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Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory Expands Into Ricotta, Doubles Feta Output

 

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For Chuck Krause, the new plans for expansion and modernization of his Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory are a life-long, hard-fought dream fulfilled.

Krause, along with partner Art Schaap, recently broke ground on a new Ricotta production room, added space for a semi-continuous Alpma cheese machine, and added new offices that will house an instructional classroom.

Krause said everything that is being done is driven by growth and the need to be more sustainable.

“We’re growing good and we’re growing fast,” Krause said. “Once we get this expansion completed and the new equipment in here, we’re going to take off.”

One of the challenges Krause faces is his need for a place to utilize his protein. Being over 100 miles from the nearest whey processor prevents the company from benefitting from protein buyers.

“I have a Harvard education in Feta. Because I learned it all myself the hard way — the expensive way.”
Chuck Krause, Tucumcari Mountain Cheese

“No one is coming to Tucumcari to buy a quarter truckload of WPC,” Krause said. “So if I’m going to do something with my protein, I’m going to have to turn it into cheese. Buy the milk and convert all the protein right here.”

Krause started making cheese over 40 years ago at Krause Dairy in Morgan, WI. There he worked for his dad, Jim, and uncle Bob and with his brother Steve.

After Krause Dairy was sold to Frigo Cheese in 1988, Chuck Krause worked at several cheese plants in Wisconsin and California, including the Gardenia Cheese plant in South Gate, CA, where he made Ricotta.

“One of the nice things that came out of the sale of Krause Dairy is that I was introduced to a wide variety of cheese,” Krause said. “We were making mostly Cheddar. But once we were sold I began learning to make a bunch of other cheeses like Ricotta.”

Krause says he’s been making Ricotta for nearly 10 years on a small scale but always saw great potential.

“In our area where there is a large population of Hispanics, they love it because it’s pure protein.”
Krause said the Ricotta will be made mostly for foodservice and private label sales.

“Down here I have to find my own markets and I have to make my own markets,” Krause said. “So I plan on making the Ricotta for the Southwest market. We’re going to try and stay in our part of the world.”

While Krause plans to make his Ricotta for the Southwest market, his Feta, made under the Ithaki brand, is nationally distributed.

“I’m a national company on Feta,” Krause said. “From Boston to San Diego. Southern California is our core market but we have big business in Chicago, Ohio, and Texas.”

Krause said currently, Feta is 85 to 90 percent of the company’s cheese sales.

“Our biggest customers are restaurants. Sales are growing organically. We’re really trying to get into Houston, southern Texas, and New Orleans.”

Krause said Houston was becoming a major buyer of his products.

“It’s pretty local to us. Houston’s 750 miles but we’re local there. The problem with it is that it’s growing so fast, we can hardly catch our breath.”

The company makes about 20,000 pounds a Feta a day or approximately six million pounds a year.

Initially, Krause will increase his Feta production 50 percent to 30,000 pounds of cheese a day, with the potential to take it to 60,000 pounds of cheese a day.

“A 50 percent increase initially is a lot,” Krause said. “But our sales are growing and we feel there is big potential for Feta.”

Part of that potential is in the Hispanic market.

“It’s untapped,” he said. “Hispanics like Feta. Once they get introduced to it they love it. They love it on salads. They love it with rice and beans. It’s a future market that we’ll be looking at.”

Over the course of 20 years, Krause has gone through minor expansions and made improvements. However, this is the largest expansion adding 30,000 square feet to the current footprint of 22,500.

“I’ve been working on these plans for three years,” he said.

The plans are to add an Alpma semi continuous Feta production line.

“We’re still going to require cheese makers,” Krause said. “That’s important to us. I didn’t give up needing cheese makers.
And they’re going to need to hustle because every 11 minutes we’ll have a new vat of cheese coming.”

Axel von Wardenburg, vice president of sales for Alpma USA in Milwaukee, WI, said that with the scale of production, the
Feta line is perfect in its ability to deliver the cheese Krause wants at Tucumcari.

“The vats we will be delivering are manually operated,” von Wardenburg said. “That is important to them in terms of the quality and economics of their cheese. They will have the consistency in quality and they will have the same desired moisture content every time.”

