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April 20, 2018
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Cedar Grove does ‘the right things’ while making award-winning cheese

NEW NATURAL SPREADS — Cedar Grove’s natural, clean-label cold pack cheese line is gaining distribution and is an example of the company’s efforts to meet customer needs. The company recently added two new specialty spread flavors: Mango Habanero and Olive Pimento.

FLAVORFUL QUARKS — Cedar Grove’s sister creamery in urban Milwaukee, Clock Shadow Creamery, primarily makes fresh cheeses. Clock Shadow Creamery also provides a setting for small-scale experimentation and collaboration and features a retail store that is being updated.

By Kate Sander

PLAIN, Wis. — A lot of great things are happening at Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wisconsin, and its sister company Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. In fact, so many great things are happening that it’s important to owner Bob Wills that one key fact doesn’t get lost in the shuffle: His companies make really good cheese.

Besides making a variety of cheeses from cow, goat and sheep’s milks — cheeses that are critically acclaimed throughout the industry — Wills and his staff are involved in endeavors ranging from leading environmental efforts, to promoting food safety, to pioneering urban cheesemaking, to partnering with up and coming cheesemakers.

“We’ve done a lot of things in terms of industry commitment and involvement — maybe an abnormally large amount of that stuff,” Wills says. “Sometimes I think it’s almost a distraction. People will talk about our environmental contributions and other efforts. It’s an interesting conundrum. We believe these activities are important, but they distract people from noticing we win a lot of awards, and we make really awesome cheese.”

Cedar Grove is nearing completion of GMO-free certification, and this, combined with SQF certification, continue to provide consumers and corporate customers documented assurances for activities and choices that they support, Wills says.

Cedar Grove Cheese has been actively involved in food safety efforts for the dairy industry, with Wills chairing the American Cheese Education Foundation and serving on Dairy Management Inc.’s Artisan Advisory Committee, Wisconsin Association for Food Protection, FAB Safe and Wisconsin Cheese Maker’s Policy Committee.

There are no plans to stop all of those “extra” things because they are the right things to do, Wills says, but he wants to make sure people know about the company’s cheese successes.


“We’ve done a
lot of things in terms
of industry commitment
and involvement —
maybe an abnormally large amount
of that stuff. …
We believe these
activities are important, but they distract people from noticing
we win a lot of awards, and we make really
awesome cheese.”

Bob Wills
CEDAR GROVE CHEESE/
CLOCK SHADOW CREAMERY


For example, in the recent World Championship Cheese Contest, Cedar Grove’s Colby placed fifth in the Colby Class, and Ricotta made at Clock Shadow Creamery placed fourth in the Ricotta Class.

Cedar Grove Cheese won first place for its original recipe Montague at the American Cheese Society (ACS) competition last summer as well as first-place awards for its Ovella sheep milk cheese and its recently-developed Cestino Pecora, a washed rind sheep’s milk cheese.

Demand for the company’s sheep and mixed milk cheeses continues to grow.

“We had to overcome the idea that sheep’s milk would taste like goat’s milk,” Wills says, adding that hurdle is getting lower as people have more experience with sheep’s milk products. “It’s potentially a big market. Sheep’s milk producers are doing well, organizing themselves to get better milk and better markets.”

In addition to its success with sheep, goat and mixed milk cheeses, the maturing and mainstreaming of organic products has increased interest in specialty varieties. To meet those needs, an organic Fontina and reduced-fat organic Gouda are in development, Wills says.

Further evidence is growing sales of the company’s aged organic Cheddar. Cedar Grove continues to have strong demand for organic cheeses for pizzas and foodservice, Wills says.

Cedar Grove also continues to develop new products beyond organic. Cedar Grove’s natural, clean-label cold pack cheese line is gaining distribution and is an example of the company’s efforts to meet customer needs, Wills says. The company recently added two new specialty spread flavors: Mango Habanero and Olive Pimento.

Most of Cedar Grove’s cheeses are made in-house; Cedar Grove works with a small processor that makes the spreads to Cedar Grove’s specifications. Meanwhile, Cedar Grove continues to partner with both large and small manufacturers to help develop new products, and these efforts have led to several award-winning cheeses that have been made or “invented” at the company’s facilities.


