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February 12, 2016
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Baker Cheese celebrates 100 years
Company continues to add equipment, improve operations


A FAMILY AFFAIR
— Several members of the Baker family have been instrumental in Baker Cheese’s success over the past century as the company has passed from generation to generation. Standing from left to right are Mike Schoenborn, Brian Baker (with photo of Francis Baker and Francis’s father, Frank Baker, who founded the company in 1916), Tom Schoenborn, Mary Schoenborn, Dick Baker and Eric Baker. Sitting left to right are Kevin Baker, Larry Brown and Jeff Baker.



EVERY STICK MATTERS
— Baker Cheese, an award-winning manufacturer of several types of String cheese, operates with the philosophy that “every stick matters” — a mantra that the entire operation is focused on daily, company management says.

By Kate Sander

ST. CLOUD, Wis. — It takes hard work and dedication for a company to successfully pass from one generation of a family to another. A family making the transition not once or twice but three times over the course of a century while growing the business is noteworthy. And that’s why the Baker family will pause for a moment this year to celebrate the growth Baker Cheese, St. Cloud, Wisconsin, has enjoyed over the past 100 years, and into its fourth generation.

Calling it a pause to celebrate probably isn’t the right word, though. While Baker Cheese, one of the nation’s leading String cheese producers, will showcase its century mark in its marketing materials and packaging and hold a party in September to thank employees, milk producers and the St. Cloud community for their century of support, the company’s executives will remain hard at work continuing to grow the business.

Baker Cheese recently added a new String cheese extrusion line and additional packaging capacity, and continues to upgrade and improve equipment by adding new milk silos, separators and whey clarifiers, says Brian Baker, a fourth generation member of the Baker family who serves as company president.

“We’re continually reinvesting into the plant,” Brian Baker says.

The company currently is putting the finishing touches on a new wastewater treatment plant that will allow it to treat 90 percent of its wastewater and discharge it back into a local stream. Ultimately the upgrades that are in progress this year, including reverse osmosis equipment, will allow the company to further process its whey.


“We’re continually
reinvesting
into the plant.”

Brian Baker
BAKER CHEESE


“Later this year and into 2017 we’ll move into work on warehousing and employee areas,” he says.

The plant in St. Cloud now stands at approximately 90,000 square feet, and while much remodeling has occurred over the years, Brian Baker says the plant’s original roof line can still be made out in places.

Still, today’s facility is a far cry from when Brian Baker’s great-grandfather, Frank Baker, a licensed cheesemaker from the age of 16, purchased what was then a small Cheddar factory in 1916. Then just 22 years old, Frank Baker’s passion and Cheddar-making expertise led the fledgling company through the challenging years of the 1920s-1930s. His innovative spirit was shown by being one of the first to use a cream separator, with the idea of separating cream from whey that was used to produce butter.

It was in the 1950s that Frank and his son Francis made the decision to change their plant over to a full Mozzarella plant because of the rapidly growing demand for Mozzarella.

As they grew the company’s presence in the Mozzarella business, Francis soon recognized the need for smaller, consumer sized units. He took a ball of Mozzarella, stretched it into a rope, and cut it into small chunks, and there it was in the mid-1970s the Original Baker String Cheese was born. While the company won’t claim the position as being the first to develop String cheese in the United States because another company also was working on a similar product at about the same time, it’s fair to say Baker Cheese was among the first to develop the innovative product that is a mainstay in snacking today.

Additional development of String cheese as a present-day snacking favorite can be credited to the third generation of Bakers — Francis’s sons Dick, Bob and Jack — who worked closely with Francis to accomplish his vision of String cheese as a healthy, everyday snack. Working together, they developed the company into an industry leader in the innovation and design of String cheese manufacturing equipment, pioneering the extrusion process allowing for a more consistent product. During those years, the company spearheaded the automated cheese cutting process and introduced individually wrapped packages of String cheese, meeting consumers’ demands for convenience.

As the company’s success with String cheese grew, the strategic decision was eventually made to no longer work in the area of commodity Mozzarella, and in the 1990s and 2000s the company committed to three large scale plant expansions that helped solidify the company as a national String cheese leader, Brian Baker says.

Today the company, which processes up to 10 million pounds of milk a week, manufactures its own Baker brand as well as produces private label String cheese that is distributed nationally and internationally. It has developed several varieties over the years as well, including String cheese twists, smoked String, reduced-fat String, organic String and light organic String. It offers them in a wide variety of package sizes for both retail and foodservice, ranging from 4-ounce packages to 3-pound packages and even larger as demand warrants. The company also recently introduced a new jalapeño String cheese to the marketplace.


“We are doing
ongoing trials
with different stick styles and sizes.”

Eric Baker
BAKER CHEESE


Building off its innovative roots, Baker Cheese continues to be inspired by consumer demands for convenience. Director of Sales and Marketing Eric Baker, another member of the fourth generation of the Baker family, says the ongoing snacking trend is leading the company to explore bite-size on-the-go packaging.

“We are doing ongoing trials with different stick styles and sizes,” he says, adding that customers should watch for more new flavor offerings as well.

In addition to innovation, Baker Cheese’s focus on service and product quality sets it apart as well, Brian Baker says. One indicator of the focus on quality is the company’s success in competitions, including a gold at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and a silver at the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest.

The company makes more than 45 million pounds of cheese a year and when the average consumer stick weighs 0.83-ounce to 1-ounce, that’s a lot of sticks of cheese.

“We have a company philosophy that ‘every stick matters’ and our entire operation is focused daily on making sure we live up to that mantra,” Brian Baker says.


“We have a company
philosophy that
‘every stick matters’
and our entire
operation is focused
daily on making sure
we live up
to that mantra.”

Brian Baker
BAKER CHEESE


The company moves cheese quickly, he adds, another reason the product is high quality. Baker Cheese’s products usually are made within 48 hours of the cows being milked, and the cheese is packaged into individual servings immediately after the cheesemaking process is completed, locking in the freshness. Cheese then is shipped in a matter of days, if not just hours.

“String cheese is not an item that we feel should be inventoried,” Brian Baker says, noting that the company has no greater than a 10-day lead time for orders.

Eric Baker, who joined his cousins Brian, Jeff Baker, executive vice president, and Kevin Baker, CFO and treasurer, in the business a couple of years ago, is charged with helping spread the news on the company’s focus on service and quality. As society shifts to more uses of social media and new marketing platforms, he is leading the charge to share the qualities of Baker String cheese.

“Historically we haven’t spent a lot of time marketing our brand or business,” Brian Baker says. “Our reputation and word-of-mouth have been driving factors in our recent growth. However, as the world develops and we want to extend our reach into other markets we knew we needed a stronger focus on marketing our company.”

The company has updated its website and spent more time furthering relationships with potential customers throughout the nation, Brian Baker says.

While the management team continues to strategically plan for the future, they note it’s a little too early to discuss the fifth generation —their own children spanning the ages of 2 to 18 — joining the business quite yet.

“After college, we all went to develop skill sets in other industries and it wasn’t the game plan for each of us to necessarily come back,” Brian Baker says. “It happened organically as the business grew and we could fill different needs.”

As a team they will continue to look at ways of growing the business, Brian Baker says, noting that the company’s size and status as a family-owned business give it flexibility to work with a wide range of customers.

“We keep looking at how we can expand our company brand further,” he says.

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