A journey from the Swiss Alps to Ohio has given birth to the United States’ largest Swiss cheese manufacturer. Join Armando Diana as he learns “say cheese!’ is not something merely shouted out during a photo shoot for one family-owned business in Doughty Valley, Ohio.
The climate, environment and rolling hills throughout the Doughty Valley in central Ohio is reminiscent of Switzerland and was the main reason a young man who learned to make cheese in the Swiss Alps as a 16-year-old settled among Amish farmers in 1947. Alfred Guggisberg was taught the art of making cheese at the renowned Swiss Federal “Molkereishulle” or cheese maker’s institute, and made cheese throughout Europe for a number of years.
Ambition and thoughts of a better life led him to the United States where he started the Doughty Valley Cheese Company, which is now known as Guggisberg Cheese, Incorporated, one of the largest Swiss Cheese manufacturers in the United States today. With a dedication and insistence on quality Alfred quickly earned a reputation as an exceptional cheese maker and the business grew.
He maintained the family values he learned in Switzerland and brought his culture and way of life to the Amish farmers in what is known as the Amish Country of Ohio. According to his son, Richard, president of Guggisberg Cheese since 1985, Ohio and not Pennsylvania, as is commonly thought, has the largest population of Amish.
Richard ensures that Guggisberg Cheese continues the traditions of family values, quality and good cheese that his father taught him. He learned his lessons well as Guggisberg Cheese has seen 10 percent growth per year over the past few years and annually produces about 20 million pounds of cheese.
“It’s the way of our family business to produce high quality cheese and give our customers the value they deserve,” said Guggisberg.
To ensure freshness and high quality, Guggisberg utilizes a facility that is large enough to allow the employees to take the cheese right out of the cooler into the cutting room and pack it back into the cooler. Most cheese manufacturers transport the cheese to other facilities for cutting.
The in-house ability to cool, cut, package and re-cool the cheese gives Guggisberg Cheese a competitive edge and a well-earned reputation for freshness. Guggisberg indicated he is looking to expand his operations in the coming years to make sure his customers always get the freshest cheese.
THE BABY MAKES THE COMPANY
Swiss cheese is the generic name for several related varieties of cheese, all of which resemble the Swiss Emmental. The Emmental is the valley of the Emme River in west/central Switzerland in the canton of Bern, a region mostly devoted to farming, particularly dairy farming. Some types of Swiss cheese have a distinctive appearance, as the blocks of the cheese are riddled with holes known as “eyes.” Swiss cheese is known for its nutty, bittersweet taste.
Makers of Swiss cheese in Switzerland typically made eight pound “wheels of cheese.” Once in the United States and limited for space Alfred created a four-pound wheel of cheese, for which Richard says his mother, Margaret, coined the phrase “Baby Swiss” because it was smaller than the typical eight-pound wheel and had smaller “eyes.” A product and revolution in cheese was born.
Richard says his father spent years experimenting with different types of combinations trying to discover cheese more suitable to the American taste buds. Guggisberg Cheese hit the jackpot with Baby Swiss, which is a delightful blend of creamy and mild taste.
“This is the cheese that made us famous,” Richard says. “This cheese is made with a more natural, pasture-based system.”
Guggisberg is referring to the company’s most recent product line that uses milk produced from cows grazing only on the green pastures of the Doughty Valley. The products are called Grass-Fed Baby Swiss and Premium Swiss and highlight the company’s resolve towards environmentally conscious consumers by producing cheese from the milk of cows that are grass-fed. He says grass-fed cheese produces a cheese that has a perfect balance of minerals and vitamins and a great source of calcium. It is also free of artificial hormones and still has the same great flavor. Guggisberg says it’s the perfect product for the health-conscious consumer.
The great taste that separates Guggisberg cheese from other cheese is not simply a subjective matter of taste. In fact, the company won a first prize for its Swiss cheese in the cheese championship competition at the World Dairy Expo in October 2007 held in Madison, Wis. The World Dairy Expo gives cheese makers an opportunity to see cutting edge technology and the latest dairy equipment.
The company also makes combination packages that are a convenient way to sample more of their products for one low price. Some of the combinations include what it calls a “tempting two-some,” which is a four-pound Swiss cheese and 12 ounces of summer sausage with hard candies. They even throw in a gift card to boot.
Then there is the triple sampler that has one pound each of the company’s most popular varieties: Baby Swiss, Amish Butter Cheese, and Lucerne. It’s packed with a gift card and hard candies when ordered as a gift. They also offer the Office Pack that includes a two-pound wheel of Original Baby Swiss, a 12-oz. summer sausage, crackers, and mustard. Of course, it comes with a gift card and hard candies.
HAVING THE RIGHT MARKETING MIX
Making great tasting cheese and being a renowned cheese maker certainly helps in gaining and maintaining business. But Guggisberg Cheese doesn’t stop there. The company distributes its products direct through catalog, on line sales, distributors, brokers, and private label. Within the seven-state vicinity of Ohio, Guggisberg Cheese sells under its brand name. However, the company private labels its cheese to other outlets.
Guggisberg says there are plans underway to expand the marketing effort for the company. He was unable to share most of his plans due to competitive reasons but did indicate the company may move towards expanding its tours and other theme-related attractions. The company also has a small retail store on site for visitors to frequent after the tours.
“We’re not going to be the ‘Hershey Park’ of cheese but we will do something soon to increase our exposure,” he said.
To that end, the Guggisberg Swiss Inn sits across the street from the Guggisberg Cheese facility. In operation since 1992, the Guggisberg Inn offers visitors a peaceful, relaxing getaway in the virtual heart of Ohio’s Amish Country. The Swiss-themed Inn is a tribute to the heritage of the Guggisberg family, and to many in the area whose heritage tracks back to Switzerland.
Nestled in what is known as the heart of Amish Country, the Inn is designed to resemble a typical Swiss inn as it overlooks the Doughty Valley countryside. Horseback riding is among its many features for guests.
Guggisberg says the ambience of the countryside mixed with a focus on a traditional family-owned business is what separates Guggisberg Cheese from competitors. From the high pastures of the Swiss Alps to the pastures of Doughty Valley, Ohio, Alfred found and built what he dreamed. His son has taken that dream to the next step.
Richard says from the moment Baby Swiss hit the market it became an instant hit and, in those days, word of mouth was the best advertising for the company. Guggisberg says travelers came from hundreds of miles away to knock on the family business door and ask for a wheel of cheese.
Today, they also knock on the Guggisberg Swiss Inn door, stay for awhile and walk across the street for some Baby Swiss Cheese.