Klondike Cheese Company at Monroe is approaching the final phases of installing Greek yogurt-making equipment in the new 40,000-square foot, $11 million addition to their dairy plant. The company hopes to be producing Greek yogurt in March 2013 for the food service industry and under their own "Odyssey" brand label.
Greek yogurt has been the fastest-growing dairy product among American consumers over the past five years. New York-based Chobani, Inc., owned by Turkish immigrant, Hamdi Ulukaya, who began making yogurt in 2005 after buying a former Kraft Foods yogurt plant that had been closed, leads the way.
Brothers Ron, Steve and Dave Buholzer, all Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers and owners of Klondike Cheese, are third generation cheesemakers that date to Earnest and Marie Buholzer who immigrated from Switzerland in 1925.
Earnest made cheese for the local Farmers Cooperative Cheese and was followed by Francis X. Buholzer and his three sons, Ron, Steve and Dave.
The Buholzer family purchased the cheese factory in 1972 naming it Francis X. Buholzer & Sons, then Klondike Cheese Company. The cheese produced was always of the highest quality as the many award-winning ribbons and trophies will attest.
The family was not afraid of change as the move to Feta cheese in 1988 and the construction of a new Feta plant in 2000 attests.
Today Klondike Cheese, now in its fourth generation with the addition of Luke (Ron’s son); Adam (Steve’s son) and his wife Teena and Matt Eardly, who is married to Melissa (Steve’s daughter) produces Feta, Havarti, Muenster and Brick cheeses.
The Greek yogurt craze in the U.S. started when Ulukaya, who came to the U.S. from Turkey in 1997 where his family farmed, began making Feta cheese in the late 90s at Johnstown, NY. After seeing an advertisement for the vacant Kraft yogurt plant near Utica, NY, he bought it and spent nearly two years developing his first Greek yogurt that entered the consumer market in 2007. The rest is history.
As luck would have it, Ron Buholzer, while attending a cheese industry meeting, got to know Hamdi Ulukaya, who in the course of their conversation suggested that "Ron, you ought to think about making Greek yogurt."
"I didn’t know if he was serious or not," Ron says. "But, I did some thinking and lots of talking with my family. We did a lot of research, learned a lot and realized that we had many current Feta customers who were Greek and could offer us a potential market."
The fact that the Buholzer family is blessed with a fourth generation who were already working at Klondike Cheese and were eager for new challenges contributed to the decision to research Greek yogurt.
Among that research was a trip to Greece made by Steve and Adam where they met Evangelos Mandrekas whose family had been making yogurt since 1954. Evangelos took over the plant in 1984 and after spending time in college in England, returned to Greece and built a new yogurt plant in 1991.
His plant, Mandrekas SA, grew to become one of the biggest private label yogurt producers in the country and developed an export business in Europe and the U.S.
Mandrekas was also interested in working with a U.S. company because of the difficulties (rules, regulations, milk supply) in establishing an American company himself. The result was the creation of a consulting relationship combining the yogurt know-how and experience of Mandrekas and the production, operations and sales skills of the Buholzers and Klondike Cheese. After some two years of thought and research the Buholzers went ahead and began actively planning for a Greek yogurt enterprise with Adam (a UW-Madison chemical engineering grad) spearheading the operation.
Although the Buholzers formerly knew little about producing yogurt, they learned fast and have been producing Greek yogurt in a pilot plant for some time. Ron says they have received a great amount of assistance from the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research in product development and DATCP for help in meeting the rules and regulation for this new (to them) product.
"Yogurt requires using a live culture and everything must be perfect," Ron says. "Just like in making cheese, the difference in being a good cheesemaker and a not-so-good cheesemaker is in how you use the culture. And as a living organism the same culture can vary day by day."
The new building addition is in place attached to the existing cheese plant. The inside of the new structure currently reminds one of an ant hill as dozens of construction workers, drill, bend, connect, move, bolt and otherwise prepare for the new equipment and its installation.
Some equipment is already in place, the rest will be installed in the next two months. The hope is all will be ready to begin production in early March.
Ron say the new plant will mean the addition of 10 to 15 new employees. "We just don’t know yet, we’ll know more as we get going," he says. " We have already hired a plant manager, a quality control manager and a sales manager."
The current center of the Greek yogurt processing industry in the U.S. is in New York where Chobani and several other major yogurt makers are located. (Note - Chobani is now building a large yogurt plant in Idaho to take advantage of the big milk supply available there.)
Klondike will be the first major yogurt plant in the midwest offering Greek-style yogurt to the huge food service industry.
Ron Buholzer feels that his family is also helping the move to expand employment and the economy in Wisconsin. "Just look at all the people working here," he points out. "Then add those who built the equipment, mixed the concrete, supplied the wiring and all the thousands of pieces and parts used in the project."
One might call the new Greek yogurt project another scene in the long time family affair in which the Buholzers have been carrying on for nearly 90 years. Is there a secret in how the three brothers (Dave, Steve and Ron) can work together for so long?
"Everything is not always peace and quiet," Ron says. "We do argue and debate but each of us has a rather defined area of responsibility: Dave works in production and shipping; Steve in procurement and production and I’m involved in maintenance and as company president and the next generation are fitting in very well. There is as lot of overlap and we always work things out."
Good luck to the Buholzers, a hard-working family with a Swiss heritage who are willing to change and who are soon going to make and market another Greek dairy product — the first was Feta — in Monroe.
John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.