When something is “grand,” it denotes something “magnificent, the largest/most important item of its kind.” The result of much skill, time and training, Grandmaster is the highest title a chess player can attain, while the Masters at Augusta National is hallowed grounds for 90 to 100 pro golfers vying for a $15 million purse.
In the world of cheesemaking, only about 90 professionals worldwide have earned the prestigious Master Cheesemaker title. In 2014, Chris Renard, co-owner of family-owned and -operated Renard’s Cheese in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay, Wis., joined that elite group, earning certifications in Cheddar and Mozzarella.
Chris explains that to be a Master Cheesemaker, one has to have been making cheese with a cheesemaking license for 10 years — he earned his license in 1995 — get accepted into the arduous three-year program (with an average of six to 10 people being accepted each year), complete coursework taught by accomplished cheese educators, regularly send cheese in for sampling/grading, complete an apprenticeship and submit a rigorous 40-hour take-home final.
“They give you four weeks to complete the exam,” Chris tells Dairy Foods during a recent visit. “When I was done, my exam was 53 pages long and it took me about 48 hours.”
“It doesn’t matter how good of a cheesemaker you are, if the milk you start with isn’t any good, you’re going to have a hard time making high-quality cheese. All the farms we pull from are small family farms that take a lot of pride in the milk that’s coming into us, so we’ve got a great ingredient to start with, a huge benefit.”
The Master Cheesemaker title also has fostered Renard’s growth nationally and internationally, notes Co-Owner Ann Renard, Chris’ wife of 22 years who, in 2010, joined the already well-established Rosewood Dairy Inc., the cheese manufacturing plant in Algoma, Wis., which was built in 1920 and originally purchased by Chris’ grandfather, Howard Renard, in 1961.
Proudly crafting Wisconsin Cheese since 1961, Renard’s Cheese was also owned by Howard’s son and Chris’ dad, Gary. “In 1966, my dad purchased this location which originally was just a cheese factory and it ran until 1975. That same year, they combined both factories into one,” Chris explains. “In 1975, my parents, Gary and Bonnie, remodeled this cheese factory into a cheese store. My grandfather told them starting out that that was the craziest idea ever, and that it would never work. But, in 1976 my grandparents built a cheese store right next to the cheese factory because the store was taking off and doing well.” (See sidebar for more on the family history).
Mastering the craft
In addition to demonstrating leadership, knowledge, and extensive skill, being named a Master Cheesemaker gives cheese processors national acclaim and a broader distribution reach for their cheese. Interestingly, “America’s Dairyland” also is the only place in the world outside of Switzerland where cheesemakers can formally become Masters of their craft.
“The Master Cheesemaking designation allows Renard’s Cheese to market our products to a larger audience,” Ann explains. “In 2017, in partnership with a cheese broker, Renard’s Cheese began marketing cheese in the Middle East. We are currently selling in Dubai and Saudi Arabia and are working on building partnerships in Panama.”
With a degree in business and marketing from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Chris worked as a buyer for SuperValu. At the behest of his dad, who wanted to retire, the family moved back to Door County in 1995. Chris got his cheesemakers license and “I’ve been making cheese here ever since.”
In 2010, Chris and Ann made Renard’s a third-generation family business, which has now been operating on the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan for 62 years. And the business continues to grow and thrive. In 2010, its revenue was just shy of $2 million, it made $15 million in 2022 and is anticipating $20 million in dollar sales this year. “That estimate is conservative, and I have no reason to believe we won’t hit that,” Ann says, noting that 20% of revenue is from the shop and bistro, 3% is from eCommerce, 3% is from exports, and the remainder is bulk, or from the company’s newly built in-house cut and wrap for exact weigh conversion. “A trial vat is also part of Phase One, which will allow us to create new custom recipes for our customers,” Chris says.
With extensive experience in business management, Ann notes that she “does a little bit of everything” when it comes to managing the operations side of the business. When the husband-and-wife team took over in 2010, there were 12 employees; today 75. She oversees the retail and bistro side of the business as well as the human resources department, finance, pricing, sales and marketing.
“And when you see the rebranding we did in 2018 and 2019, I was a very big part of that, and the vision that went along with it,” she adds.
Renard’s now has about 45 distributors and expanding. “That’s one thing two to three years ago we really started focusing on, knowing where our business model was going,” Ann says. “We’ve built some great partnerships, and now that our cut and wrap is officially up and going, those partnerships are really moving forward.
“This year we are adding onto this location, that’ll be our eighth addition or remodel since 2012 in this area,” she continues. “That will give us an additional 4,000 square feet. The total will be roughly 10,000 square feet after all is said and done.”
