IN AMERICA, THE CHEESE industry has finally matured.
Between camembert, brie, pecorino and feta, Europe has long held a choke-hold on the cheese business. But over the last decade, the number of domestically-made cheeses has grown notably — along with a U.S. presence in dairy aisles around the world. Between 1995 and 2005 cheese production in the U.S. expanded by more than 32%, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and today, the United States makes more than a quarter of the world’s cheese. While American gourmets still have a taste for foreign cheeses, they’ve also begun experimenting with local products and have helped boost sales for smaller dairies here at home.
One beneficiary: The Vermont Butter & Cheese Company in Websterville, Vt. An artisanal cheese maker and creamery, Vermont Butter has bested many of its international competitors in global tasting competitions. Yet with exporting challenging — and not particularly cost effective — company co-founder Allison Hooper says she is focusing on building her business here. In 2009, the company rang up close to $10 million in sales, up from around $9 million the year before. In 2010, Hooper expects sales to gain another 10%. She declines to discuss profits.
SmartMoney asked Hooper a few questions about her ups and downs as a cheese maker. Here are her condensed answers.
In launching the business, what were some early hurdles you needed to clear?
When my partner Bob Reese and I were first getting started in the early ’80s, there weren’t any commercial goat milk providers in Vermont. Back then, many of the top restaurants in New York were led by French chefs. We knew they’d likely appreciate being able to get goat cheese without importing it. So, we reached out. With their support, we were able to convince Vermont farmers to take a gamble on supplying us with goat’s milk.
Business: Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, an artisanal cheese maker and creamery. Industry: Cheese
Location: Websterville, Vt.
Year founded: 1984
Number of employees: 32
Web address: vermontcreamery.com
What’s been the most effective way you’ve found for gaining attention for your products?
We enter contests. We can’t enter into the French cheese awards because the rules of the competition require someone from the competition to go out to the cheese maker to pick up the cheese to judge. They aren’t going to come here. That said, we’ve won gold medals in the World Cheese Awards, which is held annually. We also have our own competition in the U.S., at which we’ve come away with ribbons each year. Also, anytime you can get a great endorsement from a well-known food writer or chef will add to your credibility.
Ben and Jerry’s, Cabot Creamery, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters… Seems like independent companies love Vermont. Why did you choose to set up shop there?
I grew up in New Jersey and moved to Vermont with the intention of doing something in the cheese world. I knew there would be opportunities for me here when I visited for several days one summer. There were more cows than people. Vermont is dairy-based and agricultural. Essentially, it seemed like a place that was sympathetic to what I wanted to do.