Rogue Creamery the Oregon producer of some of America’s most acclaimed blue cheeses, has a new partner: the French dairy giant Savencia. Good news? I wasn’t sure. I’ve been a huge fan of Rogue since David Gremmels and Cary Bryant bought it, in 2002, from Ig Vella, whose father founded it. Gremmels and Bryant had zero cheese experience. But Gremmels had the marketing chops and Bryant, who knew microbiology, quickly mastered the cheesemaking. Ig mentored them both until his death in 2011.
Alas, Bryant left three years ago, in a personal and professional split with Gremmels. Rogue needed to adapt to this wrenching change but…Europe? Savencia owns several prominent French brands, including Alouette, Berthaut Epoisses, Caprice des Dieux, Etorki and Saint-Agur. What future did the French investor envision for Rogue and its fabulous cheeses, among them Flora Nelle (above), Caveman Blue, Oregonzola and the two-time American Cheese Society “Best of Show” winner, Rogue River Blue?
I recently spoke to Gremmels by phone about his new partner, and I have lightly edited his replies for brevity.
Cowgirl Creamery, Cypress Grove Chevre, Redwood Hill, Vermont Creamery and now Rogue Creamery—all leading American artisan producers that now have European owners or investors. Should American cheese lovers be concerned?
I don’t think so. I think it highlights the market opportunity in the U.S. The companies investing are interested in the leading brands that have not only received acclaim in the U.S. but are also respected beyond our borders. With the companies you mention, the founders continue to be engaged in moving their products forward.
Can you explain this transaction with Savencia? Have they bought some or all of Rogue Creamery?
Since Cary departed, I’ve been looking diligently for a business partner who aligned with our values and understood what it meant to be a public benefit corporation. Savencia stepped up to be that partner.
Are you still the majority owner?
I’m not allowed to disclose that, but I’m still the president of Rogue Creamery and leading the company strategy. What’s exciting to me is to find a partner that is helping us move forward with initiatives that I’ve had to put on the back burner, like the expansion of our aging caves and increasing the capacity of our dairy.
What will your role be going forward? Are you stepping back a bit?
No, I’m going to be very engaged in moving forward, but some of the day-to-day things that I’ve been wanting to get off my plate will be taken off my plate.
I think of some of Savencia’s brands, like Caprice des Dieux and Alouette, as grocery-store brands. Will Rogue be more of a grocery-store brand in the future?
We’re in their haute fromagecategory, which is aligned with where we have our strengths: in foodservice, full-service cheese counters and independent cheese shops. What I see is our inventory being more available for those customers. We were not able to meet demand.
How will Rogue Creamery be different five years from now?
You’ll see is an increase in our presence in stores that have been waiting so patiently, and an increase in our name on menus because chefs have been waiting patiently. I see us adding new brands that I’ve shelved for lack of capacity to bring them to market. If you can humor me a bit, I do see more blues in our future. There will be an emphasis on increasing production of Smokey Blue. Our leaf-wrapped blue, Rogue River Blue, will stay pretty much the same. Because it’s made with milk from our own dairy at a specific time of year and we hand-pick the grape leaves, it is limited. But we have no plans to drop anything.
Is it just not possible to finance this sort of growth yourself?
It really does take a lot of capital, and there are limitations to conventional financing by community banks, which is based on Federal ratios. Those ratios don’t work for our industry above a certain level. It’s challenging because we have worked diligently and patiently within the formula, and in doing so, market share and opportunities were lost. My options were to stay within the formula or look for outside investment to help Rogue Creamery move forward, and I’m grateful that Savencia Fromage & Dairy stepped in.
Do you expect your exports to grow?
We sell in Australia, France, the UK, Japan, Spain, Turkey, Hong Kong, Korea and China. I think that says a lot about the American artisan cheese movement and where it has come in its respect and recognition. And, yes, I see it growing.
What would Ig Vella say about these changes?
There’s not a day I haven’t thought about that. It’s because of Ig’s leadership that I’m able to embrace change. Time and again, when I presented new plans to Ig, I would get affirmations and a question: ‘What can I do to help?’ He would be proud of this next step and what it will do for southern Oregon and Oregon’s dairy industry. I see parallels with Burgundy producers investing in the Willamette Valley and what that has done to bring the Oregon wine industry to the next level.