Thirty-three years ago, two idealistic young people barely out of college joined forces to start a cheesemaking business. They scrounged up $2,000, borrowed twice that much and launched Vermont Butter & Cheese (now Vermont Creamery). Last week, Bob Reese and Allison Hooper (above)—still partners and still friends—announced that they were turning the keys over to new owners: Land O’Lakes, a vast international agricultural co-op with $13 billion in annual sales.
Can you imagine how that feels?
Rewind to the early 1980s. Hooper had spent a college summer working on a French dairy farm and had some modest cheesemaking skills. Reese, learning of her expertise, commissioned her to make some goat cheese for a special event. Chefs tasted it and asked where they could buy it, prompting Hooper and Reese to think they might have a business.
In a conversation shortly after the Vermont Creamery sale was announced, Hooper shared some memories and some predictions.
What was it like trying to sell goat cheese in 1985?
It was a very tough sell. Consumers didn’t know it and weren’t interested in trying it. We didn’t have specialty cheese counters. We didn’t have cheesemongers. All “good cheese” came from Europe. When I would try to sell my cheese in a nice shop in New York City, they would say, “We sell good cheese here.”
What’s the cheese you’re most proud of, the one that was hardest to nail?
By far the Bonne Bouche. Lactic cheese is particularly hard to get right every time. Getting the curd texture right and the microbial activity on the rind right so you don’t get off-flavors is very tricky. It took us six years to develop that cheese.
The cheese you most often take home?
Coupole is probably the one I enjoy eating the most. To me, it’s the most reminiscent of what we ate in France. But I always have crème fraîche in my fridge; I use it in everything. And I do have fromage blanc for breakfast every day. I put maple syrup in it or a little honey.
Your careful packaging has always impressed me..
We knew from the get-go that we would have to ship the cheese from Vermont before it was fully ripe and we needed a package that would allow the cheese to breathe. If paper or film touches that geotrichum rind (the wrinkly mold on Bonne Bouche and Coupole), it will damage the rind and it gets kind of slimy. Hence the wooden crate. These cheeses are fragile.
How is Vermont Creamery going to be different five years from now?
It will be larger. There will be more employees, and the cheese will be more widely distributed. I still run into so many people who have never heard of our company. I don’t think we’ll compromise the quality of the product in any way. Land O’Lakes didn’t buy us because they thought they could cut corners. They know we sell to a different consumer than they do. They have an interest in that consumer, and they really felt they needed a different brand to develop a market for a younger generation.
Vermont Creamery production will remain in Websterville. They not only believe it’s crucial to the brand, but they like the idea of having manufacturing capability in New England. And as a farmer-owned coop, they are very aware of the importance of the milk supply being close to manufacturing, so they intend to build our goat’s milk supply in Vermont. Vermont milk production has not kept up with our growth. Land O’Lakes brings a sort of legitimacy. There’s been reluctance to get into dairy goat farming around here because Vermont Creamery was the only buyer. So now there will be more goat dairies in Vermont and New York.
Vermont Creamery, Cypress Grove, Redwood Hill, Cowgirl Creamery…all artisan producers now owned by much larger businesses. Should we expect more transactions like these?
For those of us who were pioneers, it took a decade to figure out what we wanted to do and a decade to become more profitable and have the margin to invest in our operations. Then we got to a point where we had used our last roll of duct tape. Now we’re at a scale where it’s going to take serious investment to make sure that, going forward, we have safe processes—not just food safety but worker safety.
We looked at employee ownership. We hired a firm that specializes in that but they recommended against it. They said, you’re going to need your cash to grow. It’s a noble thing to be able to sell to employees, but it was going to present a risk for the business.
Did you have interest from foreign companies?
We’ve had suitors for years—from Europe, Canada and the U.S. But Bob and I felt we weren’t ready to sell. We liked owning the business and running it. We did a bang-up job getting this company to a point where serious suitors would want to take a look at it, but now we need management expertise we can’t provide.
What’s the one thing you want consumers to know about this transition?
That our employees are going to be really well taken care of. Land O’Lakes is highly sensitive to the nature of this transition. They are not integrating our operations with theirs. They know they would swallow us up and ruin the brand, so they created a new specialty-dairy division. They don’t pretend to know what we do and how we do it, and they’ve asked all the employees to stay. They’ve promised increases to hourly employees and a much more robust benefits package—and we thought we had a good one. They want to support our product ideas and innovation.
NEW Cheese Class: Us Versus Them
Can the finest American Brie stand up to the French? It’s U. S. versus Europe in this class as we taste American cheeses against their European inspirations. Are we there yet? You be the judge!
Monday, May 8
Silverado Cooking School
5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.