After seven decades, Sartori Foods turns its attention to the retail market with its prized specialty cheeses.

The name Sartori may be known better in the food manufacturing and foodservice communities than among grocery consumers – but perhaps not for long, as the cheesemaker continues its push into the retail channel armed with a growing list of award-winning products.

Plymouth, Wis.-based Sartori Foods Inc., in its third generation of family ownership, has evolved from old-world cheesemaker to modern food innovator while retaining the best qualities of its history that help it to deliver world-class products. And in the past five years, Sartori has made strategic acquisitions that allowed it to greatly expand its product portfolio and gain a ranking of 68th on Dairy Foods’ annual Dairy 100, with estimated sales of $150 million (the company declined to share exact figures) and four manufacturing plants.

The 2005 purchase of Wisconsin’s Linden Cheese Co. (now known as Glacier Point Artisan Cheese) allowed the company to venture into the realm of blue-veined and surface-ripened cheese. A year later, Sartori broadened its artisan offerings even more by acquiring in-state Antigo Cheese and Idaho’s Blackfoot Cheese Co.

To better showcase its fine cheeses, Sartori is building a culinary kitchen at its corporate headquarters. Under construction during DFR’s late January visit, along with a new product development lab,  the glass-walled kitchen will play host to visitors who can watch cooking demonstrations and partake in wine-and-cheese pairings of Sartori’s latest products.

As consumers have grown more adventurous in their appetites for cheese, especially authentic artisanal and ethnic varieties, the acquisitions and kitchen addition appear to be nothing short of brilliant maneuvers. Or, as Sartori Chief Executive Officer Jim Sartori says: “We’re bullish on artisan cheese.”

Building a brand

Sartori has long been a key player in foodservice and ingredient channels, which are the company’s top revenue generators. Retail is the “smallest but the fastest growing” segment, the CEO says. “We’re really excited about it.”

It wasn’t until those recent acquisitions that the company began to truly cultivate the Sartori name as a consumer brand.

“We’re in the beginning stages of building our Sartori Reserve business and brand,” Sartori says, explaining how the Antigo acquisition gave retail efforts a boost. “They had a small retail base established when we bought them. We have slowly expanded distribution in select accounts and were pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming reception the products received. And then, when we won awards, we were further invigorated. I am the eternal optimist. If someone had told me we’d win 60 awards in our first three years, I wouldn’t have believed them – that kind of success just doesn’t happen.”

First out of the gate was a rebranded Antigo product newly dubbed SarVecchio, which is generally considered the best U.S.-made Parmesan cheese. It has won a slate of awards, most recently Grand Champion at the 2009 U.S. Cheese Championship.

Through its Glacier Point plant, Sartori released Dolcina Gorgonzola, a blue-veined cheese that Jim Sartori calls “blue cheese for people who don’t like blue cheese” because of its mild, sweet and creamy characteristics.

The latest star in the lineup is BellaVitano, a Sartori original made with a proprietary starter strain. Sartori Reserve BellaVitano offers a slightly sweet, nutty, caramelized flavor with a rich creamy texture. BellaVitano is offered in wheels, blocks and wedges, and the folks at Sartori say each format offers slight differences in flavor and texture. The BellaVitano line is also available with a rubbed cracked black peppercorn coating, or varieties lightly soaked in imported balsamic vinegar, merlot wine or a tart raspberry ale, each of which imparts subtle flavor nuances.

“Five years ago, artisan cheese wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Now it’s all you see,” Sartori says.

Pat Mugan, vice president of product innovation, explains: “When people entertain, they want really good cheese on their tables.”

And for Sartori, “really good” is being defined not only by sales but by increasing national and international acclaim (see awards sidebar). “The awards speak for themselves,” Mugan says.

Pastorale Blend, a cheese that blends cow and sheep’s milk, won a gold award from the American Cheese Society and the Wisconsin State Fair in its first year of production. “We were pleasantly surprised to win a gold right out of the gate,” Sartori says, “especially seeing that this was our initial foray into a mixed-milk artisan cheese.”

Sartori’s retail business has already gone national, with products sold at fine retailers like Whole Foods as well as  independent cheese shops and major grocery chains, says Chad Vincent, chief marketing officer. 

Meanwhile, development continues on innovative products for the other channels, which also reach nationally. The latest entry among foodservice products is Menu Makers, a series of cheese blends that restaurants can use in salads, as pizza toppings and in Mexican dishes. The blends offer unique flavor profiles, for example, a pizza blend featuring Parmesan and Asiago with a small amount of blue.

“It allows [foodservice operators] to customize their operation and offer a gamut of artisan cheese flavors with trendy herbs and spices,” Mugan says.

