Jim Sartori describes humility as a core value of his family’s cheese business, Sartori Company, based in Plymouth, Wisconsin.
But remaining humble is getting tough: SarVecchio Parmesan earned Best-of-Show honors at the 2009 US Championship Cheese Contest, then First Runner Up in 2011, and the company’s Limited Edition Cognac BellaVitano recently took third overall in the 2011 World Cheese Awards.
Over 100 awards and escalating sales for Sartori’s retail cheeses are the result of a quiet, humble company with an aggressive mission statement: “We want to make the best cheese in the world. It’s that simple,” Sartori explains.
Jim recently discussed with WCMA his company’s transition into artisanal cheese and, in 2007, retail sales.
It’s a story that embodies changes seen in Wisconsin’s cheese industry — a quality cheese maker challenging itself to expand into value-added products, and address branding and marketing head-on to grow and thrive.
“The catalyst for us was the acquisition of Antigo Cheese,” Sartori said. Sartori purchased the Antigo, Wisconsin, plant in 2006, gaining skilled cheese makers and a functional artisan cheese facility. “We knew the plant well — they always made great cheese. And the steps they had taken in the retail market were our first opportunity to move in that direction,” Sartori said.
Antigo rounded out our production capability needs, Sartori said, and joined the company’s flagship facility in Plymouth, Wisconsin, and the Linden, Wisconsin, Blue cheese factory purchased in 2005. Along with Antigo, Sartori also purchased the hard Italian cheese factory in Blackfoot, ID in 2006. “Now we have the capability and capacity to produce premium quality cheese for foodservice accounts across the country,” explained Sartori.
Jim Sartori emphasizes (and emphasizes again) family, and the value of developing and executing ideas within the company. “When we’re working on new ideas, we bring to the table our culinary specialists and chefs, our master cheese makers, food scientists, marketers and the leadership team,” Sartori said. “We have a very collaborative environment with ideas coming in from every member of the team.”
The company doesn’t look to consultants for ideas or execution. “We’ve definitely staffed up,” Sartori said. “We have team members located all across the country, and we’ve really boosted our marketing team. We invest a lot of time and resources in training our team members and providing them growth opportunities.”
In 2011, Sartori united its Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, Fontina, Gorgonzola and new originals BellaVitano and MontAmore under a new logo crest and impressive packaging. The marketing team developed the look of the distinctive retail cheese line. “The new labels really have differentiated our product in the cheese case and gave us a sales pop,” Sartori said.
“We’re not trying to create snobby cheeses.”
—Jim Sartori, Sartori Company
And while retail sales are strong, sales of Parmesan, Romano, Asiago and other cheeses for foodservice — Sartori's long-term business — “are still our bread and butter,” Sartori said. He predicts, however, that the retail, branded cheeses will out-sell their established foodservice and natural cheese ingredient markets within three years.
Foodservice was the market when Jim’s grandfather, Paolo Sartori founded S&R Cheese with Lou Rossini in 1939 in Plymouth. The Italian cheese business grew under the leadership of Joe Sartori, Jim’s father. Jim admits that despite the company’s success, to many, Sartori is a new company, a new face in the supermarket.
“We are truly an artisan company, focusing on making great cheese,” Sartori said. “We're hand-making these cheeses, applying surface treatments by hand and curing our cheeses.”
And Sartori is seeing the buzz, the consumer excitement, that artisan cheeses develop. “You should see the e-mails we receive and the comments on our Facebook page,” he said. “One woman wrote that she is driving 400 kilometers, from Canada into Michigan, to buy BellaVitano each month. We have people thanking our in-store samplers for making our cheeses. It’s fun, it’s exciting.”
Cheese competition honors add
to the buzz, Sartori said. “We look at these gold medals, these wins, as affirmation from experts and a very real source of pride for our team members here. It’s a thrill and an honor to have won over 100 awards in just the past few years.”
“Frankly,” Sartori said, “I’ve been surprised by the success we’ve had with these cheeses. We’ve definitely underestimated the volume of product we’ve needed.” Most cheeses in the retail line are aged from six months to two years, he noted, and all are cured and then hand-packaged at a state-of-the-art facility built in Plymouth in 2008.
Jim Sartori sees his company’s success to date as “the tip of the iceberg. We have a robust pipeline of new products to complement what we have. We have some extremely creative folks here, and we encourage our cheese makers to spend time playing and experimenting. I think the culture is a key component to our success — creativity and collaboration,” he said.
The Cognac-steeped BellaVitano that placed 3rd in the world at the 2011 World Cheese Awards is an example of a new Limited Edition line, Sartori said. The company has rolled out three lines at three price levels: Classic, Reserve and Limited Edition. “We’re not trying to create snobby cheeses,” Sartori said. “We want cheeses that appeal to every generation — kids and adults. One of our goals is to get great cheese on every plate — and help the category grow to its potential.”
Sartori says the cheese, more than marketing, has earned Sartori shelf space. “We’re telling people — buyers, consumers — ‘just try the cheese.’ It all starts with having great product. Once they try the cheese, the rest comes naturally.”
A national rollout of successful cheeses is a point of pride for Sartori, but he quickly deflects the compliment.
“It’s like your own family. You never say ‘I’m proud of how I raised my kids,’ you say ‘I’m really proud of my children.’ I think we gave our cheese makers the space to create, and our sales team the tools and support to sell it in. And I encourage all of our team members to spend a portion of their time experimenting, and thinking up new ideas.”
And as company leader, Sartori says, “My job is to let our people know they’re on a firm foundation. Let them know we’re in it for the long haul.”
Look closely at the family crest on the Sartori retail label. The four points on the crown represent four generations of the Sartori family. Jim’s son Bert is coming back to the business and his daughter Maria is completing graduate school. He insists his children earn a graduate degree and work outside the company before deciding to come back.
And when they come back, Jim said, I make sure they don’t work directly for me. JU
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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