Cover Story – Whey to go!

Posted on Aug 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Since Ann and Chris Renard took over the Door County family cheese business in 2010, the company’s sales have tripled. Photo by Shane Van Boxtel, Image Studios

The mouse marks the spot.

The friendly cheese-eating mascot has been there awhile, and as you step into Renard’s Cheese & Deli heading north to Sturgeon Bay, you quickly realize you’re visiting a part of Door County’s history.

But as you’re browsing through the cheddars and the cow souvenirs, you realize that the 52-year-old family-owned business is also very much about the future. In fact, you might see the company growing right before your eyes. It’s like Renard’s has taken on life similar to the cheese it produces, always curing, getting better.

Ann and Chris Renard bought the little store on Highway DK just south of Sturgeon Bay three years ago from his parents, Gary and Bonnie Renard. Last year, Ann and Chris built a new store next door and turned the old store into a processing and packaging facility. The new store includes a deli and a wide variety of Door County and Wisconsin souvenirs. It has four times the space as the old store, a much larger parking lot and an outdoor patio with playground.

“We decided instead of making Renard’s Cheese just a place to stop in to, Ann and I made it our goal to make it a destination,” as a cheese and gift store, Chris says. “We’re the first one you see coming into the county, and we’re the last one coming out of the county.”

The Renards hired a full-time marketing director last year, added new flavored cheeses and began a promotional campaign. In three years, they’ve gone from six full-time employees to 29, plus another 13 seasonal.

Their efforts are paying off. Since 2010, annual revenue has tripled. Renard’s Cheese was named the Door County Economic Development Corporation’s 2012 Industry of the Year.

Companies like Renard’s “are part of the fabric of the dairy industry, and certainly of Wisconsin,” says Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of corporate communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

“When visitors come to our state, particularly to Door County, they cherish visits to companies like Renard’s,” Geoghegan says. “It’s one of those must-stops on people’s itineraries.” The curds seem to be the thing to get, he says. “All it takes is one, and you’re a fan.”

While Chris spends much of his time at the Highway S cheese processing plant he owns with his uncle Brian Renard (Brian and his wife, Tina, own the store at that location), Ann focuses on the new store management.

“We’ll expand again, definitely,” Ann says. “It’s just a matter of when. What we don’t want to do is expand too fast. We’re on track for this year’s growth to be three times as much as last year. Which will be all right, because we have so many newly trained staff members, but in order to keep quality you have to be really careful how fast you grow.”

Ann says three years is a realistic timeline for another building expansion at the store, but concedes the company may have to do it sooner because they’re running out of space already.

“But we’ll try to make do with what we have and maybe run a second shift first,” Ann says.


Expanding business, products

In an area where inventory is kept, Ann points out a new pizza sealer, a type of wrapping contraption.

“We did a fundraiser from one of our softball teams and we made pizzas in the factory,” Ann says. “So then when we moved in here, we’re like, ‘We should sell those, they’re really good!’”

You get the sense that it’s just a little bit dangerous to voice an idea at Renard’s. During one week in April, the company shipped out 650 pizzas.

“Next year, we will most likely be adding on to the end of this building, out to where the parking is here, and the pizza area/production will go into that new part,” Ann says. Which means the parking lot will need expansion, too.

Ann says they will likely add up to five full-time positions within the next year.

“We stay open year-round,” Ann says. “We do not lay our employees off, so that makes a big difference. It’s a very seasonal business and industry up here, so when someone can find a job that doesn’t lay off, it’s a big deal.”

In April, Ann walked through the new packaging and processing area set up in the old store, introducing two new employees who had started that day. Employees seem more like part of the Renard family. The same college kids often come back to work another summer.

Even some of the equipment is part of the family.

“That table over there, his name is ‘Lino,’” Ann says. It’s a shaker table that breaks apart cheese curds, something that they used to do over at the factory location on Highway S, by hand. A worker named Marcelino, or “Lino,” was the fastest cheese curd breaker-upper ever, she adds. “When you’re picking through 3,000 pounds of cheese curds – that’s a lot. So we have a table that does that now.”

Renard’s specializes in a bandage-wrapped cheese and ages it the old-fashioned way, in wax, so it breaks down naturally, and that makes a difference in flavor, says Ann.


On the fast track

The company has about a dozen national accounts, 40 to 50 statewide – and locally, almost all the retail food shops in Door County, says Chris.

“When we took over the business in 2010, the first six months of the year his parents were in the business and the last six months we had it. That year, we did just under $1 million,” Ann says. “Now this year, we’re on track for $3 million.”

“We had budgeted for $2.2 million,” Chris says.

The company has a delivery van making stops throughout Door County five days a week to restaurants, convenience stores, grocery stores, retail stores and wineries. Renard’s also sells through its website. The company has found a way to keep cheese fresh for five days with an innovative cooler-and-gel pack system, which took a lot of expensive trial and error.

Chris says that the company just added a co-pack account service, supplying about 120,000 pounds of cheese curds each year to a Minnesota company, sending its first shipment this summer.

But you can also find Renard’s Cheese regionally, including Econo Foods in Sturgeon Bay and Meat Processors and Festival Foods in Green Bay.