Distribution-wise, Renard’s Cheese can be found in select retailers across the United States, in the Middle East and, of course, throughout Door County. Known as the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” Door County boasts scenic coastal towns like Fish Creek, Ephraim and Bailey’s Harbor, world-famous cherry pie, five state parks, nine wineries and of course, cheese, glorious cheese.
One of four cheese companies in the 70-mile-long Door County, Renard’s Cheese boasts an expansive, 8,000-square-foot gift shop, featuring Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream, and Melt Bistro that makes mouth-watering artisan melts. The bistro brings in $800,000 annually, while the cheese shop registers basket rings of between $2.5 and $3 million.
Originally, the couple wasn’t convinced that their “little sandwich deli,” which opened in 2012 and rebranded in 2020, was going to take off.
“Neither one of us was really familiar with the foodservice industry. It was an idea to showcase our cheese that really started with pizzas. We did a lot with pizza fundraisers and people loved our pizzas,” Ann explains. “In 2018, an acquaintance of mine and our marketing director were talking about recipes to showcase our cheeses better. That’s how Melt Bistro came about. We brought Julie in, and she and our staff came up with the dishes we still serve today.”
Popular dishes include spinach and artichoke melts, Italians, Cubans, a Door County Cherry Melt, cheese spread flights featuring a Bloody Mary spread, a pimento spread, a salsa spread, and a ghost pepper spread, as well as original and flatbread pizza and Mom’s macaroni.
During peak season, the end of May thru October, an average of 1,500 to 2,000 visitors stop by Renard’s Cheese, located at 2189 County Road, visible from Highway 57, which is open year-round, seven days a week. The store offers complimentary samplings of cheese, wine and the company’s homemade fudge, which it started making in 2018 because “it just goes naturally with the cheese,” Ann says.
The store also gives consumers the ability to shop the store’s many handcrafted artisan cheese selections, order online (www.renardscheese.com), find interesting gourmet accompaniments, and discover other Door County products. There’s also a Grab N Go Cooler, prepared meals, charcuterie boards, snacks and desserts along with indoor and outdoor seating, a playground and the iconic Melvin the mouse, which has been part of the family business since Chris was a little kid.
Chris explains: “Melvin has always been in the front of our store, welcoming customers. When we were still at our other location [in Algoma, Wis.], we had a customer from Chicago come in, their son was 18 or 19, and they showed us a picture of every year that their son posed with Melvin the mouse. All the way from when he was in a car seat until he was graduating high school.”
Milk key to making artisan cheese
Since milk is 99% of cheese, and it takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese, Renard’s is currently taking in 30 million pounds of milk a year to make 75 flavors of cheese.
“The aquifer we have in Door County with the limestone filters the water well, so the crops and the feed that the animals are getting are very rich. So, they’re eating a lot of protein and nutrients that give the milk a lot of flavor,” Chris explains. “It doesn’t matter how good of a cheesemaker you are, if the milk you start with isn’t any good, you’re going to have a hard time making high-quality cheese.
“All the farms we pull from are small family farms that take a lot of pride in the milk that’s coming into us, so we’ve got a great ingredient to start with, a huge benefit,” he continues. “Everything we do is small batch cheese of 1,500 pounds. The cheesemakers are working with their hands, they’re monitoring it every step of the way to see how the cheese is going. It’s a lot more care in how the cheese is handled. It’s not just pushing a button.”
With much time, patience and diligence, Chris’ vision and talent is behind the hands-on crafting of a wide range of aged and specialty cheeses, including Cheddar, Colby, Monterrey Jack, Farmer’s, Muenster Brick, Colby Jack, Cheese Curds, both squeaky fresh and breaded, and String Cheese.
In fact, Chris introduced String Cheese to the third-generation family business in 1998. String Cheese, Angel Hair String, Whip String Cheese and Smoked Cheese are now among the dairy company’s most popular brands, winning awards at national competitions.
Internationally, the company’s Old Fashioned Hoop Cheddar, with an overall score of 98.9, scored a “Best in Class” at the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest, the world’s largest technical cheese competition, in the Traditional Waxed Cheddar, Mild to Medium category. In 2008, its Bandaged Style Cheddar Mild to Medium also garnered a “Best in Class” with a score of 98.25 at the World’s competition.
Chris explains that about 80% of the cheese Renard’s produces, like Farmer’s and Monterrey Jack, are higher moisture cheeses, while 20% of their portfolio is aged cheese — with a 15-year cheddar being the longest aged cheese in storage. The company also produces cheddars aged between one to 10 years.
