Artisan Cheese Pioneers:
In Their Own Words: Fritz Maytag

Volume 135, No. 35 - Friday,February 25, 2011

In 1994, Fritz Maytag spoke at the American Cheese Society conference. This is an edited transcription.

The Maytag family, famous for its unbreakable washing machines, also makes Blue cheese in their home state of Iowa, and through a little company in San Francisco called the Anchor Steam Brewery, for beer and ale.

Fritz’s contribution to the improved landscape of comestibles is considerable: micro-breweries and boutique cheeses. In transcribing his words, I couldn’t help but think of the movie True Grit, the latest version, as to me, these are the words of someone from pioneering stock, a handful of generations later.

In his own words:
My family’s cheese company is located in Iowa. Anyone you ask in the middle of Iowa can point you there. The dairy would be thrilled if anyone who understood cheese and wanted to visit and talk cheese showed up for a visit, but it is a good idea to call ahead. It’s a very very very very small world of people interested in making really good, really traditional cheese by hand, and trying to make a profit.

Because Maytag made its name on appliances, I think sometimes people assume that our family cheese factory is big, or inhospitable, but in fact, we’re just a tiny little company. We’ve never made a profit either...... I’m kidding.
We have actually, I believe we have made a profit almost every year, but we’ve never paid dividends.

Our family cheese business started in 1940, when my father took over a dairy that had belonged to his father. My father’s father ran the Maytag appliance company, but what he really loved were Holstein dairy cows. He had a show herd.

In those days, if you had a show herd, it was considered a benefit to agricultural society. If you could spend the effort and time to breed and improve the breed, it was a kind of noble thing, an honorable thing for a farmer to do, and my grandfather was a shy man and loved cows, I think because they didn’t talk to him, and he had a lot of terrible responsibilities running the Maytag Appliance Company, so he dearly loved his dairy farms.

He had a little dairy in town with a little truck that delivered milk to the houses, and a few others that I remember.
So when my grandfather died, we inherited this little show herd, and my father was busy running the appliance company, and in fact, the war was coming, obviously, so they sold the breeding business but kept the dairy business, but he could see that soon the milk dairy business was coming to an end in Iowa as a profitable business.

My father loved strong cheese, as he used to say. As I was preparing to speak here I read a quote from Harold McGee’s book, originally in Latin, that said, “that cheese is good which is eaten in small quantities.”

In other words, really strong, really flavorful, after dinner type of a thing, and my father loved that. So he decided they would try to make a cheese on this farm, to help make a business out of it, and eventually they did sell the milk business to a local coop, as thousands of local dairies did.

So they started making Blue cheese in 1940. I think I can remember, I was about three, when they dug the caves for this. It was a tiny little project on edge of a tiny little dairy farm, but then, of course the war came, and cut off the supply of cheeses from Europe, so the timing was wonderful.

The Maytag company, which my father was running, had a network of writers all over the country, for what in those days were called the women’s pages, where they talked about laundry, of course, soap and washing machines.
My father was a good salesman for the appliances, and when he started this little oddball Blue cheese venture, it caught the fancy of a lot of women’s page writers, what would now be called food and wine writers, as they were concerned with what went on at home, and food and all those things. So there was instant publicity and marketing, if you will, for this little cheese business.

It was always primarily mail order. We were pioneers in the mail order business, selling Blue cheese, which of course turns to goo in Iowa in the summer if you put it in a mailbox. Long before UPS was getting our cheese to you overnight, the post office was melting it for you during its two weeks of delivery.

We never shipped cheese in the summer, and they still, at the dairy farm, watch the weather reports.

Today, at least in my house, mail order catalogs pile up high, and since I have been in charge of the dairy farm ...my father died in 1962, he started it and ran it for 22 years, (I’ve been running it for 32 years, which is kind of scary.)

When we started it was very much of a mail order business, and when I took over it was absolutely obvious to me that we could never make a good business of it unless we were overwhelmingly retail, but mail order has since boomed; everybody is selling by mail now. That’s the good news, but the bad news is that everybody is selling something by mail, and our catalog is just one in a huge pile now.

