Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery introduces ‘crunchy’ curds

Jan Shepel
Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has been famous for its squeaky cheese curds for decades. The Wisconsin cooperative has added a new twist to the Wisconsin favorite with curd crunchers.

ELLSWORTH – Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, headquartered in northwest Wisconsin, has been famous for cheese curds for decades. About 50 percent of its production is dedicated to curds.  Each year they partner with another Wisconsin-based company, Kwik Trip convenience stores, to put Ellsworth curds into the hands of even more consumers.

Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery handles 2.2 million pounds of milk per day from 285 farmer-members. They currently have three processing plants and will have a fourth near Menomonie when construction on that facility is completed.

The co-op’s Comstock plant is dedicated to producing specialty cheeses, including flavored Cheddar, Jack, Muenster and other cheeses. The co-op’s famous curds come in the classic white Cheddar flavor, but also unique flavors like garlic, Cajun or ranch-flavored.

This summer, that promotion between the Ellsworth Co-op and Kwik Trip resulted in the sale of an additional 15 semi-loads of Ellsworth curds.

But the co-op isn’t satisfied with that – they are aiming for the sale of even more curds.  And these are going all over the world. Paul Bauer, CEO and general manager of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, explained that their new “Cheddar Curd Crunchers” are made by freeze-drying their beloved curds, making them a crunchy snack that requires no refrigeration.

The co-op had experimented several years ago with creating a shelf-stable cheese curd that could survive without refrigeration. Those earlier efforts came in handy when their Chinese broker asked them about coming up with a product that needs no refrigeration.

Kari Skibbie, the co-op’s Senior Director of Sales and Marketing, said that in this country we are spoiled by consistent access to refrigeration for our foods. An estimated 2 billion people across the globe do not have reliable refrigeration – either because they don’t have access to electricity or that access is weak and unreliable.

Fred Zhang, the broker who works with the Ellsworth Co-op to sell cheese in China, was looking for a product that he could bring to China that would require no refrigeration.  Though the effects of the coronavirus pandemic slowed down the process, Bauer said the first commercial sale of the “Crunchers” was made several weeks ago when a shipment was sent off to China.

The co-op strives for a 12-month shelf life on the freeze-dried curds and guarantees them for six months, Bauer said. But he has had some of those earlier experimental curds in the package for years and they are as good as new.  In fact, it was some of that earlier product that he used as a prototype for the new “Crunchers” and to show the product to Zhang.

The shutdowns brought on by the pandemic have slowed the development of the product and the rollout to new markets.  “Dairy trade has been so disrupted,” says Bauer. “Lining up trucking and shipping is a challenge.”  There has been a lag time in getting the fresh curds to the Illinois facility that freeze-dries them and then getting them back.

Another complication compared to their usual rollout of a product is the fact that because of pandemic concerns there haven’t been any trade shows – no opportunities to get the new product out to a wider audience. “It will be nice when trade shows are back,” Skibbie said.

Despite the challenges, they have been selling the crunchers for six months and have racked up sales of 10,000 packages. They sold out of the product recently at World Dairy Expo and sent the new product to a Dairy Exchange meeting at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, where they were handed out to dairy industry leaders.

Some shipments by air

In order to get around some of the shipping disruptions that are now common, Skibbie adds that the co-op has been sending product to China via air.  Their independent broker – who represents whey and cheese products for them in the export area -- has been stuck in China for three years.  They credit him with setting up an “Ellsworth store” in China to sell their products.

“Fred (Zhang) has a great relationship with Wisconsin and with the U.S. Dairy Export Council. It’s so hard to gain trust with people overseas and in China it’s a slow process.  They take the long view,” said Bauer.

The co-op had built a strong relationship with Zhang and was on track to selling a container of dairy products per month to China several years ago. Then the trade and tariff war under the Trump administration shut down a lot of that. “It’s been zero for three years, except for some air shipments,” Bauer said.

He’s happy to see this new product headed out. “It’s an export opportunity to distribute curds to new markets,” Bauer added. “We want to see steady, incremental growth. Long term we see great potential opportunity.”

Cheddar Curd Crunchers are made by freeze-drying the company's world-famous fresh cheddar cheese curds transforming them into a convenient, crunchy snack that needs no refrigeration.

As they introduce consumers to the product, the crunchy curds have been made only in the Cheddar flavor, but Skibbie said they will expand the product line with various flavors as they experiment and test them. “Because they are freeze-dried, there are different opportunities for flavors.  Some flavors that may fail on a fresh curd may work on the crunchers. We also have to make sure that the addition of certain flavoring ingredients doesn’t affect the shelf life of the product,” she said.

They have also been experimenting with the crunchers in food service.  “One guy made chocolate chip cookies with crunchers in it.  It tasted something like macadamia nuts in the cookie,” she said.

As they continue to introduce new consumers to the product, Skibbie said people don’t know exactly what it is except to find that it is buttery and crunchy.  “We are trying different markets and educating consumers.”

For more information, visit their website www.ellsworthcheese.com.

Tough job

One of the tough parts of her job, she says facetiously, is to test the shelf life of the “Cruncher” curds. Some are 18 months and others are even five years old, without loss of texture or taste.

Bauer notes that the co-op has been selling the crunchy curds at the co-op’s Ellsworth and Comstock retail stores and online for the last six months.  “It’s so much easier to UPS dried cheese curds than fresh ones,” Bauer said with a laugh.

The snacks look like regular cheese curds but are crunchy instead of squeaky. They are being marketed as a healthy option for snacking – made from 100% natural cheese which are high in protein, high in calcium and contain no added sugars and zero trans fats. Skibbie notes that they are keto-friendly and gluten free for those consumers who are concerned about those nutrients.

The marketing plan includes getting the crunchers placed with other retailers soon.  The 2.11-ounce (60 gram) packages retail online and in stores for $4.59. They come in a resealable package emblazoned with the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery logo and the words “natural” and “high protein.”

Bauer said that European dairy marketers are already selling freeze-dried cheese curds with nuts and dried berries. That’s a product that wouldn’t pass muster with U.S. food inspectors, he said, but appears to be popular in the Chinese market.

Construction on the co-op’s new facility – which Bauer calls a “small, specialty cheese plant” -- a mile from the Interstate near Menomonie, started in October 2020 but has been slowed by supply chain issues and labor shortages.  “On the building side we have supplies but not workers, and on the processing side we have workers but not materials.  Stainless steel, piping and electrical items are in short supply,” Bauer said.

In order to get ready for the building project, the co-op has been buying used silos and processing equipment for two years.