“We run experiments
and find out
what works best.
A lot of the big
companies don’t have
the ability
to experiment.”

Bob Wills
CEDAR GROVE CHEESE/
CLOCK SHADOW CREAMERY


“Both of our plants can make small batches in addition to production scale,” Wills says. “We’re set up well for product development and training.”

This makes the company nimble both in terms of developing products for its own customers as well as allowing new cheesemakers the chance to explore and produce small batches for their own growing markets.

“We run experiments and find out what works best. A lot of the big companies don’t have the ability to experiment,” Wills says, noting that sometimes initially awful results are the step toward an excellent new cheese.

“Our failures have taught us a lot of things along the way,” he says.

“As I’ve traveled I’ve also discovered that some of our mistakes were specialties in other parts of the world,” he adds with a chuckle. “There’s not been a day that I’m not learning something.”

Learning — for himself and for others — is important to Wills. A certified Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker in Cheddar and Butterkäse cheese varieties, Wills says that education is part of the reason he allows burgeoning cheese companies the opportunity to use his facilities.

“In some ways we create our own competition through these collaborations, but we also learn more by working with other people,” he says.

Not only is he excited and inspired by the younger generation of cheesemakers he brings into his plants, Wills says partnering with other businesses makes more efficient use of his facilities. In addition, with all of the requirements small businesses confront, Wills says he is concerned about the survivability of new ventures and wants to give them a chance.


“(Patty Peterson) has
a ton of experience
and a lot of creativity
and enthusiasm.
Patty will make
the store a destination
in its own right.”

Bob Wills
CEDAR GROVE CHEESE/
CLOCK SHADOW CREAMERY


“If a small cheesemaker wants to put up a plant, the smallest one I’ve heard of was still $600,000,” he says. “With sales below a million dollars, cheese businesses are challenged to maintain the necessary testing and food safety practices. Facility sharing can help entrepreneurs grow to a viable scale and gain the experience to thrive.”

Well-known industry names that have made some of their early batches of cheese at Cedar Grove before going on to their own facilities include Uplands Cheese and LaClare Farms.

More recently, Cedar Grove has been instrumental in helping launch Landmark Creamery and Night Owl Creamery. Night Owl Creamery is operated by current Cedar Grove employee Aaron Peper who partners with Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy in making cheese at Cedar Grove during night hours.

Peper, Wills says, is very creative and has the ambition to be an outstanding cheesemaker on his own. Wills also is quick to recognize the talent and experience of his other 11 licensed cheesemakers, whose total experience exceeds 150 years.

“These are people I depend on completely,” he says.

Most of the partnering with other cheesemakers takes place at Cedar Grove in Plain, Wisconsin, but Clock Shadow Creamery, an urban creamery in Milwaukee that Wills opened in 2012, also provides a setting for small-scale experimentation and collaboration. Former manager, Ron Henningfeld, makes cheese there for Hill-Valley Dairy using his family’s milk. Wills says Clock Shadow Creamery gives him better insight into the challenges that small cheesemakers face.

A recent hire, who Wills is particularly excited to have join the team, is Patty Peterson, previously of Larry’s Market. Clock Shadow Creamery is undertaking a renewal of its retail store with more emphasis on prepared foods under Peterson’s leadership, Wills says.

“She has a ton of experience and a lot of creativity and enthusiasm. Patty will make the store a destination in its own right,” he says.

Clock Shadow Creamery is located on the ground floor of an environmentally-innovative building in Walker’s Point Neighborhood. The first urban cheese factory in the “cheese desert” of Milwaukee, Clock Shadow Creamery and its store have the potential to not only serve the local community but Milwaukee tourists, he says.

Clock Shadow Creamery primarily makes fresh cheeses. In addition to its Ricotta performing well at the recent World Championship Cheese Contest, its S.A. Braai Chutney flavor placed second in its Quark Class at last year’s ACS competition.

Meanwhile, Cedar Grove Cheese continues to use environmentally-sound practices in Plain, Wisconsin, where it operates a “Living Machine,” which uses natural microbes and a collection of hydroponic plants, to clean its wash-water.

“Recycling and energy reduction programs are our way of keeping up our commitment to the environment and the future,” Wills says. “But, don’t forget about the good cheese.”

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