Thirty or so invited guests got a close-up view of the new and soon to go into production, Greek yogurt plant at Klondike Cheese Company, a few miles west of Monroe in Green County. This "grand opening" marked another step forward for the Buholzer family who have been making top quality cheese for four generations. It would be fairly easy to get lost inside the sprawling facility, parts of which (including the cheese makers house long ago incorporated into the factory), date back to the early 20th century.
The first cheese factory on this site dates to the 1890s. After burning down twice, the dairy farmers who owned the small co-op rebuilt and in 1925 hired Ernest Buholzer, a recent immigrant from Switzerland, to manage the operation.
In 1947, son Alvin X. Buholzer became the manager and in 1973, along with his sons, Ron, Dave and Steve, formed a family corporation and bought the operation.
Small additions were made to the factory over the years as it grew and would be remembered by only a few, among them Ron, Steve and Dave, all Wisconsin Master Cheese Makers, who have made cheese there all their lives.
The huge addition built in 2001 to house the most modern of Feta cheese manufacturing plants took command of the scene and now the $11-million, 40,000-square foot, Greek yogurt addition adds to the size and scale of this one-time tiny and long-gone farmers cooperative.
With the assistance of the three brothers and other family members, the guests saw cheese being made and learned about making cheese today and how Klondike Cheese has grown.
Over the years the Buholzer family has remade their cheese business to meet consumer demands: Early on 200-pound Swiss wheels were the main product, then came Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, Provolone and a host of low-fat cheeses and in 1980 Feta. Today Brick, Muenster and Havarti are made at Klondike with their Odyssey Feta the big volume cheese.
The Buholzer family, although traditional in many ways, does not hesitate to change with the market and consumer likes, thus, the move to making Greek yogurt .
More or less by chance, Ron Buholzer, while attending a Feta conference, met Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant, who had been making Feta cheese long before he got into the Greek yogurt business. Ulukaya suggested that Buholzer might consider making Greek yogurt in Wisconsin.
After a lengthy period of pondering that suggestion - all the while watching Ulakaya's Chobani Greek yogurt take over 17 percent of the nation's yogurt market and expand from its original factory in New York to Idaho - the Buholzers decided to enter the Greek yogurt market.
Part of the decision to go ahead with the Greek yogurt project was based on the fact that the family has a fourth generation now involved in the business and eager to meet new challenges. This includes: Adam (Steve's son) and his wife Teena; Luke (Ron's son) and Matt Eardly (married to Steve's daughter Melissa).
Part of the research in arriving at a decision of whether or not to enter the yogurt business was based on a trip to Greece made by Steve and Adam. There they met a longtime Greek yogurt maker, Evangelos Mandrekas, who was seeking a relationship with a U.S yogurt company.
The result was a consulting arrangement with Mandrekas providing his expertise and experience in the yogurt business and the Buholzer's manufacturing, processing and sales skills.
Ron Buholzer says his company has made every effort to use local contractors and suppliers. This involves dozens of workers who live in southern Wisconsin who laid the concrete, built the walls, installed the electricity and made and installed the complicated stainless steel tanks, pipes, robotics and programs to produce yogurt.
Where will the milk come from to make the yogurt?
"Most of it (75 percent) will come from our 80 farmer patrons," Dave Buholzer says. "We keep a 75-25 percent patron-purchase milk ratio to comply with milk marketing order balancing procedures."
The plant tour required we visitors to don hair nets, long white gowns, shoe covers and blue gloves, all for the sake of sanitation within the processing area.
Cheese and yogurt making requires the use of microorganisms (bacteria) to carry out the fermentation process but it must be the right kind of bacteria, not the kind visitors might bring in with them. Thus, the "coverup."
The plant tour took visitors through areas where Brick, Muenster and Havarti are made. The vats, brining tanks and other manufacturing processes are familiar to folks who have visited traditional cheese factories.
The Feta plant is not about tradition, rather, it's about electronics, robotics, automation and employees who watch over the programs and processes. There is still a good bit of hand labor involved in lifting, pulling, carrying and moving things from small six- and eight-ounce plastic containers to skids of 21-pound Feta blocks to be cut up and packaged in consumer sizes.
Steve Buholzer, my guide, pointed out the four conveyor lines that moved the crumbled cheese to their respective destinations: 4-8-ounce cups, 1-5-pound tubs, 43-pound pails or 55-gallon barrels.
He also said that their Feta business has been moving from large containers used in food service to small consumer containers as more and more eaters want Feta for use at home for salads and other meal ingredients.
The visit to the new, and still-being-completed Greek yogurt addition, was all about the processes and programs that will begin making yogurt in a week or two ... the stainless steel tanks, insulated piping, electronics and programs that will take milk from milk truck to customer.
You can make yogurt at home but you can't make yogurt for restaurants, hospitals, corporate cafeterias and other food service customers in big containers or to supermarkets in a Odyssey-brand four-ounce container for a homemaker without every ounce being perfect and, that's what the Odyssey Greek yogurt will be when it leaves Klondike Cheese Company in Monroe. The Buholzer family will make it so.
A project of this size is expensive, "what about financing, are you using government loans or grants?"
"No, we are not against government financing assistance," Ron Buholzer says." But, as long as we are able to handle the financing ourselves and have willing lenders, we'll go that way."
The Buholzers agree that they are fortunate to have another family generation involved in Klondike Cheese. "My brothers and I would not have made this expansion without that next generation," Ron says. 'They will carry us into the future."
At lunch after the tour, Howard Maeklin, State Rep. from Spring Green summarized: "This (new addition) is America at its best, thanks to the Buholzers for taking another financial risk."
State Sen. Dale Schultz, Reedsburg added, "This is a prime example of what Wisconsin and our country needs to do."
I suspect the 120 Klondike employees (and 20 more to come), would agree, as would most of Wisconsin.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.