You know your company’s done something special when your product can literally stop people in their tracks.
Sartori Company President Jeff Schwager has witnessed it time and again. People sample the cheese and begin to walk on. Then they do a double take.
“You get a high percentage of them who turn around and say, ‘That’s really good!’” Schwager says. “Just to get that consumer reaction – it makes you proud of what you’re doing every day.”
That’s what the company aims for: a product that elicits an emotional attachment, Schwager says.
By all accounts, Sartori has achieved that goal.
Creating that kind of experience has launched Sartori from a respected cheese producer for restaurants and food products into a powerhouse in the retail specialty cheese market – in less than eight years. The company launched its retail product line in 2006 and now sells gourmet cheeses at thousands of locations nationally and internationally. But Sartori and Schwager say it’s not about being the biggest – it’s about being the best. It’s about triggering a response unmatched by competitors.
“We have countless stories like that,” says Jim Sartori, CEO and third-generation owner. “I was at an event and as I’m walking out of the restaurant, a guy sees my shirt with the logo on it and says, ‘Oh, Sartori, I love it! I had it at my wedding in California.’ So people do have an emotional attachment to it. We take a lot of pride in that, we want to continue that.”
In Sartori’s modest Plymouth headquarters, a former phone company building, a few of the company’s many recent awards are on display in the lobby. The rooms are all named after those award-winning cheeses, many of which are made at the former Antigo Cheese Company plant Sartori purchased in 2006. That was Sartori’s springboard into retail.
“The opportunity for retail made it very attractive for us,” Sartori says. “That was a big risk, because we mainly bought inventory. We were betting that the 24 months-worth of production that was in some warehouses around the state was of high quality, because that’s really what we were buying. But it was an acceptable risk and it worked out great.”
That’s somewhat of an understatement. Sartori Company cheeses have won more than 180 state, national and international awards in the past five years. Sartori and Schwager prefer not to share annual revenue figures for the privately-held company, mostly because they don’t want the focus to be ‘how much’ or ‘how big.’ But Schwager says they shoot for a growth rate between 10 and 15 percent annually.
“I think it’s safe to say we’re big believers that a growing company is a healthy company,” Schwager says. “If you get to a plateau and you want to stay there, that’s when you start to go the wrong way. While we’re celebrating our 75th anniversary this year, I like to say we’re a 75-year-old adolescent. We still have a lot of room to grow up here.”
It was easy to see the potential for retail early on.
“When Sartori was just a food service and ingredient company, we’d send out samples to suppliers and customers and people would say, ‘I wish I could buy this to have at home,’” Schwager says. “So that was kind of another big push to the retail side.”
Shortly after Sartori Company entered retail, the recession hit – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The restaurant side of the business felt the pinch since people weren’t spending as much dining out. But they were definitely spending on dining in.
“They were willing to spend a little bit for that little luxury item,” Schwager says. “A nice wedge of cheese at $4 or $5 was a luxury that people could afford.”
Creating a line of gourmet cheeses, and coupling it with the right branding, packaging and promotion as a special item, paid off.
“I think they were gutsy – their design and their marketing was not ordinary, it was eye catching,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.
“And the product was also way outside the box. They invented all new cheeses, and they happen to be really good. So they hit a home run on both counts. They had notable marketing and they had a product that people want to buy again.”
What Sartori has done is unique in the industry, something of a bellwether, Umhoefer says.
“They and a few other companies really are on the cutting edge of branding in Wisconsin, and that’s really the next step for a state that already has great product,” Umhoefer says. “For decades that great product was hiding behind other brand names and retail store names, and now companies like Sartori are putting their own name on the cheese. That’s really the future of the industry.”
Festival Foods CEO Mark Skogen says in the last year, his grocery stores sold nearly 80,000 units of Sartori cheese – the most popular of which have been the Merlot BellaVitano, MontAmoré and BellaVitano Gold cheeses.
“The year prior to that we sold just 43,000 units, which really shows the traction the specialty cheese segment has experienced,” Skogen said in an email interview.
One of the catalysts behind the explosive growth has been Schwager, brought on as president in 2009, when the retail side was just getting legs.
“With Jeff’s guidance, that’s just rocketed,” Sartori says. “That’s been the best part of the business.”
Schwager and a team that included marketing director Chad Vincent and the Portland, Ore.-based advertising agency Great Society refurbished the company’s original retail packaging, which had previously depicted a Tuscan landscape – nice, but similar to lots of other high-end cheese packaging. Almost as soon as the company introduced the black-and-gold Sartori crest design, it saw results.
“We wanted to create branding that was in line with the best cheese in the world,” Schwager says. “We felt the product was there. And we wanted to get the look there as well.”
Additionally, Sartori sent its own people directly into key markets around the country to do the merchandising, a task usually left to brokers.
