February 14, 2020
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Baker Cheese expansion brings more variety to String production

Photo courtesy of Baker Cheese
MULTIPLE STRINGS — In addition to traditional low-moisture, part-skim String cheese, Baker Cheese now offers several varieties, including jalapeno, whole milk, light, smoked, twist, rope, kosher and organic. The company has a full-scale cheese production area as well as a full-scale packaging area, allowing for a 48-hour turnaround from the time milk leaves the farm to when the cheese is packaged and ready to enjoy.

Photo courtesy of Baker Cheese

SMORE STRETCH — Baker Cheese uses high-quality stainless steel stretching equipment to produce the consistent “stringiness” of its String cheese. The company’s most recent expansion will allow capacity to grow by up to 60% as needed.

By Rena Archwamety

ST. CLOUD, Wis. — The owners of Baker Cheese, a family-run business of more than 100 years and a pioneer in String cheese production, credit the company’s success to three main elements: Strong relationships with customers, service that exceeds expectations and high-quality cheese.

“We’ve built our reputation on a traditional Italian-style make, and we’re able to get a very consistent, high-quality piece of String cheese,” says Brian Baker, president, Baker Cheese. “We make award-winning contest quality String cheese every day. Our crew is concerned with high quality standards. That mantra we hang our hat on is ‘every stick matters.’”

The St. Cloud, Wisconsin, company was founded as a Cheddar-making operation by Baker’s great-grandfather, Frank Baker, in 1916. In the 1950s, Frank and his son Francis Baker transitioned their focus to the rapidly-growing demand for Mozzarella. Recognizing a need for smaller, consumer-sized units, Francis took a ball of Mozzarella, stretched it into a rope and cut it into small chunks. In the 1970s, Baker Cheese was among the first in the country to introduce String cheese, which today is its sole product, produced and packaged at the same facility.

“There is a two-fold approach with our production model — we have a full-scale cheese production area and a full-scale cheese packaging area,” Brian Baker says. “They are integrated into the same turnkey approach. Whatever we’re making, we’re packaging at the same rate throughout the operation day.”
This two-fold approach allows Baker Cheese to offer the freshest possible product. In fact, in less than 48 hours from the time milk leaves the company’s farm partners, the String cheese is packaged and ready to enjoy. Baker adds that the company offers short lead times so its customers don’t have to carry a large amount of inventory, optimizing the quality and freshness of each order.

Baker Cheese offers partnerships for private label and national brands, in addition to its own Baker Cheese brand that is sold in the Upper Midwest.

“We pride ourselves on being the No. 1 selling String cheese in Wisconsin, and we have been for many years,” says Eric Baker, vice president of marketing, Baker Cheese. “As a lot of our String cheese has gone national, we’re still a local company in Wisconsin, working with local farmers, still making the quality product that we’re proud of.”

Over the past several decades, Baker Cheese has helped elevate String cheese’s reputation as a healthy, everyday snack, innovating with new production techniques, packaging options and cheese varieties.

Most of Baker Cheese’s customers have partnered with the company for 10, 20, 30 or more years, Eric Baker adds. In addition to high-quality cheese, customers also appreciate the short, flexible lead times and close working relationships with Baker Cheese’s staff and leadership to provide what they need, when they need it.

“Our customers are used to working closely with the executive team — the Bakers themselves — as is our operational team,” Brian Baker says. “The reason this works well for us is things don’t get lost in translation.

The demand for high-quality, high-service really is the centerpiece with Baker’s management, leadership and ownership team. That is an important piece of our success and growth.”

As Baker Cheese’s consistent reputation met with new and evolving demands in the cheese industry, the growing popularity of String cheese prompted three large-scale plant expansions in the 1990s and 2000s. The company now is completing its latest and largest expansion to date, which includes an added production line that will allow for two streams of milk to be processed and packaged in the plant at the same time, allowing for both more variety as well as capacity for continued growth opportunities. The added production area is now complete, and the company has started on the second phase of expansion which includes smaller-scale updates to the office, employee service and other areas.

Eric Baker says String cheese continues to expand in both appeal and format.

“Probably 10 years ago, String cheese was viewed as a kids’ snack, and in the past you would see it in packages targeted to kids. But now all age demographics are taking to it,” he says. “Another area where we’ve seen a lot of growth is in the school and foodservice markets. Individually-wrapped sticks offer an easy, nutritious snack. We’ve seen tremendous growth in that arena for String cheese.”

While Baker Cheese had the capability to offer more formats and varieties in the past, until the recent expansion it simply did not have the capacity to offer all of these while keeping up with its conventional String production.

“Our customers’ and consumers’ demands have changed,” Eric Baker says. “It used to be primarily regular Mozzarella and the same stick size. Now there’s twist, jalapeno, whole milk, light, smoked, rope, kosher, organic and other varieties we have to try to fit into production. The joke was that we’d run out of time to do the traditional low-moisture, part-skim Mozzarella.”

Baker Cheese now has the capacity to do smaller and more varied runs to meet its customers’ demands. Its Jalapeno String has won national and international awards over four consecutive years, including second- and third-place awards in the 2019 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Additionally, the company has seen success with its Smoked String and currently is working on additional flavored varieties.

Package and stick size also have changed, as single-serve String cheese is now widely carried in C-stores and growing in foodservice, and 1-inch “minis” are combined with meat and fruit in snack packs. Additionally, Baker Cheese now has more capacity to produce rope cheese, often used by pizza manufacturers in stuffed crust, as well as whole milk varieties that are growing with the trend of full-fat foods.

The company has offered kosher String cheese for more than 30 years and organic String cheese for more than 15 years, and both these segments also will benefit from the expanded production capacity.

“String cheese is such a convenient, high-quality snack,” Brian Baker says. “We’re seeing changes in what the consumer is looking for, enhancements and a little different platform for String cheese items available to them, whether that’s flavor profiles, smaller bite-size cuts mixed and matched with other flavored snacks, or different types of milkfat percentages. If it’s in the organic market, they can get their favorite String cheese in an organic offering. Those things are continuing to grow, and so is our ability to do all of them, whether with our brand, private label or a national brand. We want to focus on that so we can continue to be the supplier of choice.”



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