A Grande Plan

Past, present come together to craft continued growth for Fond du Lac cheesemaker

Posted on Oct 3, 2016 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

At first, the idea of a fish tank for an employee lounge didn’t strike Wayne Matzke as all that complicated.

In the grand scheme of the 3 1/2 year process to plan and build Grande Cheese Co.’s new Fond du Lac headquarters, a fish tank seemed easy enough — at least until the details of integrating the tank into the walls of an espresso bar kept cropping up.

“To me, the idea of a fish tank is a bowl with a couple of goldfish in it sitting on the counter,” Matzke says, pointing toward the clown fish cruising around the saltwater tank as he gives a tour of the now completed facility. “I had no idea the details involved.”

For CEO Matzke and Grande Cheese, how the details — no matter how small — are handled speak to its success as a leading supplier of cheese to independent pizzerias, its development of ingredient solutions for food manufacturers and its demands of high-quality milk and animal care from its producers.

Details are important.

“We wanted to create something with our associates and customers in mind that integrated well into the community,” Matzke says. “We wanted to encourage people to be creative and help us continue to build the business while still having balance.”

It shows everywhere you look — inside and out — at the sumptuous new campus Grande has carved out near the intersection of Highway 151 and Interstate 41 on Fond du Lac’s south side.

Details, both past and present, figure prominently in the design and for Matzke.

Past lessons both from the company and the state’s dairy industry are reflected in the configuration of the new building, which shares the same compass alignment as a traditional dairy farm. As additional buildings are added — there are plans for more — they will integrate into that configuration.

Grande was founded by Filippo Candela, who emigrated to the United States from the Sicilian village of Montelepre. His descendants still own the company, and their Italian heritage is reflected in the details of the central courtyard and the long table at its center, as well as the orchards which incorporate fruit trees native to Candela’s home village. The trees won’t be strong enough to plant into the local soil for three years, but still adorn the grounds in planters.

Stone from the Niagara Escarpment is featured prominently in the building materials that adorn the new facility. For all the grandeur, it has a homelike feel to it. 

The aesthetics are indeed gorgeous, but make no mistake, this is a functional facility and that functionality is an important key to the company’s future, Matzke says.

Working test kitchens are fully visible through glass partitions, as well as a formal dining room that functions both as a board room and to test new solutions and products for customers. Most of the office space is open-concept with amenities such as adjustable height desks, and there are dozens of spaces for team members to huddle for quick meetings.

Proud past, bright future

As much as the building celebrates the company’s 75-year history, it is a working environment designed to attract a high quality workforce for years to come, particularly younger talent with the scientific and technological background Grande will need to continue its growth for future generations.

“We never want folks to forget we are in a manufacturing environment,” Matzke says. “We are a high quality product and we are seen that way by everyone in the industry. We have to support that.”

A quiet company, Grande is one of the great brands you’ve never seen — unless you work in a pizzeria. But it is a classic American tale with a particularly Wisconsin flavor.

Filipo Candela came to Wisconsin shortly after arriving in the U.S. With the help of family and friends he launched his cheese company, giving it the name Grande, which in Italian means “great.” The fledgling company at first concentrated on cheeses such as Provolone and Romano, which quickly caught the fancy of growing Italian communities.

But it would be pizza that truly made Grande great. As the American appetite for pizza grew in the 1960s and 1970s, and demand for the cuisine migrated from the East Coast across the country, so did demand for quality pizza ingredients. Grande’s Mozzarella soon became the cheese of choice.

The attention to detail and quality has won Grande a loyal following, particularly among independent restaurants producing high quality, artisan pizzas. Of the more than 65,000 independent pizzerias in the U.S., more than 10,000 exclusively use Grande ingredients in their products. Another 15,000 use at least some of Grande’s products.

Again, details are important. It’s not uncommon to see Grande’s staff working with customers in a test kitchen on finding an ingredient solution or perfecting a recipe. Installed in the kitchen are one of each type of commercial pizza oven on the market. They leave nothing to chance.