“We knew we would get growth, but it came faster than we thought it would,” Schwager says. “The main thing was, in talking to different retailers, they would tell us that it’s incredible when we switched the look and the feel of the product that it stood out in their cases. They were amazed to see people drawn right to it.”
The company is still growing and expanding. In 2012, Sartori Company added Blue Moose of Boulder, which is currently headed by Jim’s son, Bert. The regional company makes cheese spreads, tapenades, hummus, salsas and similar specialty foods.
“We were looking for an add-on product for our existing retail sales, and we wanted something that was going to fit with the overall philosophy of Sartori,” Schwager said.
In June, Sartori Company held a groundbreaking for a $15 million expansion project at its Antigo facility, which includes improvements to the structure, equipment and ergonomics of the workspace.
“But we’re being really, really particular and cautious about maintaining that artisan, world-class quality that we’ve had for so many years,” Sartori says. “We don’t want to automate for the sake of automation.”
Farm to fork
Marketing and growth strategies aside, the product wouldn’t remain popular if it wasn’t really, really great.
“We always say, ‘It all starts with the milk,’” Sartori says. “The patron milk producers are a tremendous group of family folks that make the highest quality milk. I remember my dad saying, ‘You can make bad cheese from good milk, but you can’t make world-class, good cheese from bad milk.’ So it all starts with the milk, from there it’s the people, everybody in the organization. They come to work every day – we all do – to make the best cheese in the world, and they’re just like zeroed in on doing that. Why are we winning the awards? It’s that commitment to quality and striving to be the best every single day.”
Sartori offers a premium to patron farmers reaching certain quality standards, Schwager says.
“To export cheese you have to meet different standards – in the European Union they have tighter standards on milk quality than we do. Well, for us, that was no issue, because we were already there. I would put our milk supply up against anybody else’s in the world, for quality standards,” Schwager says.
The cheese also uses milk free of added rBST (bovine somatotropin) hormones, both because consumers have demanded it and because it’s easier on the animals, Sartori says. The milk also is locally sourced from about 15 nearby Wisconsin counties, keeping the milk supply within about 50 or 60 miles from Sartori cheesemaking plants. Trucking farther than that can tax the quality, Schwager says.
A local supply also reduces trucking costs and transportation, and allows the company to have a better handle on the factors that control the quality of the milk, such as crops and water supplies, says J.R. Neu, Sartori farm liaison.
“The pride that the patrons have in the success of Sartori is reflected in the quality of the milk that they provide,” Neu says. “I know that our farms consistently have bacteria and somatic cell counts that are lower than the regional averages that are published. That’s something they’re very conscientious of, making sure that they are providing quality milk to us every day so that we can continue making quality cheese.”
Sartori patron farms range in size from as few as 20 cows to as many as 500.
“We’re all about where we can get the quality milk from – it doesn’t matter what the size or type of farm it is,” Neu says.
Sartori Company considers its patron farmers to be company employees. All of the farmers were invited to participate in the company’s 75th anniversary party, celebrated in July at Lambeau Field. Patron farmer Paulette Ditter attended with her granddaughter, who happened to be celebrating her 12th birthday. She got to have her picture taken with Green Bay Packers kicker Mason Crosby, who has been closely involved with many of the same charity efforts as the company.
“You don’t get a lot of big companies that will do that for people,” Ditter says. “It was very nice.”
Ditter’s family owns a 45-cow farm in Plymouth and has been a patron farmer with Sartori since 1995.
“I think it’s great that they recognize the small farms and the family farms, just like (Sartori’s) company is a family-owned company, too,” Ditter says.
The company is linked historically with another Plymouth-area cheese industry family, the Gentines. In 1953, Jim’s father, Joseph Sartori, partnered with Leonard Gentine to launch Sargento Foods. (The ‘Sar’ and the ‘Gent’ were pulled from the founders’ names with an ‘o’ tacked on to sound Italian, Sartori says). In 1965, Leonard Gentine bought out Joseph Sartori’s share in the business, and the families have remained close.
“We’ve certainly remained extremely good friends on a personal basis as well as on a corporate basis,” says Lou Gentine, CEO of Sargento. “We’re always happy to see what Jim and Sartori (Company) are doing. It’s been extremely successful under his leadership, following his father’s footsteps. We continue to use them for a source of supply for some of our products.”
There’s no real rivalry between the two famous companies, except when it comes to their personal Fourth of July fireworks displays on Crystal Lake. Gentine says Jim Sartori is losing. Also, Gentine jokes Sartori should play golf with an honest handicap.
“We’ve always been able to have fun with each other,” Gentine says. “Relative to our businesses, they’re always supportive to our efforts and we don’t compete head-on, at least not at this time. We like to see them be successful and I think they feel the same way.”
And when it comes to cheese, everybody wins.
