In 1920, Alexandrina Chalifoux sold her dairy farm’s surplus milk to nearby residents of the village of Sorel in Quebec, Canada, which is about an hour from Montreal. Her son, Jean-Paul, eventually took over the growing business, bottling the milk and making deliveries by horse-drawn carriage. In 1945, the Chalifoux farm obtained a pasteurization permit and worked with other nearby dairy farms to supply more customers for its three delivery routes. Jean-Paul also expanded into cheese production, and in 1959 began making cheese under the Riviera brand name.
In 1978, Chalifoux acquired the Cooperative Fort Richelieu, Sorel Dairy and Richelieu Creamery, making it the only dairy producer in the Sorel area. Beginning in the 1990s, Chalifoux Dairy began modernizing its equipment – in fact, it was the first dairy manufacturer in North America to introduce ultrafiltration technology, a process that eliminates sugar in milk that allows for the production of lactose-free cheeses. The process also helps make up to 20 percent more cheese from the same quantity of milk compared to traditional methods.
Throughout its history, Chalifoux Dairy has aimed to marry craftsmanship with technology. The latest, state-of-the-art equipment and processes are adopted to complement, not replace, traditional techniques to maintain handmade quality with larger scale production.
Using the latest compact ultrafiltration system, Chalifoux Dairy can process 200,000 liters of milk a day, while reducing waste and slashing energy bills by 30 percent. The milk – which has already been standardized, pasteurized and heated to 50°C – flows through a set of 64 ultrafiltration tubes within which whey is separated from butterfat and protein by special membranes for easy recovery. Computer-controlled processing ensures consistent quality.
Chalifoux Dairy recently invested in a new cutting machine that uses ultrasound to cut cheese to exact weights and in shapes smaller than the traditional slab. “We’re seeing a lot more demand at the store level for cheeses in smaller packages,” says Francois Marcil, general manager. “These days, consumers are busy and have grown accustomed to all the advantages of convenience packaging. Nobody wants to take the time anymore to cut portions from a big wheel; they just want it ready in a handier meal size.”
Today, while continuing as a local milk producer, Chalifoux is primarily a regional cheese maker, which accounts for about 80 percent of total sales. “We are unique in Canada as the only producer that makes milk and cheese in the same 100,000-square-foot plant,” notes Alain Chalifoux, vice president and fourth generation of family ownership. “Coupled with our commitment to high technology processing, this provides us with the flexibility to easily meet demand for any of our products.”
THE BIG CHEESE
As a fifth generation stands poised to continue the family tradition, the dairy is looking to continue to focus primarily on cheese products but expand beyond a regional Quebec supplier to serve markets across Canada. However, Marcil emphasizes, “We don’t have any plans to become a big company. We are a niche business, and we continue to see our future in serving this niche.” As far as that niche moving into the United States, Marcil says, “As much as we’d like to, it is difficult to import milk products into the U.S. and we really don’t see that changing in the future.”
In particular, Chalifoux Dairy is emphasizing its line of Riviera cheddar cheeses, in flavors ranging from mild to extra-old. “Cheddar actually originated in Great Britain, but, today, Canada produces the best cheddars, and we like to think we make some of the best of the best,” says Chalifoux. “While cheddar is our core product, we also have a full line of fine specialty cheeses that we also sell under the Riviera brand. These include chaliberg, which is a low-fat Swiss-type cheese, alpinois, havarti, and St.-Pierre de Saurel, a kind of Danish cheese.”
Over the years, the superb quality of Riviera specialty cheese has been widely recognized at a variety of major competitions as “best in class.” Foremost among these is the Reserve Champion prize for its Riviera Chaliberg awarded by the renowned British Empire Dairy Show held in Belleville, Ontario.
“Recognition is the culmination of excellence,” Chalifoux notes. “But what matters above all is that Riviera brand cheeses are enjoyed by consumers for their high quality and particularly for their superb taste.”
Moreover, thanks to ultrafiltration processing, all Riviera specialty cheeses are lactose-free. “Over the last five or six years we’ve seen increasing demand in this category,” Marcil notes. “It’s a combination of growing consumer health consciousness as well as dietary needs; there are literally millions of people in North America who are lactose-intolerant.”
Chalifoux Dairy is also looking to introduce additional cheese categories under the Riviera nameplate. “We’ve had some real success recently with our domestic parmigiana cheese, both in grated and slab forms,” Chalifoux points out. “We are also seeing more consumer demand for Swiss-like cheeses that we want to fulfill. While we will continue to be a regional milk producer, we see the future of the company is in specialty cheese.”
To that end, about two years ago Chalifoux Dairy started to private label some of its cheeses. “Riviera is a well-known and respected brand that we can continue to build upon,” Marcil says. “At the same time, we are always open to partnering with other retailers when the right opportunities present themselves.”
In Canada, the retail food market is dominated mostly by four major chains, the biggest of which is Wal-Mart. “Cheese is a perishable product,” Marcil notes. “You always want to sell today what you produced yesterday. By law, a product like fresh cheddar stored at room temperature has to be sold within 24 hours. So, we work closely with our distributors to ensure we can supply the right amount of product to satisfy anticipated demand. Some of that we can forecast with software. It also helps that we’ve been in this business for so long that we have a good feel for the market and its needs.”
Marcil cites hardworking values of a family business coupled with the commitment of its employees as underpinning the success of Chalifoux Dairy over the course of nearly a century. “We have 140 employees, and in the last couple of years we’ve really concentrated on improving teamwork and pride of ownership among our people. It really is the kind of business where if you work here, you are part of the family.”