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FOND DU LAC – After nearly 80 years in the Fond du Lac community, Saputo Cheese USA has announced it will shutter the plant in 2018. 

The Montreal-based cheese giant said the shut down of the Fond du Lac cheese production facility at 45 E. Scott St., is an effort to improve efficiency. The closure will leave 126 people out of work.

Canada's largest cheese manufacturer says it expects to save more than $5.5 million a year by moving the operations to a newly-built blue cheese factory in Almena in western Wisconsin.

Saputo is one of the top 10 dairy processors in the world, with products sold in over 40 countries, according to the company’s website. The cheese manufacturer has completed 25 acquisitions since it became publicly traded in 1997.

One of those acquisitions was the purchase of Stella Foods, Inc. for $563 million in 1997. Company officials say the Fond du Lac facility formerly known as Tolibia Cheese was part of that deal.

Long history

Long before the plant at the entrance of Lakeside Park was part of the Saputo Cheese portfolio, it was an independent cheese company known as Tolibia Cheese—once known as the world's largest manufacturer of blue cheese.

After a stint as a food broker and importer of Italian cheese in New York City, Jose Ramon "J.R." Tolibia became frustrated with the problems he encountered in imported Italian cheeses, mainly lack of uniformity and quality. His solution was to make his own.

Heading west, Tolibia started his own cheese plant in the Dodge County village of Brownsville in 1932. As the popularity of his provolone cheese spread, he purchased another plant in Dotyville west of Fond du Lac in 1936. Three years later he added a warehouse and factory in the city of Fond du Lac.

With World War II halting the production and shipment of Italian cheese to America, Tolibia decided to begin manufacturing blue cheese. The Fond du Lac-based company was also one of the first Italian cheese companies to produce and market shredded mozzarella cheese for pizzas.

In later years, the Tolibia plant would add to its lineup romano, sardo, parmesan, elmo, gorgonzola and grated cheeses.

During the plant's heyday, it installed a $1 million electronically controlled whey plant, and operated a curing and assembly plant on the city's east side; a curing and packaging plant in Oostburg; Grade A receiving plant at Wrightstown; and a curing and storage warehouse in Dotyville.

According to newspaper archives, in 1984, Tolibia Cheese was buying 1 million pounds of milk each day from 351 farms within a 50-mile radius, and employing 350 to 400 workers.

Seeking efficiency

Over recent years, Saputo says it has maintained efforts to pursue additional efficiencies and decrease costs while strengthening its market presence. Several Wisconsin operations were either closed or downsized during this time, including plants in Waldo, Fond du Lac and New London in 2008, 2009 and 2015 respectively.

By the end of 2009, Saputo Cheese shuttered the first of its Fond du Lac locations that it purchased in 1998. The plant at 325 Tompkins St. had employed 39 workers that produced sweetened condensed milk.

Looking forward

The company still owns multiple locations in Wisconsin including facilities in Reedsburg, Monroe, Green Bay, Lena, Almena, Black Creek and Lancaster.

The company has agreed to buy a company that sells the Montchevre brand of goat cheese, which would give Saputo another Wisconsin cheese production facility.

Saputo Cheese said last week that it agreed to acquire Betin Inc., a Belmont specialty cheese maker with a facility that employs 319 workers, according to the Milwaukee Business Journal.

Company officials told the Wisconsin State Farmer that despite the pending closure of the Fond du Lac plant in May 2018, the company's milk requirements will remain the same in Wisconsin, and that it would work with existing milk suppliers to support other facilities in the state.

Employees will receive severance and some will be offered a chance to work at other Saputo facilities, according to the company press release.

Bev Peterson says that several of her relatives worked for Tolibia cheese over the years.

"My grandfather, uncles and cousins put many years of their lives in that cheese factory," she said. "At one time it was one of the top employers in the city. It will be really sad to see that building sit empty."

USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin contributed to this report.

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