Yet, Grande is not exactly a household name outside those kitchens.

“Because we are a food service brand, you will see us in the restaurant, but we are not customer-facing,” Matzke says.

Grande now produces an array of fresh and aged cheese for restaurants across the country, from fresh Mozzarella to aged Asiago. Everything is made naturally, invoking the art of the company’s founder, with no artificial ingredients or preservatives.

Yes, whey

Matzke’s reference to the company as a food service brand is deliberate. Cheese may be the foundation, but there is much more going on at Grande. In addition to cheese, Grande has grown two other divisions that now play an integral role in the company’s success.

One of those divisions proves the truth behind the maxim one man’s refuse is another’s resource.

Until just a few decades ago, whey, a byproduct of the cheese making process, was considered to have little value aside from spreading on farm fields — until it was discovered that with a little refinement, flexible, high-protein food ingredients could be extracted.

Grande Custom Ingredients Group was born. Using whey protein, food scientists at GCIG have developed functional ingredients that enable food producers to replace fats, make cream sauces creamier, improve nutritional profiles and create more stable food products — all without changing the texture or “mouth feel” of the original product.

Just a few years ago, GCIG used authentic yogurt cultures to create a dry yogurt powder that can enhance yogurt flavor in food applications, enabling the creation of a wider variety of shelf-stable products to meet consumer demand.

This is indeed the scientific part of food science.

“We started out with one SKU and now we have nearly a half-dozen main products with multiple variations used in hundreds of applications,” Matzke says. “We’ve seen great diversification in the past 10 years, particularly in the nutritional markets.”

All of it, of course, depends on milk from supplier farmers.

More than 100 area farms with some 65,000 cows make up the Grande supply chain, with an entire segment of the company working on making sure that milk not only gets delivered each day, but meets Grande’s quality standards.

Animal care is a critical component of that effort. After all, the company takes delivery of more than 5 million pounds of milk each day.

“The cows are an integral part of what we do,” Matzke says.

The demand for and dedication to animal care attracts like-minded dairy farmers who often remain part of the network for generations.

“They’ve never given us a reason to think the grass is greener somewhere else,” says Gordon Speirs, owner and operator of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion, which has been supplying Grande since locating to Wisconsin from Canada in 2003. “They were sniffing us out before we even had the first slab poured and we’ve worked with them ever since.”

During the relationship, Grande has worked with Shiloh Dairy to ensure that the quality of the product also means quality of care for the animals.

“We desire to produce a quality product,” Speirs says. “They are ready to work with us whenever we have challenges.”

Speirs also shares in the company’s commitment to social responsibility as part of its business plan. During his term as president of the Dairy Business Association, Speirs helped launch the Dairy Cares program, which has raised more than $600,000 for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin since 2011.

“It’s my belief that every citizen needs to give back to the community at some point in time,” Speirs says.

Those sentiments are more than echoed at Grande, where social responsibility has become a key driver of company culture. Grande’s philosophy describes the company as a group of individuals working together with common goals to “the fulfillment of a purpose greater than ourselves.”

Matzke says the company seeks to apply that principle within its own governance, to its care of the environment and its involvement in the surrounding communities. It touches on areas such as sustainable business practices, prudent fiscal management and assisting in the welfare of its associates as well as its community.

Before it began building the new facility, Grande was making investments in walk-in health clinics and fitness centers for its more than 900 employees working out of seven facilities in Wisconsin. Many can be accessed outside of work hours and by associates’ families, as well.

The company also recently completed a 150,000-square-foot distribution center in Lomira.

Matzke spends a lot of time listening. He travels throughout the company frequently, making stops at each facility at least twice per year, as well as hosting town hall-style meetings and holiday parties — important events in building a sustainable employee culture.

Indeed, much of the artwork adorning the building speaks to the ideals of common goals and working for a greater purpose. A centerpiece sculpture on the lawn — winner of a nationwide competition — seeks to visually represent that concept.

“It’s been a pretty significant investment by the company, but we believe in our people and what they can do,” Matzke says. “People see the value in that.”