Earlier this month, Cheese Market News did a segment on Jim’s Cheese, with a special focus on our Lake Forest Artisan specialty cheese products. It’s well-written and definitely worth a read.
By Kate Sander
WATERLOO, Wis. — Waxed and decorated cheese shapes in just about any shape imaginable — cows, states and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day — this may be the niche for which Jim’s Cheese, Waterloo, Wis., is best known.
But this Wisconsin cheese distributor, with its own fleet of trucks carrying products to several Midwest states, is growing and expanding.
“We have an amazing variety of different cheeses,” says Holly Koller, who works in sales for Jim’s Cheese, noting the company’s cheese varieties number about 225 with multiple sizes and styles of many cheeses available, including shreds. “And we’ve taken on an artisan line that’s worth checking out.”
Jim’s Cheese, which since 1955 has supplied Wisconsin cheese to retailers and foodservice providers, is reaching out to customers in a new way with its recently debuted artisan line. Now, under new ownership since last spring, the company is making available its Lake Forest Artisan line.
The Lake Forest Artisan line is different from anything the company has done before because it places special focus on unique artisan cheeses. The company has carried some of these cheeses over the years, but the new line seeks to “call out” the cheesemakers who make them and tell their stories. Cheeses sold under this line include Burnett Dairy Cooperative’s Alpha Morning Sun, Carr Valley’s Cocoa Cardona and Menage and Sartori Co.’s flavored BellaVitanos, just to name a few. Products from more than 20 cheese companies comprise the new premium line.
New company owners Chip Kubly and Steve and Ingegerd Silvis saw a great deal of potential in the Jim’s Cheese business when its owner Jim Peshel, who still consults for the business, decided he was ready to retire and sell the business. The new ownership’s goal, Kubly says, is to take the strengths of the company and build on them.
Named after the street both the Kubly and Silvis families live on, Lake Forest Artisan highlights the cheeses’ special qualities such as whether they are made from milk of pastured cows, are rBST-free or are award winning, says Amanda Ritchie Carrick, who joined the company last year to promote sales and marketing.
The line is intended to fill a previously unfilled niche for Jim’s Cheese customers, which are largely small to medium independent grocers. The line also is intended to become a selling point for new customers. There is a growing customer base of restaurants and upscale cheese markets to which the line appeals.
The company is in the process of developing a Lake Forest Artisan label for some cheeses, Kubly adds.
The company has taken several steps to promote the line over the past several months. Carrick has overseen the redesign of the company’s website, the creation of a Facebook page and the introduction of a company blog. The company is featuring a cheese company each month and blogs on articles that are interesting and helpful to retailers, she says.
In addition, to better serve customers, Jim’s Cheese continues to educate its employees on the cheese it offers. For example, Sara Hill of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board recently presented a cheese education seminar for both plant employees and the sales team.
The Lake Forest Artisan line encompasses a small percentage of the cheese Jim’s Cheese sells. Other cheeses — the more commonplace but still high-quality cheeses for which Wisconsin is known, such as Cheddars, Colbys, Jacks, Blues and about every other variety one can think of — still are sold under the Jim’s Cheese label. The company also offers gift baskets and gift basket components beyond cheese.
In addition, Jim’s Cheese offers an aged Cheddar selection with cheeses primarily supplied by Saputo, Foremost Farms and Land O’Lakes. The cheeses in the line range up to a 9-year aged Cheddar. If desired, customers can specify the supplier of the specific cheese they are buying.
The company is flexible in what it can do and how it can work with cheesemakers and customers, Carrick adds. Built largely on word-of-mouth, Jim’s Cheese currently boasts more than 2,000 customers. Despite that many customers, the company’s sales team maintains a regular relationship with each customer and has “great rapport” with them, Carrick says.
For cheesemakers, one of the strengths of Jim’s Cheese is its own cut-and-wrap facility that allows the company to work closely with smaller cheesemakers who may not have those capabilities, Carrick says. Jim’s Cheese then can market the cheese or deliver it back to the cheesemaker.
Another strength is the company’s own truck fleet — with seven trucks covering 12 states from Minnesota to Kentucky — the company has a quick turnaround in serving its retail customers and also can move cheese for cheesemakers who are on their route who have cheeses going to another location on the route.
In the last year, the company also has added new equipment and new procedures to maximize efficiency, Carrick says.
The company is working with a HACCP consultant and is in the process of becoming Safe Quality Foods (SQF)-certified.
“This shows the quality of our warehouse and our commitment to quality and safety,” Carrick says.
“From a vendor standpoint, we maintain the integrity of their product by focusing on food safety.”
Another important addition has been the computerization of invoices. Previously the sales team hand wrote all of the invoices. Now invoicing is computerized and “much more efficient,” Koller says, noting that the change has been well received by customers.
As the company grows, some things will stay the same. Jim’s Cheese Pantry and Café in Waterloo, which Peshel opened in 1995, consists of a deli, full service lunch counter and a selection of more than 200 types of cheese. Thirty customers can be seated in the company’s country kitchen-style café, and as they wait for their lunch, they can easily browse and sample cheese. The pantry and café, open Monday through Saturday, sells excellent food, “making it hard to bring your lunch to work,” Carrick says with a laugh.
Another thing staying the same: Jim’s Cheese’s famous cheese cut-outs. The cut-out cheeses are available in mild Cheddar and American processed Cheddar, and sizes vary from 2-4 ounces. Customers can order them through their sales representative or retail store, Jim’s Cheese Pantry, for special promotions, gift baskets and any number of special occasions.
“We have a great variety,” says Koller, who notes the company tries to add a few new shapes each year to its collection of about 500 molds, 250 or more of which are regularly utilized. “We’re the cheese cut-out capital of the world.”
In addition, Jim’s Cheese always is looking at what new cheeses it might add to its line up, Kubly says.
“We’re looking to offer our customers the best Wisconsin has to offer,” he says. “We are looking to be partners with cheesemakers and retailers.”