The process at Tucumcari is still a very artisanal process, von Wardenburg said. Yet the line has a capacity to run over 300,000 pounds of milk.

 



“He makes a top quality cheese with current preparation still being very manual but effective for the size of the vat.”

While cheese makers will still be needed in the production of Feta, the new line will allow Krause to free up some labor to increase the production of specialty cheese.

Krause would like to continue increasing Tucumcari’s production of Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Edam,
Gouda, Asiago and Romano.

“We make a really nice Asadaro and the people really seem to like it,” Krause said. “The Asadaro is big in Santa Fe and we’re just introducing it into Houston.”

“The specialty cheeses have a good following locally here in New Mexico, particularly in Sante Fe and Albuquerque. And we do very well in Houston.”

Wisconsin to New Mexico Via California

After his years with Frigo/Stella Foods, Krause wanted to venture off on his own but rather than heading back to Wisconsin, he saw an advertisement in this newspaper searching for cheese plants to come to New Mexico.

“I couldn’t see going back to Wisconsin and competing against all of my friends,” Krause said. “Back then, the climate in Wisconsin wasn’t as bright as it is now.”

Krause came to Tucumcari and purchased an old Coca Cola bottling operation with three partners that are no longer with him.

“We had no customers, very little money,” he said. “It was a hard road.”

At the start, Krause began making 40-pound blocks of Cheddar, with plans to enter the retail market immediately.

“We didn’t have the money. We didn’t have the name to support our cheese. What we had was nothing.”

By accident Krause got into making Feta.

“I bumped into a Greek man in Houston. He was a New York transplant. He wanted some Feta for himself and a few of his friends all over the country.”

Despite the many stops throughout the industry, Krause never made Feta cheese but also never doubted that he could. It just took several attempts before he perfected it.

“I have a Harvard education in Feta,” Krause said. “Because I learned it all myself the hard way — the expensive way.”

Today he has one partner, Art Schaap, a dairyman who owns Schaap Dairies out of nearby Clovis, NM.

Milk is provided by Schaap and is not a problem for Tucumcari. The city is located just off the borders of Western Kansas, West Texas and Clovis, NM is a milk shed.

“The first eight years all the milk came from the Rio Grande valley,” Krause said. “But you look at western Kansas and western Texas. The milk output is amazing.”

State of New Mexico

Krause said the state of New Mexico is fantastic.

Recently, Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory received a grant with incentives to expand. In order to receive the grant, however, Krause will need to add 10 more people.

“Job creation is very important. We are a tiny cheese plant in this state. It’s big for this town but small for the state.”

Krause says he has a real good crew of workers and after 20 years the company is getting a real cheese culture established.

Plans to Enter Retail Market

With the addition of 10 more people and the company culture, Krause now figures he has the capability to enter the retail market with his Feta.

“Right now we’re mostly foodservice. About 99 percent foodservice. We’re one of the largest foodservice Feta sellers in southern California. We’re up to three semi loads a week,” Krause said. “But we really want to move into the retail market.”
Krause will again be marketing his cheese for the retail industry in the Southwest parts of the United States.

“There is so much competition in Wisconsin and the Northeast, New York, we’re going to try and focus on our little corner of the world.”

Krause will soon buy some property down the street from the cheese plant.

“We’re short of space. We’re adding 30,000 square feet of warehouse with more coolers and packaging and distribution,” Krause said.

The new packaging area will house what Krause says is the fastest growing part of his cheese business.

“Right now we’re mostly foodservice. We’re one of the largest foodservice Feta sellers in southern California. But we really want to move into retail...”
Chuck Krause

“The crumble Feta is big and it’s growing. We have plans to do more of that.”

Besides the standard Feta cheese, the company started making no-fat Feta.

“To get some new business we started making a zero percent fat. Again, sales are growing. We don’t promote it because we don’t have the capacity. We are going to have a better, bigger facility where we can make more cheese and increase sales.”

Krause’s foodservice business consists of 28-pound pails down to 10-ounce packages.

“We don’t have much for retail, right now, but we’re in the process of it.”
Krause is still about a year out before he can crank up production. But he’s a bit anxious to get going.

“We started with nothing. No one thought I was going to make it,” Krause said. “No one was going to borrow me any money. Now look at us.”








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