Since on-site storage is at a premium, the company’s ships about 20% of it cheese off site, while 5% of the aged cheese is sent to Green Bay.
With demand for Renard’s small batch artisan cheese at a premium, the company is going through a $30 million renovation and expansion, building a new plant in three phases in Algoma, located about 11 miles from the cheese shop. The expansion will enable Renard’s to go from making 3 million pounds of cheese to making 12 million pounds of artisan small-batch cheese annually and increase automation from zero to 75%.
“We’ve had to turn down about 4 to 6 million pounds of production a year because we just don’t have the capacity or the ability to handle the wear and tear on our bodies,” Chris states. “We’ll be able to pick up the farms on our waiting list, we have 17 small family farms, and we’ll be more efficient and able to maintain our workforce.”
The new, 50,000-square-foot cheese plant, complete with six vats instead of four, a more automated way of filling and washing the hoops, and a dedicated in-house cut and wrap room, is expected to be completed by mid to late 2026. (For more information, see our “Inside the Plant” feature).
Artisan-flavored cheese is a hot commodity
With close to three decades of cheesemaking acumen, Master Cheesemaker Chris notes that it takes patience and superb note-taking to make good cheese.
“My favorite cheeses are our aged cheddars, our two-year white and our five-year white,” Chris relays. “My personal favorite is our New World Cheddar. It’s an aged cheddar that has high fat content of around 58-62%. It has a ton of flavor, it’s not like a typical cheddar, it doesn’t crumble, it melts very well, it slices, it’s creamier, so it has that rich sharp cheddar flavor, and it melts in your mouth.”
Chris explains that the fat on dry matter is basically the percentage of fat molecules that are in the cheese. “Our typical Cheddar is going to be 50%, where our New World is a heavier cheese built with fat. We blend cream back into the cheddar, which helps give it that rich flavor. The flavor of your cheese is made up by the molecules of the butter fat, the protein, and the other milk solids that go into it.
“…The creation of new recipes and cheeses is so much fun,” he continues. “That’s the enjoyable part of making cheese. There was a lot of physical work in creating the New World Cheddar, and about four trials, but when you taste the end product and realize how great it tastes, that’s the cool part.”
As the No. 1 producer of cheese, Wisconsin is a mecca for cheese production, producing 27% of North America’s total volume, around 3.2 billion pounds of cheese, followed by California (23%), Idaho (8%) and New York (7%). Chicago-based market research firm Circana reports that total deli/dairy cheese sales reached nearly $22 billion for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 20, 2022.
Yet, there’s considerable distinction in what cheese “sells” overseas versus in the United States, according to Chris.
“The cheeses that we started exporting are on the specialty side, so there’s a lot of the flavored cheeses that have taken off overseas. We’re not competing with commodity style manufacturers whether it’s mass produced cheddars, Monterey Jacks or Mozzarellas.” Chris relays. “The interest isin the more subtle flavor profiles and flavors. So, instead of the aged cheddars, we see much more interest in things like the Farmer’s Cheese.
“In some of these countries, especially going into the Asian market, cheese is relatively new to them, so they’re not ready for something with a real strong flavor. However, when we talk about the Middle East, they’re coming around to the stronger flavors, and you also see a lot of American interest in those areas,” he continues. “There are many people who travel there, and have moved there for their living, and they’re looking for food they grew up eating. At this time, we export a small amount of our production, about 2%, and that’s because we started getting into exports right before COVID-19 hit.”
Noting that exports are just now really starting to open up, Renard’s Cheese currently is exporting 30 SKUs and has seen its biggest orders in 2023 go out in exports. “So if we compare 2022 and 2023 in exports, we’ve exported 300% more in 2023, Chris states. “Each area requests slightly different cheese, but a lot of them overlap. We export the Morel and Leek, Monterey Jack, our mild and medium cheddars, our Farmers Pesto, our new Farmers with Guacamole, and our Cherry Cheddar. “Door County is known for our cherries too, and our Cherry Cheddar was one of the first blends we made in 2012,” he continues. “When I came into the business, there were basically three flavored cheeses — it was Pepper Jack, Caraway Cheddar, and an Onion and Garlic Cheddar. When we came in and I started getting into my masters, we started expanding that. The Cherry Cheddar is excellent. It has a sweet cherry flavor, but it has a vanilla undertone, so it’s a great dessert cheese.