Mark Skogen of Festival Foods says the company works hard to carry as many local products, such as Renard’s Cheese, as it can.

“Renard’s Cheese is an example of a best-case scenario where a local company makes a product that our shoppers love to buy,” Skogen says. “We have done business with them for many years and hope to continue for years to come.”

Fueling the growth at Renard’s is a more strategic approach to promotions. TV commercials have been successful. Have you seen the ad with the little girl munching on extremely squeaky cheese curds? That’s Ann and Chris’s youngest daughter, Carrie.


Building on a family business

Howard Renard, the grandfather of Chris and father of Brian, started the company in 1961 when he and his wife Angela bought the Rosewood Dairy in Algoma, which had been operating since 1910 under various owners. In 1966, Howard and his son, Gary, purchased the Cloverleaf Cheese Factory on DK near Sturgeon Bay. It was run by Gary and Bonnie Renard, Chris’s parents, who took sole ownership in 1967. Howard and Gary Renard decided to consolidate in 1975, and they turned Cloverleaf into a store and processed all the cheese at Rosewood.

Chris and Ann have carried on a tradition that started with Chris’s dad and grandfather, who had the insight to start marketing the company when they combined the two factories, says Chris, who is now in the master cheese makers program with his uncle Brian.

“What happened is a lot of small cheese factories left because their one customer said, ‘We don’t need your cheese anymore,’ and they had nowhere to go,” Chris says. “And Dad and Grandpa, they kind of saw it coming and realized they needed to start marketing themselves. They only had a few customers at that time and Grandpa went out and got more, and we just kept growing.”

Renard’s is now the last cheese maker in Door County.

Cheese making still starts at the Rosewood plant at 12:30 a.m. each day, and Howard still comes every morning and runs errands for the company. Ann and Chris arrive at the new store between 3 and 4 a.m. every day. In the quiet, they get a lot done.

“The phone never rings – that’s when Chris and I get to talk,” Ann says. “The first year we were married, he was in at 12:30 a.m. So he sleeps in now – he goes in at 3.”

Chris, who was a buyer for Econo Foods for eight years, didn’t originally plan to take over the family business. “If you asked me in high school if I was going to stay here and do this, I’d say, ‘No way,’” he says. “But I went out into the real world, kind of got my wings clipped a little bit, and decided that coming back wasn’t such a bad idea.”

Ann, who has been a driving force in the company’s growth plan, didn’t expect when she married into the family that the company would be such a major part of her life. She had her own successful career in insurance, and that’s where she planned to stay.

But then Ann and Chris’s daughter Taylor got sick.


Family focus

At the age of 2, Taylor complained of back pain, and a proactive pediatrician sent her for an MRI. The next day, she couldn’t walk. Taylor was diagnosed with the rare cancer neuroblastoma, which created a tumor in her chest cavity the size of two grapefruits. It had wrapped itself around nine places on her spine, as well as her aorta and esophagus. After a couple of tough rounds of chemo and surgery at Sloan Kettering in New York, the little girl beat her 25 percent-chance survival odds and is now a healthy, funny 8-year-old.

Ann, who had been working long hours in the insurance industry, pulled back and stayed closer to home. She began doing the accounting for Renard’s factory. It turned into a new career, and after Taylor’s treatment was finished, Ann and Chris decided to take the business to the next level, taking ownership and building the company’s product offering, marketing strategy and customer base.


Making a name

In addition to raising four daughters – Samantha, Gabrielle, Taylor and Carrie – expanding a business that is growing exponentially and making the Renard’s name recognizable nationwide, Ann and Chris are involved in the community. It was the combination of all those things that helped make Renard’s Cheese the Industry of the Year.

“When we review our nominations each year, what we’re really looking for is to recognize the companies that have made significant investments in their business, and ideally have seen some job growth,” says Bill Chaudoir, executive director of the DCEDC. “They are stepping up as supporting the community in any one of many different ways. … So they obviously hit a home run in the competition this year with all they’ve done in the last couple of years.”

The Renards are founding members of the Southern Door Business Association and support numerous charitable organizations, including Southern Door School Sports, the Carrie Ann Renard Memorial Golf Outing, Door CANcer, the Southern Door School Booster Club, and a program called Reading Rewards that helps promote both reading and healthy snacking, according to the DCEDC.

“I love those guys, their enthusiasm, positive attitudes – I don’t think they’ve ever said ‘no’ to me. I’ve asked them for a lot of different things over the years and it’s always ‘yes.’ They’re willing to get involved, they’re willing to participate, they’re willing to invest,” Chaudoir says. “They’re just positive people, and they recognize that sometimes you’ve got to give back, that it’s good for your business to be involved in the community.”

Renard’s has helped to reinforce Door County both as a tourist destination and producer of Wisconsin products.

“We love these businesses that export their product out of the county because that helps put Door County on the map in people’s minds,” Chaudoir says. “(Renard’s) marketing has expanded so much over the last few years that they’re getting their name and the county name out into a much larger audience, which is good for everybody here.”


About Renard’s Cheese

Opened: 1961

Employees: 29 full-time, year-round plus 13 summer employees

Products: Dozens of types of cheese, Door County wines, souvenirs, crafts

Growth: Tripled since 2010 to estimated $3 million in 2013.