Door County cheesemaker finds niche in market

Colleen Kottke
Visitors are welcome to sample cheese and tour the cheese plant at the Rosewood Dairy location of Renard's Cheese north of Algoma.

ALGOMA - For those heading up to the Door County peninsula, a summer vacation would not be complete without a stop at the cheese store with the large mouse perched atop the sign.

Loading up the cooler with Renard's Cheese signature cheddar curds or freshly made string cheese is a summertime tradition for tourists and locals alike.

That sought after dairy treat is also one of the locally sourced products featured at this year's Farm Technology Days show  in Algoma, WI.

Renard's Cheese is one of the region's vendors supplying their wares to the state's largest outdoor farm show at Ebert Enterprises. Ann Renard estimates that the company will be sending over 500 pounds of cheese curds, string cheese and Colby Jack cheese slices to top hamburgers sold in the venue's six food tents.

While Renard's Cheese exudes small town charm, don't assume that Chris and Ann Renard's cheese factory and retail stores  is your average mom and pop operation. This third generation cheese company has expanded its sales thanks to its niche in the specialty and artisan cheese market and is now posed to enter the export market..

Chris returned to the family business in 1995, and when Ann brought her marketing experience to the table in 2010, the business began to grow in earnest. Under her watchful eye, the retail end of the business has increased sales by 600 percent. The time now seems right to position the factory for additional growth as well via export and niche markets.

Third generation owners Chris and Ann Renard are joined by company founder Howard Renard who - while retired - enjoys coming to the plant and keeping abreast of the changes.

"Instead of being that little cheese factory on the corner, we're working at getting into exports now, trying to grow our business name even more," said Chris, adding that Renard's is working with buyers in Taiwan, Korea and Mexico. "We expect to send out our first shipment in the next month or two."

Chris says the company is on track to hit 3.4 million pounds by the end of this year. In order to meet projected sales, the couple is planning to break ground for a new cheese factory in 2018.

"We expect to run 5 million pounds a year running one shift," said Chris, adding that he already has accounts that are pre-booking orders. "One order will fill an entire second shift."

That's a a huge step forward from the two vat plant his grandfather, Howard Renard, started with in 1961.

"I never dreamed of this. I'm glad to see the business grow," Howard said.

While the new plant will feature new technology, the Renard's plan to stick with the hands-on methods for which they are known.

Renard's well-known white and yellow cheese curds will be available at the 2018 Farm Technology Days in Kewaunee County July 11-13.

"Even though they are growing, they are still true to their original identity by handcrafting and using the recipe that grandpa started in 1961," said Debbie Waters, Renard's public relations manager. "The reason they're so successful is (the Renard's) are very much in tune with the desires of the public, adding specialty products including over 50 flavor-infused cheeses."

Dean Sommers of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, says Chris Renard has all the tools for success at his disposal, noting that as a certified Master Cheesemaker, Renard is among the best in the state.

"Chris is going back to an old way of making cheese including the traditional bandaged aged cheddars which gives the cheese an old-time historic look, feel and taste," Sommer said. "He's also using unique shapes like the 3-pound gem and daisy wheels of cheddar that are in high demand across the U.S."

Sommer says making cheese curds is the simple part of Renard's business.

"All of the other stuff is complicated. But when you have a Master Cheesemaker like Chris who knows the art and the science, he's able to shape his own destiny in this business," Sommer said. "Huge plants won't even think about doing what he's doing. He's created his own niche that others that can't easily duplicate unless they're fairly small like he is and have the knowledge and skills to do it. That's a rare combination and he  created his own competitive advantage in the marketplace."

While cheddar cheese curds are still their best selling cheese, Chris and Ann Renard say their sales of specialty and artisan cheeses are growing fast.

And that's good news for the Renards as specialty and artisan cheeses are experiencing strong sales among consumers.

"We still make cheese the old-fashioned way; we don't press a button and milk goes in and cheese comes out the other end. It all begins with good milk from the farmers we do business with. You don't make good cheese without good milk," Chris said. "My cheesemakers and I take real pride in everything we do and our customers appreciate that."