LOUISVILLE, Ohio — Ben Biery, the fourth generation to lead Biery Cheese, is pushing the envelope in the cheese industry, experimenting with new flavors and inventing new packaging for customer convenience.
The company keeps an eye on trends, jumping to make a bacon cheese and hitting the market with a rigid bottom cheese tray that opens like a book.
And Biery works with the University of Wisconsin to keep tabs on research and to train his employees on evaluating and grading cheese.
“We grade the cheese before, during and after packaging to maintain consistent quality,” he said. “We want customers to have a great experience — and then experience that same quality, every single time.”
Biery Cheese started in 1929 during the Depression, when Ben’s great-grandfather Norman F. Biery needed a place for their farm’s excess milk. As a solution, he started a co-op with local farmers and started making Swiss cheese.
They brought in a cheesemaker from Switzerland and the cheese became popular, selling to markets in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. They stopped making Swiss cheese in 1952 and partnered with Amish and other local cheese makers to buy their cheese and package it.
The family still owns the original farm across the street from the Biery Cheese plant in Louisville.
Some things have changed in nearly 90 years, but the company’s logo still includes a modified version of the Zweisimmen coat of arms in honor of their homeland in Switzerland.
In 1968, the company started slicing cheese.
“We were way ahead of the times in convenience cheese,” Biery said.
They now slice thousands of cheeses slices per minute for multiple retailers and sandwich programs. They’ve grown into private label packaging and moved into markets all over the Northeast and Midwest.
“We are about creating memories,” Biery said. “We want to be part of someone’s family — (we want to) be there during special occasions, like the first day of school or summer picnics.”
Snacks are hot right now, he said, and so Biery makes a variety of party trays and packages cheese for convenience.
The team is constantly following trend lines in convenience, spice and flavors, Biery said, who has degree in business management.
Though he claims his formal education was pretty “vanilla,” he grew up around the business and has learned the trade from his family and other employees.
He also seeks advice and training from master cheese makers and graders in Wisconsin.
“The University of Wisconsin is really up-ticking the quality of cheese making,” he said.
Europe has always taken pride in its cheeses, but the U.S. is capturing more credit and awards in the last 15 years, he said.
In 2014, Biery Cheese purchased a cheese plant in Plover, Wisconsin. At that plant, they offer a cheese wrapping service to private label purchasers, commercial kitchens and cheese makers alike.
While the Plover plant specializes in Wisconsin cheeses, it also handles other domestic or imported varieties as well as organic cheeses.
Biery Cheese has more than 550 employees at both locations, growth from 80 employees eight years ago.
They use cheese made in Ohio and Wisconsin and import specialty cheeses, packaging more than 100 varieties.
The types of cheeses worked with and the package configurations supported are too many to list. In short, they handle blocks, wheels, rounds, deli-horns, Italian cheeses and other varieties, including rBST free and organic varieties.
In the market, cheese follows milk. In today’s low milk prices, it is the retailer that sees the profit margin boost, not the farmer or the cheese factory, Biery said. But the business does benefit from the snack and convenience cheese market’s constant demand.
Since 1990, they’ve won 28 awards between the U.S. and the World Championship Cheese contests. The most recent three were:
2016 — Bacon Studded, best of class
2015 — Hickory Smoked Cheddar, second
2015 — American, third
Because they compete with companies all over the world, it can be a challenge to attract talent, Biery said.
But, he added, “We have an excellent group of core people. There is something special about working for a cheese company and seeing cows out the window.”
“It’s not about size. Are we doing the right things for our business’ success? Are customers enjoying our food safely? If we’ve done those things right and strategically with good suppliers and customers, we’ll be successful,” Biery said who has two daughters, 11 and 12 years old.
“I don’t care if it is a Biery who runs this company. We have 550 families to support, 550 families to feed,” he said, wanting the next leader, family or not, to uphold the mission and values.
Biery’s next move is to expand into even more private label branding.
“If it is good, they won’t substitute you out — if you are just as good, they will substitute you,” he said.