Well the whole cheese shop and food renaissance has occurred in the last 20 years, and to our amazement, a very significant part of our business is now wholesale, and we’ve had to try to figure out how to make a profit ...wholesale.

When we made a profit, we put it into the business. We have a building we are very proud of, it is small but very nice, we have bought some additional farm land, and improved the others, we have done lots of things with our profits, but never distributed a dividend. My brother and sister, who are part owners, sometimes ask me why that is... (laughter).

Anyway, we have had a very interesting change in our company going from entirely retail, and almost entirely mail order to very significantly wholesale through distributors, but also direct mail to retail customers, restaurants, that kind of thing.

I don’t believe our company could ever have survived if it had not been in Iowa, or a place like Iowa, where our costs... we get wonderful, wonderful human beings to work in Iowa at a very modest wage compared to the rest of the country. The Iowa culture is one of integrity, modesty and hard work.

So when you buy a pound of Maytag Blue you might think it is expensive, but I can assure you, it would be a lot more expensive if we were making it in Marin county. Being in Iowa, in a rural environment, on a farm with the kind of people we have there, has made an unbelievable contribution to our ability to survive.

When I was a young man, my father had to run the appliance business, and they were good appliances, so people used to say, oh hey, that is wonderful, but, every once in a while I would be with him when someone would say.... Maytag? Are you connected to that Blue cheese? And, I can tell you that my father was incredibly proud of his achievement.

Our little company is very small for that reason. Our name is associated with washing machines, and I don’t feel it is appropriate for us to take advantage of it, to market cheese stirrers, or cheese washers: we don’t make cheese with forklift, and sell it in bulk. I’ve always felt that if we could keep it small and profitable and something we could be proud of that we could continue the tradition with which it really was started.

We make about 250,000 lbs. of cheese a year (ds- 1994), we make a little goats milk blue, some know that and some don’t, we started that in the mid-seventies, it was one of my ideas. Imagine how the people that worked for my father felt when I said we would make cheese from goat’s milk? Goats in Iowa, were considered something from somewhere else.

It has been a great disappointment to me, in running our business that I have had to very gradually retreat from my ambition to return to a cheese made entirely from our own cows. Unfortunately, we don’t believe we can milk cows in Iowa at a profit, on a regular basis, with an acceptable level of risk.

I don’t know what the profitable number would be, but it would be hundreds and hundreds of cows. Actually, we make milk from the equivalent of a herd of about a hundred and twenty cows, but always we have bought some milk, as we make cheese on a little different schedule than the cows.

Food should taste good in the mouth, and in the head. I think people will pay more for cheese, and it is our job to explain to them why. It’s our job to push the limit. One way is special projects, little things that push the edge on price, appealing to their minds, and not just their stomachs. If not, we will go out of business.

...we get wonderful, wonderful human beings to work in Iowa at a very modest wage compared to the rest of the country. ...when you buy a pound of Maytag Blue you might think it is expensive, but I can assure you, it would be a lot more expensive if we were making it in Marin county.
—Fritz Maytag



For this, the food rennaissance, which began in California and has spread around the world, and people eager to know accurately about what they are eating and drinking. For those few of us willing to make something wonderful, there are customers at last.

My familly’s cheese business depended on gifts at holiday time. It has been a gift you could give that was appropriate, with a funny taste. Until fairly recently, people who got Maytag Blue as a gift, it was an unusual thing that came by mail.

Now there is hope that it will be seen as a cheese, as a food, for sale in small stores everywhere. r

Dan Strongin is managing partner and owner of Edible Solutions, a consulting company focused on helping companies making great food make a profit. He will be writing a monthly column in Cheese Reporter. Strongin can be reached via phone at (510) 224-0493, or via e-mail at dan@danstrongin.com. You can visit and blog with Dan at www.managenaturally.com.

 

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