Cypress Grove Sells to Emmi

The news that Cypress Grove sold to the Swiss Emmi Corporation really did shock most of the folks I know in the cheese world. I (and I’m sure other cheese-oriented individuals also) got numerous “OMG did you hear?” calls and emails. The cheese world has lots of new products, marketing, distribution changes, and gossip, but seldom has actual news.

The response was varied but quick. The poor Cypress facebook page didn’t know what hit it. I think it was evident that Cypress was as shocked at the negative responses as their loyal customers were shocked at the announcement.

I wasn’t negative when I heard the news, but I was already dreading the response by customers. As a natural foods store worker, I can attest that many of our most loyal shoppers already feel pretty betrayed by the big companies of the natural foods world.* Some idealist shoppers feel like they supported small, local businesses as a political act, a post-hippie attack on the corporate food system, only to have those companies cash in as soon as they got a good offer. This isn’t an essay on brand loyalty, but many of those companies did cash in on community goodwill, underdog status, and hippie trappings to help build those businesses so while somewhat naïve, this view is not without basis in reality.

As an example of what Cypress supporters are worried about, given that I imagine very few know who Emmi is, I think Scharffen Berger Chocolate is a good one. Here’s a company that sourced amazing, high quality beans, making a truly distinct chocolate and was made in a factory you could visit or pass by on your daily travels. Tied in to the community, you saw the owners around town and at events (and even shopping at Rainbow). Then they sold to Hershey’s, the antithesis of everything they seemed to be about. Many promises were made by Hershey’s and the old owners that everything would stay the same. A few years later, they closed the factory.

So, who is Emmi? Emmi is a Swiss company that started as a dairy co-op. Emmi brings us the branded “Cave-Aged Gruyere” which is responsible in large part for Americans coming to a better appreciation of that cheese at its correct age (rather than the boring 3 mo version that used to be the only one available). It also makes the very tasty Emmi yogurt which contains misleading packaging and (until recently?) ingredients not found in natural foods stores. They also own Roth Kase Cheese in Wisconsin. I can attest that they put a ton of money into making Roth Kase cheese much better and more consistent than it had been in the past. Roth Kase used to be known for winning competitions with great cheese and then trying to pass off much younger cheese as the same thing. Emmi put a stop to that for sure and I appreciate them for that.

But here’s the thing with Cypress Grove. Mary Keehn, over the last 30 years, has created some of the best goat cheese in the country. But she’s in her mid-60s now. Cheese and dairy (as well as most farming) is all about family succession. What does a responsible member of a rural community do when they start thinking of retirement if no family member wants to take over? It’s one of the two main fallacies of the “support family businesses” way of thinking one is being political by what they buy. How many of you out there work in your family business or would if your family had a business? For good or ill, it’s not the way things work anymore for most people, and this is hitting the hippie era back-to-the-landers now in the same way that the current foodie neo-back-to-the-land movement will be hit 30 years from now. Sure there will be exceptions, but in a case like this what are the options: never retire, sell, or close up shop.**

And let’s remember that Cypress Grove is not even the first California goat cheese producer to sell. Laura Chenel sold to a French company a few years ago. Of the big three California goat cheese makers, only Redwood Hill is still locally-owned.

I admit to having a reluctance to wanting to see anything change at Cypress Grove. I have had the privilege of knowing Mary and Bob at Cypress for many years now, and they are truly some of the best people in the dairy business. When the worker co-op conference needed last minute cheese for the Jim Hightower reception they came through within minutes. Any problems with the cheese? I get immediate response. So when I heard the news I wasn’t really excited. There are too many unknowns down the line. But when I thought about what the other options were, including a potential new blow against Humboldt County dairy farmers,*** a rural economy already reeling from the
Humboldt Creamery disaster, and the drop in marijuana prices,**** I realized that this was not the worst option at all.

And really, we should be happy that Mary thought about all this and is saving the jobs that exist and the local dairies that depend on her operation.

I don’t think Emmi will move the operation, which (like the Scharffen Berger example) is what a lot of people worry about. I mean, unlike chocolate where the raw ingredients are brought from around the world, you put the creamery where the milk is. True, down the line they could start using more non-local frozen curd, open a second plant or move their operations, but I don’t really know how moving would make financial sense, especially since it isn’t too long ago that Cypress opened a new, larger plant. Hopefully Emmi will invest in operations and provide more jobs up there.

So, basically, I am not thrilled that Cypress Grove is no longer locally-owned, but it’s certainly better than the alternatives. And hey, it’s not like she sold to Kraft!