“I think that like Sargento, Sartori Foods has always tried to bring innovation to the marketplace, and I think they’ve done a good job with their BelleVitano and SarVecchio lines and some of the other products they’ve introduced to the market,” Gentine says. “It’s always very much a high-quality cheese. The company has won lots of awards nationally and internationally, and whenever you have someone in the industry with that type of effort and business philosophy, it’s good for everybody. It raises the bar for everyone.”
Written on the wall
Raising the bar is what the company’s all about. Its values – family, commitment, authenticity, ingenuity, integrity and humility – are prominently displayed on its corporate headquarters wall.
“‘Ingenuity’ was intentionally picked over ‘innovation’ because we feel like it’s a broader concept, of how to do things differently and better,” Schwager says.
Larry Steckbauer, master cheesemaker at the Antigo plant along with Mike Matucheski, who heads the effort to develop new Sartori flavors, says not every flavoring trial is successful, but no one’s afraid to fail – the acceptance of failure is one of the important components of fostering the kind of culture of ingenuity that Sartori seeks.
“Sartori really gives us the flexibility to go out there and try different things,” Steckbauer says. “There’s so many things going on right now with different ideas – it’s almost a constant thing. Mike Matucheski has a room in our building that he’s constantly experimenting in, and his office is all full of different spices and different unique ingredients.”
“I can say the ideas come from everywhere in the company,” Sartori says. “There’s a culture here of ingenuity, and there are no bad ideas – I mean, most of them don’t work.
“We try a lot of different things that don’t work, but that’s OK.”
» Founded: 1939 by Paolo Sartori
» Leadership: CEO and Owner Jim Sartori and President Jeff Schwager
» Employees: About 350
» Patron farms: 150 to 175
» Facilities: Cheese making plants in Antigo and Plymouth, packaging facility in Plymouth, Plymouth headquarters and Blue Moose of Boulder in Colorado.
» On the web: www.sartoricheese.com www.bluemooseofboulder.com
Just a few awards
Sartori Company has won hundreds of awards, but a few of the most recent include:
2014 Wisconsin State Fair: Grand champion and first place (Chai BellaVitano), second place (Rosemary Asiago, Extra-aged Goat Cheese; third place (Asiago, Espresso BellaVitano)
2014 World Championship Cheese Contest: First place, best of class (Extra-aged Asiago and SarVecchio Parmesan); second place (Merlot BellaVitano)
2014 International Cheese Awards: Best USA Cheese (Family Heirloom Parmesan); gold medal (Espresso BellaVitano, Pastorale Blend); silver medal (Cognac BellaVitano, Merlot BellaVitano); bronze medal (Balsamic BellaVitano)
2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest: First place, best of class (Extra-aged Asiago, Espresso BellaVitano); second place (Pastorale Blend, SarVecchio Parmesan); third place (Merlot BellaVitano)
2013 Global Cheese Awards: gold medal, (SarVecchio Parmesan); silver medal (Extra-aged Goat Cheese, Pastorale Blend)
2013 World Dairy Expo: Grand Champion (BellaVitano Gold); first place (BellaVitano Gold, Pastorale Blend); third place (Chai BellaVitano)
One of Sartori’s most popular cheeses may be facing an identity crisis. Its international award-winning SarVecchio Parmesan recently drew the ire of European cheesemakers, who want to keep the name “Parmesan” reserved for cheeses made in Parma, Italy. Jim Sartori appeared on NBC Nightly News with reporter Harry Smith on May 20 to discuss the issue.
“They said, ‘Take down any reference on your website to Sartori Cheese winning first place,” Sartori said during the broadcast.
The European Union began regulating food names by geographical region in 1992. Sartori President Jeff Schwager says the European Union is simply trying to protect its place in a quickly changing world economy, but trademarking “Parmesan” would prevent American cheesemakers from exporting its product, not to mention calling it by its rightful name.
Schwager says it comes down to the difference between trademarking a name and identifying cheeses based on their properties, such as moisture, fats and salts, Schwager says. If the EU is successful in trademarking “Parmesan,” U.S. cheesemakers would have to label theirs something like “Parmesan-style,” or “Parmesan-type.” Maybe not as appetizing.
This issue may play out as new trade agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, are hammered out by lawmakers. But there’s one good thing that’s come of the controversy.
“As hard as this may be to believe, we have bipartisan support in Congress that the U.S. Trade Representative should not agree to (the trademark),” Schwager says. “Congress can agree on something.” – Nikki Kallio
Naming a newborn cheese
BellaVitano: Loosely translated as “the good life” in Italian
MontAmoré: Roughly “love in the mountains,” in Italian
Heritage & history
To learn more about the early beginnings of Sartori Company and how Jim Sartori went from sweeping the floor to running the company, visit www.insightonbusiness.com.