 8-ounce, 1-pound and quarter-wheel wedges.
 Photo courtesy of Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese
FAMILY-OWNED — Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese is the only U.S. maker of “Mammoth Cheddars” — wheels of cheese that can range in size from 75 to 12,000 pounds. The fourth-generation, family-owned company has five licensed cheesemakers on staff, including Kerry Henning, who has Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certifications in Cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack.

KIEL, Wis. — As the old adage goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself. In the wake of COVID-19, companies across the dairy industry have had to adapt to shifting demand and distribution channels, and some have found that bringing some additional services in house has helped to streamline operations.

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese — a fourth-generation, family-owned company in Kiel, Wisconsin — recently added new packaging equipment to help meet growing demand for prepackaged cheeses. The company offers a wide variety of cheese, including Cheddars and Colbys that have won many national and international awards.

In 1914, after completing a six-week dairy short course in Madison, Wisconsin, Otto and Norma Henning made a decision to purchase a rural hometown cheese factory in Kiel, Wisconsin. Now, more than 100 years later, Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese has its third and fourth generation working at the modernized cheese plant. The location now also includes an on-site cheese store and museum.

Today, the company is owned by Kerry, Kay and Kert Henning (Kay is retired), the children of Otto’s son Everett, who retired a few years ago. Everett’s grandchildren Mindy, Rebekah, Joshua and Zachary also are involved in the business.

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese is the only U.S. maker of “Mammoth Cheddars”— wheels of cheese that can range in size from 75 to 12,000 pounds. The company has five licensed cheesemakers on staff, including Kerry Henning, who has Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certifications in Cheddar, Colby and Monterey Jack.

Kert Henning says over the past several years, the company has been in discussions to add a new packaging machine at the plant.

“A couple of years ago, we started to get feedback from customers that people really enjoyed our product, but retailers did not have the capacity to handle cutting our wheels of cheese,” Henning says. “We started to see a reduction in orders and were hearing that retailers were struggling to get help in their stores.”

In addition, Henning was touring stores and seeing firsthand that while a wheel of Henning’s Cheese might be available for sale, the lack of resources available to cut wedges meant that the cheese wasn’t getting a prime spot in the retail case.

When COVID-19 hit, this only exacerbated the problem.

Henning’s had a small packaging operation that could cut and wrap about nine pieces of cheese per minute, but the company soon realized if it wanted to expand its prepackaged line, it would need to invest in additional equipment.

At the 2019 Wisconsin Cheese Industry Conference, held last April in Madison, Wisconsin, Kerry Henning came across a packaging machine that piqued his interest.

“In the fall, we really started to push the effort to get this machine in place,” Kert Henning says. “The machine we wanted could replicate what we were already doing but increase the output up to 60 pieces per minute. We saw that as a tremendous increase for a small manufacturer.”

With the new equipment, the company decided to cut its wheels into 5.6-ounce packages for retail. The machine was installed last month, and the company has been working to perfect its new manufacturing process. The new machine also has the capability to package 8-ounce, 1-pound and quarter-wheel wedges.

“I can say that the speed with which we go through orders is now better aligned with our output capabilities,” Henning says.

He notes that Henning’s Cheese did not buy an entire packaging line with a labeling machine, dryer, etc., as the company first wanted to see how the new equipment fit into its operations.

“Once we started, we realized there were other aspects to put in place,” he says.

To that end, the company now plans to add a labeling machine to keep up with the new packaging machine.

“Labeling is our next bottleneck — we were doing it by hand, but we can’t keep up with 60 units per minute, Henning says, noting that labeling capabilities should be coming online by the end of the month. He adds that the company is open to adding capabilities as needed.

One thing that has aided Henning’s Cheese a great deal in its new endeavor is a grant it recently received from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). The company was among 11 dairy companies in the state to receive a portion of $200,000 in 2020 Dairy Processor Grants. Grant recipients were required to provide a match of at least 20% of the grant amount.

“Wisconsin is known for its world-class dairy farms, equipment, knowledge and technology,” says Krista Knigge, administrator for DATCP’s Division of Agricultural Development. “To be a national and global leader in the dairy industry, our processors have to be exploring new technologies, modernizing facilities and exploring new ways to adapt and be profitable. These grants are designed to help them accomplish those goals.”

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese’s grant will be used toward the new packaging machine as well as a separate project to redesign its Mozzarella equipment to increase production.

“When that grant application came about, we were looking at both projects, and we realized it would be a big help to get our feet off the ground a little bit,” Henning says. “Once we received it, we were able to move forward with both, which was great.”

While the new equipment has enabled Henning’s Cheese to offer additional retail sizes, Henning notes it was important that the products remained consistent.

“We have an established link to our retail markets,” he says. “We were very pleased that this machine enabled us to maintain the shelf life as well as the look of our products.”

Henning adds the company services retailers in and out of state, and out-of-state customers especially were looking for more exact-weight products in the wake of COVID-19 to reduce physical handling in store.
Henning’s Cheese uses shrink wrapping, and its products are vacuum-sealed.

“We’ve found that air is a primary source for cheese molding. How fast does the consumer go through that product? The average consumer doesn’t eat cheese like we do here, every day, so you’re looking for something that can abstain for a period of time,” Henning says.

Henning’s Cheese decided if it had the ability to expand its packaging needs to assist some of its national customers, it made sense to move more packaging in house.

“Being a smaller cheese plant, we felt it best to keep as much in house as possible,” Henning says. “If you can control things in house, you have control over every aspect of your operation.”

The company also is looking at managing additional services like trucking, warehousing and other expenses, he notes.

As a multi-generational, family-owned company, Henning notes flexibility is a key attribute for companies like Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese to maintain over the decades.

“Just thinking of where we were compared to where we are today and where we need to go — you have to be flexible, especially in this environment today,” he says. “And always have a Plan B.”

Henning adds that the fourth generation of the company is always looking ahead to see where markets are going and if the company can fit into that new and changing market.

“We want to keep moving the company forward,” he says.

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