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The Buholzer family is nearly ready to make Greek yogurt at Klondike Cheese factory near Monroe. Some of the packages consumers might see with their "Odyssey" brand name were shown on this poster during a tour Monday at the plant.

The Buholzer family is nearly ready to make Greek yogurt at Klondike Cheese factory near Monroe. Some of the packages consumers might see with their "Odyssey" brand name were shown on this poster during a tour Monday at the plant. Photo By Jan Shepel

Klondike Cheese ready to begin making Greek yogurt

March 7, 2013 | 0 comments

 

 

 

 

MONROE

Greek products are taking over the show at Klondike Cheese in rural Monroe.

In addition to a state-of-the-art feta cheese line that makes the bulk of the cheese at the Buholzer family’s cheese factory, they are planning to add a Greek yogurt line in the next week or so.

The family offered an open house for reporters and friends at the plant on Monday (March 4) to talk about their foray into the red-hot Greek yogurt market.

The concrete and much of the equipment is already in place in a 33,000-square-foot addition to the plant that will house the yogurt line. Two-thirds of that is for production and the rest is for product storage.

Ron Buholzer said they had learned a tremendous amount about cultures and making of Greek yogurt in a small corner of the plant that was set aside for a pilot project and have forged an agreement with a Greek yogurt maker to supervise the process in the new production facility.

Klondike Cheese has a production line for making brick, muenster and havarti cheese but feta cheese – some of it marketed under the Buholzer’s "Odyssey" brand – is the bulk of their cheese production.

The feta line at the plant features an automated continuous coagulator that they started using in Sept. 2001. There are only 60-70 in the world according to Buholzer and only two in Wisconsin – both making feta cheese.

Klondike began making feta in 1988, the old-fashioned way, and growth in that business led to this machine, he said, which creates one small vat after another without cooking the curd.

They have learned a lot about the feta business in the years they have been making the crumbly cheese. "We can see a 20 percent change in demand between summer and winter. Our season is salad season."

That works out well since there’s no school-driven milk demand in the summer and cows generally milk more during that time, meaning there’s plenty of milk for feta production.

The factory now has four lines humming along that crumble and package the feta cheese but Buholzer said there is so much demand for their product that they need to add on again. "We need a fifth line."

Their feta cheese is sold under numerous private labels to big retailers – Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Schreiber, Hy-Vee and under their own "Odyssey" label.

He said there’s no way they can market their products under the Klondike name because of the famous ice cream bar company that already uses that name.

 

LEARNING CURVE

The learning curve continues as Klondike moves into Greek yogurt production as that is considered a Grade A product, where cheese isn’t, he explained. That means there are different regulatory schemes for yogurt that they haven’t had to deal with before this.

There have been "numerous inspections" already to the plant and it will dictate how they deal with certain processes. One is rinse water, which will all have to be pasteurized.

Milk will come into four 20,000-gallon silos, get pasteurized and separated to take the cream out. It will then be fortified with powder and milk protein concentrate to get the correct blend.

After going into another silo overnight it will be pasteurized and homogenized and go into fermentation tanks. Once the pH gets low enough the yogurt will be "broken" or stirred with a heavy-duty system and pumped to the fillers where it will be put into its containers.

Buholzer said one of their first customers is interested in buying the product in 55-gallon barrels and may take as much as 100,000 pounds a week. He was a little surprised by the large demand for the product in food service, but adds that many of their cheese customers are in the food service sector and those relationships are already in place.

The family was very optimistic going into this new venture, says Ron, but the "interest is amazing. In all honestly if most of what we’ve got on the drawing board pans out we’ll need to expand very quickly."

A large part of their production may be going out to be used in other company’s products, but they are planning to make a variety of Greek yogurts in individual serving containers and six of them will have fruit added to them.

Some of the cream that comes off at the beginning of the yogurt line may be added back to yogurt for a higher fat product but may also be used in cheese production. "We already buy cream to add to the havarti line, but if there’s too much it would be sold to a butter maker."

The new yogurt processing area includes four 1,000-gallon processors in the fermentation room.

Their new chief of yogurt is also a master feta cheese maker, hired from another company and in the last 18 months he’s learned a lot about yogurt making, said Buholzer.

 

LOCAL BUSINESS

The Buholzer family has always prided itself on doing business with local companies. Ron ticked off the many companies that worked on this new $10-million addition to the plant.

A Browntown company did the concrete walls; a Monroe contractor did the roof; much of the mechanical system was done by a Darlington company; another Monroe company did the concrete flat work; a Janesville company did the coating on the flooring.

"An awful lot of the project was local. We’ve always tried to do that if at all possible."` When it comes to the specialized systems for production, though, that isn’t possible. These came from Germany.

The cultures that get used in cheesemaking used to come from Wisconsin companies. "Three major culture companies all used to be in Wisconsin, but they’ve all been bought out."

Buholzer said fresh strains are required to make cheese and now will be used to make yogurt too and they must be rotated. A dozen different cultures are generally used – four at a time.

"It’s an exciting business. It’s never the same," Ron said.

The fruit they will use in their yogurt products is coming from California and Illinois companies and they are working on what kinds of formulations they will use. "We’ve got a lot of learning to do."

Consumers may see some Greek yogurt sold under the "Odyssey" label but Buholzer said the family company is really too small to try to break into the retail market. They have contact with other companies that would like them to package the product under their own private labels, as they do with feta.

"We have a tremendous amount of interest from small companies on doing private label business."

 

NEW VENTURE

The family got into the Greek yogurt business thanks to Ron’s nephew Adam Buholzer who pushed for it and "the rest of us got convinced."

To get started they worked with a Greek who has been in the business for 35 years. That win/win relationship yielded a partnership that will offer Klondike his expertise and access to their production facilities for his product.

Buholzer sighs when he thinks of the work that the new venture requires for food safety considerations. There will now be 2 ½ full-time people on staff just to take care of that.

"The paperwork is staggering."

It’s no doubt a far cry from 1925 when his grandpa, already a cheesemaker at another location, came here and started plying his trade.

Ron’s dad, Alvin, came home from the military in 1946 and began to work as a cheesemaker - adding new innovations like big make vats - and operating the cheese plant with his wife Rosa and eventually, their sons. "We grew up here and worked in the cheese factory," says Ron.

In the 1970s the Buholzer family bought Klondike’s assets from the farmer cooperative that owned them and continued to make innovations.

Today the business’s third generation owners include Ron and his brothers Dave and Steve. Fourth-generation owners include Adam and his wife Tina, Ron’s son Luke and Steve’s son-in-law Matt Edrly.

Today the entire Klondike plant is about 100,000-square feet and employs 115 people. The yogurt line will probably add five to 15 new jobs depending on where it goes, says Ron.

The plant processes 1 million pounds of milk per day, procured directly by Klondike from farmers and the yogurt facility ensures that that demand will continue.

"The East Coast states have never been able to challenge us on cheese production and they think they’re going to on yogurt," said Wisconsin Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel, who toured the plant Monday. "But they have no idea of the powerhouse infrastructure we have in Wisconsin."

The dairy processing community is filled with savvy, intelligent operators, he added. "If there’s a place for it they’ll step forward and Klondike Cheese is doing that."

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