*This chart is already out of date, but shows the dynamic
**certainly the Bob’s Red Mill example would be my first choice ideologically
***yes, I consider goat milk dairy farmer even if CMAB doesn’t.
****a potentially much bigger hit if the legalization proposition passes this November

8 responses to “Cypress Grove Sells to Emmi

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts on this. On my recent trip to Wisconsin, I kept thinking about that romantic image of the artisan cheesemaker…the lovely story that sells the cheese…and just how difficult (and physically unsustainable) the work of making cheese “by hand” actually is. There’s a total disconnect on the retail end, both from mongers and our customers, regarding what the actual labor is that goes into making cheese and how this ties into our food idealism.

    It’s tricky subject matter, and you really said everything just right. Gonna share a link (and maybe do some forwarding).


  2. This is a great consideration of a touchy subject. As someone who lives only miles from the Scharffen Berger factory that supported hundreds of workers yet closed during the worst recession to hit the bay area since the dot com fall, it is scary to think the same might happen up north. Maybe though, Mary Keehn has protected her company and community in ways that Scharffen Berger did not. Her commitment to her community has certainly been clear throughout the years.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful & well presented take on this, Gordon.
    Your view is much appreciated.
    Ironically, there is no fog in Humboldt today.

  4. Hey Gordon,
    Yes we all were shocked by the news but I think Mary is a smart business woman and the cheeses from Emmi are great ones. It will be interesting to see what the future holds. Congratulations to Mary for living the American dream of starting your own company, running successfully for years and then selling it for enough to retire. Way to go Mary!

  5. Yes, Mary is the rare entrepreneur — skilled in her craft & generous of Spirit. This acquisition needs to age a bit to know what flavor the future holds.

    • Hey Gordon, Emmi is demanding a stiff production increase, which requires more out of area milk than ever, and even more use of frozen curd from Mexico for your Humboldt Fog and other cheeses. Soon, many workers will in fact lose their jobs, as new Emmi funded machinery is brought in to keep up with demand. Does that sound good from a cheesemongers perspective? You people have been praising Humboldt Fog made from 100% Mexican goat curd, frozen and shipped in, and packed into molds by illegal workers, for years while believing Mary was anywhere near the cheese, and now it’s poised to get worse and you say you guess it’s ok with you. Ok, cheesemonger, I hope you can stick to the cypress website story of the cheese terroir with your customers with a straight face. But if you believe what Bob is sellin’, and that he’s one of “the best people in the dairy business,” then you’ve already been duped and shouldn’t have a problem selling a true taste of Northern California terroir to a rich wine snob at a high price.

      • Awesome. It’s great to get a comment that adds to the discussion here. I assume you’re from up north so I appreciate your local perspective.

        I totally agree with you about people who sell “terroir” as a concept or marketing ploy. It’s pretty much an indicator of someone bullshitting. That’s why I’ve always been critical of the whole concept of terroir in the US, and have been specifically mocking and critical when people use it for Cypress products. I actually refused to carry the Cypress Dutch cheese line until they were labeled more clearly as being made in Holland.

        Not sure I understand your logic about “stiff production increase”, “increased demand”, and ”Emmi funded machinery” leading to job loss. I guess we’ll see. Closing the factory definitely means job loss so even if you are right (and I am not sure you are) it’s still a net save of jobs up there.

        Maybe I’m too close to the cheese world so I take some things for granted. It’s obvious to me that no large goat cheese producer can produce enough milk for year round production, so any company that doesn’t run out is obviously using frozen curd. Not only have I written about this, but Cypress Grove is one of the only companies that actually says publicly that they do this. My experience with them is that they are remarkably straight-forward. When we argued over the Dutch cheese (and I was not the only one) they addressed my concerns and fixed the problem. I’ve known Bob professionally since before he worked at Cypress and he’s always been honest and up-front me. That is not the case with many natural foods reps.

        I’m not cheerleading this sale but I’m just not sure what the better option is at this point. Were local offers rebuffed? I don’t know. I don’t work for Cypress, and I don’t sell their cheese the way that bothers you, so I’m not sure what else I can say about this.

        One last thing, we all know that Ag in this state would be impossible without immigrant labor. You seem pretty hung up on “Mexico” and “illegal” workers in your relatively short comment. We carry cheese from all over the world so even if some percent of curd is from Mexico, that really wouldn’t be an issue for us. I won’t print anti-Mexican comments in this blog so any further vilifying of Cypress in this way won’t be unscreened.

  6. Great post, Gordon. I appreciate hearing your take on this and reading the comments that follow. When I toured Roth Kase over the summer, Emmi had just installed some high-tech robots to flip their cheeses in the aging caves. I wonder if this is what your reader is referring to in his comment.

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