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Sartori Finds High-End Niche With Antigo Cheeses

June 15, 2011

Antigo Daily Journal

Antigo Daily Journal

Quietly, Sartori Company has become a leader in producing high-end specialty cheeses, and that’s translating to increased employment and investment in Antigo.

Sartori’s trademarked “SarVecchio” Parmesan, “BellaVitano” and a long list of classic, limited edition and specialty cheeses flavored with everything from Merlot and raspberries to basil and rosemary are all produced here—and only here.

That means that the facility that got its start nine decades ago as a J.L. Kraft plant is key to the company’s long-term ambitions in the specialty foods market.

“Our strength here is that we make great cheese, with great cheesemakers,” Jon Gougar, plant manager, said. “This plant is contributing to the popularity of artisan-type cheeses.”

With increased demand, Sartori has increased its retail sales staff, which in turn has fueled its plans to increase local cheese production substantially this month. The acclaimed Sartori Reserve line, which includes the artisan SarVecchio Parmesan, basil and olive oil Asiago, Merlot BellaVitano, extra-aged Fontina and other varieties, is growing at a quick pace as well.

“The only thing that is holding us back is the time it will take to plan general infrastructure improvements,” Gougar said, explaining that the work will include a general overhaul and upgrade of Sartori’s whey plant and water treatment systems.

Increased production also brings a need for more employees.

Gougar said Sartori, which runs two shifts, is adding additional team members this month.

The jobs, both full and part-time, include hoop filling, pressing, turning, piling and trimming of cheese wheels as well as all aspects of cleaning and sanitizing the drain table, brine, hauling, green packaging areas and all related equipment.

“As time goes on, there will be further increases as we develop and expand,” Gougar said.

“These are good jobs,” Gougar stressed, with an attractive compensation and benefit package including health, dental, vision, disability and flex plans, life insurance, generous bonus program, 401(k), paid holidays, vacation and personal days.

Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski noted that with the increases, Sartori in Antigo will have nearly equal the number of employees as Antigo Cheese at its peak.

“At our peak as Antigo Cheese, we had 120 people here,” Matucheski said. “To be able to bring it back up to somewhat near those levels, with no packaging department, is a big deal.”

Matucheski, and fellow master cheesemaker Larry Steckbauer, said the quality of the cheese historically produced here, under the Kraft, Antigo Cheese and now Sartori banner, is key.

When it purchased Antigo Cheese in 2006, Sartori was primarily known as a food service supplier and Antigo seemed a clumsy fit.

Under the Antigo Cheese banner, Matucheski, Steckbauer and the other masters of their craft had already amassed a trophy room of honors, including the “best in the world” title for what was then known as Stravecchio Parmesan at the American Cheese Society’s 22nd annual competition in 2005.

Sartori, similar in size to Antigo Cheese at the time, wanted to increase its retail presence. Instead of simply folding Antigo Cheese production into its Plymouth-based plant, management let the cheesemakers loose.

They started with four varieties, tailored around the existing parmesan, and “that was it,” Matucheski said. “We were very fortunate to be able to go out and play and become very successful.”

Awards quickly followed.

At the 2011 World Championship Cheese Contest, SarVecchio Parmesan earned best of class and grand champion runner-up honors, continuing a string of awards that started in 2007 when it was named “the best Parmesan in the U.S.A,” winning the category at every U.S. cheese championship in that time frame.

In 2006, the same year as the purchase, the now-named SarVecchio Parmesan was featured in a Businessweek article among “products that rival Europe’s best.”

CEO Jim Sartori won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2007 and by 2010 Sartori Foods had won its 100th award for Sartori Reserve cheese.

With the awards came acclaim from chefs and “with that, came success in retail,” Matucheski said.

The Classic, Reserve and Limited Edition retail collection, with elegant new packaging, was launched early this year and today, SarVecchio has been called “the most decorated Parmesan made in America.”

In an age where “artisan” is a buzzword, Sartori in Antigo has filled a niche.

“A lot of things have come together,” Matucheski said. “The demand for the product is there...and we’re growing.”

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