When it comes to the top-selling products, Chris points to Renard’s fresh, squeaky cheese curds and breaded curds as tops, with 50,000 pounds a year of cheese curds being sold on-premise, 500,000 pounds to food service; 300,000 to 400,000 on the wholesale side; and 450,000 breaded cheese curds distributed to about 90% of the restaurants in Door County.
“Our cheese curds are growing so well that we actually have storage in Green Bay for it because we don’t have enough freezer space to accommodate. So, that’s part of our phase two expansion,” Ann states.
A passion for cheese
From a business perspective, Chris and Ann take pride in knowing how much their handcrafted cheese resonates with their milk-supplying family farms, distributors, and customers.
On the day Dairy Foods visited, several customers were milling around the store, including Jim and Barb, who had traveled all the way from San Diego to visit their 100-year-old aunt.
While they consider themselves “cheese snobs” who typically enjoy wine and cheese dinners, “this Chipotle Jack is the bomb,” Jim enthused. “It’s soft but has a smoky heat that I absolutely love.”
Chris says that response is part of the reason he loves making cheese. “Speaking from the cheesemaker side of things, it’s always great to take pride in giving someone a piece of cheese and then going ‘wow, that is really good.’
“You can say, ah shoot, I had my hands in that, we created that. If you walk through our store and listen to the positive comments about the experience our customers have, you take that to heart,” he continues. “That’s based on the hard work of Ann and I and our dedicated team.”
Nearly 15 years since they assumed the family cheese business, Chris and Ann reflect on all the changes and growth, noting that they needed to reinvest in the infrastructure to keep up with demand.
“We bought this in 2010, and it’s now 2023, and you drive away at the end of the day, and some days it hits you, ‘wow we were just, 10 years ago, in that little building next door’ … and we’ve now had eight additions.
“And at end of 2026, when we drive up to our newly built factory that’s now 50,000 square feet and is efficient and mostly automated, we know that Renard’s cheese will continue to be around,” Ann concludes. “That wouldn’t be the case if we were maintaining the status quo. And we’re so excited for the next phase of our cheesemaking journey. That is the history, the legacy, and the plan for the future.”
Cheese is in the family’s blood
Founded in 1961, Renard’s Cheese in Door County’s Sturgeon Bay, Wis., has a long and rich history – well on its way to becoming a fourth-generation cheesemaker.
But let’s start at the very beginning.
At the age of 13, Howard Renard began helping his father, a farmer and milk hauler. For 20 years, Howard learned the art and science of the cheesemaking trade at Door County Dairies producing Colby and his specialty, Cheddar, before opening his own manufacturing plant — Rosewood Dairy — in Algoma, Wis., in 1961.
In a nutshell, “we started off making cheese at the Algoma location. In 1966 my dad purchased this location which originally was just a cheese factory and it ran until 1975. That same year, they combined both factories into one,” Chris recalls. “In 1975, my parents, Gary and Bonnie, remodeled this cheese factory into a cheese store. My grandfather told them starting out that that was the craziest idea ever, and that it would never work. But, in 1976 my grandparents built a cheese store right next to the cheese factory because the store was taking off and doing well.”
In turn, Gary, Chris’ dad, inherited his love of cheesemaking from his dad, so it’s logical that the love for being “all-in” on cheesemaking was inevitable for Gary’s son Chris who jokes that an empty cheese vat likely served as his first play pen.
“I was about 4 years old when I started coming down to the factory,” Chris recalls. “My first job was washing milk cans. I was the person in charge of running them through the washer, so they could get back on the truck to go back to the farms. When I got out of high school, at that point I was not making cheese anymore, I went off to college for four years, and I worked for SuperValu for a total of seven years.
“Then dad called up and said he was looking to retire and cut back, and I made a decision within three months that we really liked Door County and this was the place to come back to start our family. I’ve been here since 1995.”
Schooled in cheesemaking from the time he could tie his shoes, Chris notes that the seeds have been planted for a possible fourth-generation in the couple’s four daughters: Samantha, 25, a former pediatric nurse who came back to the family business in 2021; Gabrielle, 20; Taylor, 18; and Carrie, 15.
Chris credits his parents and grandparents for teaching him the value of hard work and doing something that you love — and passing those skills to his own daughters.
”My grandparents started it all and they raised their entire family of seven children as cheesemakers. My mom and dad did the same thing, whether we liked it or not. We were hand waxing little itty bitty pieces of cheese before we went to school,” Chris recalls. “Our kids grew up doing that. It sounds crazy, but at the age of 7, a child can cut string cheese, and they get something out of doing that, they have a purpose, it connects you and it gives you a strong work ethic.”