Special Feature Specialty Cheese Editor

 

Staffing Shortages Force Third-Generation Bletsoe’s Cheese To Close; Seeks Buyer

Moira Crowley
Specialty Cheese Editor
Cheese Reporter Publishing Co., Inc.
mcrowley@cheesereporter.com • 608-316-3793

February 8, 2019

 

Iconic central Wisconsin cheese company Bletsoe Cheese, Inc. made its final batch of cheese here Wednesday after almost 90 years of operation.
A perfect storm of labor shortage, cessation of a major cheese buyer and retirement of a longtime milk hauler made keeping the labor-intensive cheese company too demanding.


The company is owned and operated by Bonnie Bletsoe and son David. A team of roughly seven other workers make up the staff, producing and packaging up to 27 types of cheese products from cheese curds, 22-pound Cheddar daises, 40-pound Cheddar, Pepper Jack and Colby blocks in a multitude of flavors.

The factory is capable of making 7,000 pounds of cheese daily, but typically turns out about 4,000 pounds of cheese each day.

Bletsoe Cheese markets its product in convenience stores, grocery stores, restaurants, bars, specialty shops and hotels.

The hard decision to shutter operations was finally made last month after losing another skilled employee.

“We can’t get enough people on the packaging end,” Bonnie Bletsoe said.
“There’s so many people up here looking for help, and it’s just not there. We just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“My son doesn’t have a back up,” she continued. “There’s a lot of issues – one after another – and finally we got to a point where we’re done banging our head against the wall.”

Sales were strong, Bletsoe said. I never thought I’d have to close the business because I couldn’t find enough help. We bought this place 35 years ago, and there was plenty of help all over, especially farm kids who knew how to work and were willing to work.

“I couldn’t get enough people in to make my gift boxes at Christmas time,” Bletsoe said. “There just wasn’t enough hands – no one would even answer an ad. That’s what’s been going on over the last three years.”

This is an industry-wide problem, she said. Today’s younger kids don’t know what real work is; they want to start at the top.

Normally, we’ve got high school kids working nights and weekends at our retail stores. Now we haven’t got a one, even if we work around their sports schedules, Bletsoe said.

The recent closing of Northern Wisconsin Produce (NWP) – a major buyer of Bletsoe’s 22-pound Cheddar daisies – was another impediment. (For more information on NWP’s closing, scan the QR Code on page 2 of this issue and locate December 14, 2018’s issue.)

The company currently has a few interested buyers, to be sold as either as another cheesemaking facility or just the building, which comes with a house, three-car garage and separate outbuilding.

“We’ve done a lot of improvements over the last eight to 10 years,” she said.

The plant itself, situated on a parcel of land just shy of 10 acres, features the traditional tools of old-fashioned, fully-operational production, including working right over the vat.

If we were to become automated, we would have done it years ago, Bletsoe said. When my husband was alive, he didn’t want to put in a whey dryer. We had that at our plant in Christie, WI, and knew what that was all about.

Another consideration in deciding to sell or stay was the availability of milk. About one year ago, the company’s contract milk hauler since 1983 made the decision to retire.

“When he did that, we decided we weren’t going to buy a truck and worry about who’s going to be driving it,” Bletsoe said. “We were able to buy milk from Lynn Dairy – as much as we needed, and it worked out beautifully.”

As of this week, the company still had some product in the cooler and its cheese truck will make a few last runs to nearby accounts.
The best-case scenario would be if someone came along and bought the operation for specialty cheese production, according to Bletsoe.

The factory would be nice for that, she said. We’re not automated – we work over the vats the old fashioned way, which is why a lot of people think our cheese tastes unique.

Bletsoe’s Generational Cheesemaking Family
The third-generation, family-owned and operated cheese business was first established during the 1930s by Ken Bletsoe in Wisconsin’s Price county.

Ken’s son David partnered with his father at Cloverhill Dairy in Rozellville, WI, and in 1965, David Bletsoe managed the Pittsville Creamery, Pittsville, WI.

 

“There’s so many people up here looking for help, and it’s just not there. We just couldn’t do it anymore.”
—Bonnie Bletsoe, Bletsoe’s Cheese

 

David later moved his family to Cleveland, OH and managed Italian style operation Miceli Dairy.

He then once again partnered with his father Ken at York Dairy in Granton, eventually purchasing Bletsoe Dairy in Christie, WI, which he co-owned and operated until his father’s retirement.

David was managing Frigo Cheese in Symco, WI, when the Bletsoe’s purchased the former Pauly Cheese plant in 1983, henceforth known as Bletsoe Cheese.

David passed away in March 2012, leaving his son Mark and wife Bonnie – both licensed cheese makers – in charge of the company.

For more information, visit www.bletsoecheesewi.com/



Cheese Reporter and Moira Crowley welcomes letters and comments regarding the above story. Comments should be sent to: Moira Crowley by e-mail to mcrowley@cheesereporter.com

 

 

 

 

Moira Crowley has been Specialty Cheese Editor of Cheese Reporter since 2015. She has over 15 years experience covering the dairy industry through her work at Cheese Reporter. Her contributions to Cheese Reporter are read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3793 mcrowley@cheesereporter.com.


 

Other Special Features Written by Moira include:

Whey Permeate Is Lower Cost, Sustainable Dairy Ingredient With Many Applications.
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American Cheese Month Donations To American Cheese Education Foundation Benefit Entire Artisan Industry
September 14, 2018

Investment in Salary, Education Required To Find & Keep Qualified Cheese Mongers
July 20, 2018

Growing Market Demand for US Parmesan Due To Better Quality, More Usage Options
April 6, 2018

Staying Relevant To Tech-Savvy, Goal Driven Gen Z Means Dairy Must Nourish Body, Mind
April 6, 2018

Ghee Whiz! Health-Conscious Consumers Finding Clarified Butter As Superfood
October 6, 2017

More soon to be added.