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“Wisconsin cheese is just not available in stores in the south (or east, west or north)” is a comment often heard from family travelers returning from a long family trip. I well-remember the many discussions I’ve been involved in over the years on that subject.  

I also remember the farmer (in the early 1980s) who felt so strong about that subject that he loaded a small truck with Wisconsin cheese and headed south to sell that cheese. He returned home a week or so later with that same truck of cheese, having sold very little, and sold the cheese to a local cheese store.  

“No one would buy  the cheese,” he said. “They thought it was stolen cheese or maybe spoiled or possibly of poor quality. I give up.”

No, selling cheese is not just producing it in a factory, hanging out a sign and getting out of the way.

From funerals to cheese

Leonard Gentine, a funeral director in Plymouth, Wisconsin found out about marketing cheese - sometimes the hard way - over a period of many years.  As he moved from his not very successful funeral home through a succession of endeavors resulting in what we know today as Sargento, Inc., a company with near 2,000 employes and $1 Billion in sales. 

In the book

Until a few days ago, I knew very little about Sargento. Yes, I had met Leonard Gentine and other members of his family during my years as general manager of American Dairy Association of Wisconsin (ADA of Wisconsin).

That’s when a friend recently showed me a book, “Treated Like Family, How an Entrepreneur and his Employee Family Built Sargento.”  

“I thought you might like to read this, I got it at the library,” the friend said, “I know you have been involved in the dairy industry for a long time and might enjoy it.”  

A couple of days later I got around to reading a bit in the new book that began with Joseph Gentine and his family moving from a longtime family-owned vineyard farm in France to Milwaukee in 1892. 

By 1937, Leonard, the grandson of Joseph Gentine was a graduate of the Wisconsin Institute of Mortuary Science and had opened his own funeral home in Plymouth, Wisconsin.  As the years passed, Leonard and his brother in-law Chuck Strobel continued in the funeral business and also started a small milk ranch for extra income. 

Changing direction

In 1949, Gentine’s life changed direction. It was at a gathering of his poker playing friends at his home, that one, a businessman from Milwaukee mentioned that he annually gave gifts to his employees: A box of mixed nuts last year and a fruitcake the year before. He went on to suggest that Leonard who lived in Plymouth (already known as the World Cheese Capital) might know where he could get 100 gift cheese boxes for Christmas gifts.

After a lengthy search, Gentine found no cheese company willing to make gift cheese boxes. This prompted him to think about providing the gift boxes himself but first he discussed the idea with Joe Sartori, his across the street neighbor and owner of S&R Cheese who agreed that the idea might work. His poker playing friends agreed to buy the gift cheese if Leonard would go ahead and make them.

Leonard did some deep thinking and saw it as a possible opportunity to create a new business — a family business. His thoughts centered on maybe selling 200, maybe 1,000 gift cheese boxes by the holiday season.

In order to make gift boxes of cheese, he had to figure out a method to cut big pieces of cheese into small pieces. While Leonard was a expert mechanic (he had worked at the Falk Company in Milwaukee for some years), he recruited a friend, also a mechanic, to help. The twosome designed equipment that would cut and wax small cheese packages to fill the 5,000 orders they’d received.  

1949 was also the year that Gentine converted the carriage house behind the funeral home to become the Plymouth Cheese Counter,  retail cheese shop and workplace.

It was in October 1953 that Leonard Gentine sold his funeral home and with Joe Sartori as a partner began Sargento as a standalone company.  Sixty-eight years later it remains a family owned company (Sartori was bought out many years ago) with Leonard’s grandson Louie as president and CEO. 

In their own words: “Sargento Foods is a family-owned and operated business headquartered in Plymouth, Wisconsin — the same picturesque community where we were founded in 1953. We have additional Wisconsin facilities in Elkhart Lake, Kiel and Hilbert, and employ approximately 1,800 people. Best known for our packaged shredded, sliced and snack natural cheeses, we also provide cheeses, appetizers and sauces to restaurants and other food manufacturers.  We market our products through two divisions: Consumer Products and Food Service and Ingredients. We also have a transportation subsidiary that is recognized by the unique cheese-themed trucks that crisscross the country delivering to our customers.”

In Florida

I first met Leonard Gentine at a Wisconsin Cheese Festival hosted by the ADA of Wisconsin, where I was the manager, in Miami in about 1981. I remember he invited me to dinner and then attend the harness races at a nearby track. We also talked several times at his Plymouth office. I only knew him as a generous and friendly man and now after reading the book better understand his building of Sargento.  

Not easy

The growth of Sargento was not an easy road. There were times of financial stress, near doom and many changes. But, the company always survived, partially due to the company creed as originated by Leonard Gentine: “Our Sargento Family—those employed by our company and the retirees who laid our foundation—represents three generations of real cheese people. My grandfather had a simple philosophy: “Hire good people, and treat them like family.”™ His philosophy guides everything we do...  (Louis P. Gentine II Third-Generation CEO, Sargento Foods)

Milk markets

Producing more milk and building more processing plants to make more cheese is what is happening today.  But, more milk and more dairy products solves nothing if the products aren’t marketed, sold and consumed. 

Leonard Gentine understood that grocers cutting cheese from a big block, weighing it and wrapping it and marking it was a slow and costly process, so he did something about it.  And, the grocers and consumers were happy.

Always something new

In 1953, he began pre cutting cheese for connivence; in 1955, vacuum packaging began; in 1959, shredded cheese arrived in stores; in 1969, Sargento cheese was hung on pegs in the dairy case and in 2001, sliding zipper packaging appeared. All improvements that aid cheese sales, that keep cheesemakers making cheese and cows producing milk. 

Who is the next Leonard Gentine? Is there one? Someday perhaps we’ll know. Read the book and like me, you’ll learn how Sargento was born, almost died and now thrives.

You’ll enjoy and learn.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.

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