Sartori’s new Intensa line is what Mugan describes as an “intensified cheese” that is something of a better-for-you product. The all-natural cheese can be made with double, triple or quadruple the flavor intensity of regular Parmesan, allowing customers to use less cheese while still offering strong flavors with less overall fat and sodium, he explains.

“We customize products for every customer,” says Jeff Schwager, company president. “Our actual SKUs, we probably have a thousand, counting every product customized for flavor and performance.”

In fact, Mugan says that because the company works so closely with its producers, “we can work all the way back to the milk.”

Cheese Manufacturing Manager Jason Schultz says the company’s operational flexibility allows it to come up with unique products. “We work closely with R&D to develop new products,” Schultz says. “The employees work closely on that process, too.”

Even something as simple as Parmesan comes in a host of flavor profiles. “We make it for different functionality,” Sartori explains. “We used to do ‘designer Parms,’ some with fruity notes. We still probably have a dozen different Parmesans. We liken it to wine – we can create different varieties.”

Schwager adds: “That’s the art the cheesemakers bring to it.”


Expanding its retail lines to further diversify the company’s offerings has given management a positive outlook.

“The sky’s the limit,” Sartori says. “We’re devoting people and resources to the retail business. Awards usually don’t sell product, but they have opened doors and helped pave the way to get the cheese tasted by influential buyers.  Once that occurs, good things happen. We’re getting calls from people who want our product in their stores.”

Still, the company faces the same challenges as the rest of the dairy industry, in particular the volatility of milk pricing. “Even the best and most efficient farms lost money last year,” Sartori says. “They’re the lifeblood of our business. We want them to be successful.”

But that’s not going to hinder the company’s pursuit of new opportunities, which Schwager says are “within our four walls, the retail side,” noting that store samplings of Sartori products are hugely successful. “We’re making great product. I’m confident that if we can get someone to put a piece of our cheese in their mouth, we’ll have a new customer.

“We do a lot to get out with the customers and find out what they need, listening to their ideas, concerns and opportunities” he continues. Also key to growth will be the “high-caliber people we continue to attract and keep,” Sartori says.

As a 70-year member of its community, Sartori Foods conducts outreach through the Sartori Foundation, which serves as a reservoir for community giving. “And it’s unusual to have a family-held company for 70 years,” Sartori says. “I think family business is the backbone of the United States. We’re committed to remaining family-owned. It gives us a competitive advantage.”

It also brings management and team members closer together. “People are free to make suggestions – our meetings are very open,” says Peter Marsing, vice president of operations and operational services. “It’s a culture that Jim has always promoted.”

The company also has what Sartori calls a “restlessness … we always want to trump what we’ve done. Even after winning 60 prestigious awards, we went right back to work on our next innovative product – we can never stand still.”

Helping that along will be the company’s new culinary center, scheduled to open in April, where the product development process will begin, one on one with customers. “If we understand exactly what they want,” Mugan says, “we can make it.”


At the turn of the 20th century, Paul Sartori immigrated to the United States from the small town of Valdastico, just a few miles from Asiago, in the picturesque northern provinces of Italy. He was determined to bring fine Italian cheesemaking to America.

Sartori founded S&R Cheese (since renamed Sartori Foods) in 1939 in Plymouth, Wis., which at one time was considered the cheese capitol of the world because so many cheesemakers were located there. The Kettle Moraine region of east-central Wisconsin provided an ideal setting to replicate traditional cheesemaking with a similar climate and rural landscape to Northern Italy.

In 1942, Sartori was granted patents for automating the time-honored hand process of pasta filata cheesemaking, using equipment adapted from bread-kneading machinery.

After Paul Sartori’s death, his son Joe guided and expanded the business for over 30 years. In 1953, Joe Sartori joined forces with Leonard Gentine to form Sargento Foods. Sartori later sold its interest in Sargento and to this day the companies remain friendly crosstown neighbors.

Innovations continued at Sartori, including the introduction of Cryovac cheese packaging and extending the shelf life of grated Parmesan.

Now in its third generation of family ownership (with the fourth generation recently entering the business), Paul’s grandson, current CEO Jim Sartori, has continued the Sartori Foods tradition as a privately-held, family-owned manufacturer focused on producing high quality, specialty cheese. Utilizing the rich farmland and plentiful milk supply of the surrounding area, Sartori Foods has established a network of patron family farmers dedicated to supplying quality milk.

The company’s team of master cheesemakers remains involved in all aspects of the cheesemaking process, while its product developers and culinary specialists focus on ensuring consistent functionality and designing creative, culinary applications.

Sartori Foods has expanded on the Wisconsin tradition of producing great cheese, becoming a leader in creating handcrafted products for the specialty retail, foodservice, and ingredient markets through dynamic growth and increased market share. In 2005, Sartori  acquired a specialty blue-veined facility in southwestern Wisconsin now known as Glacier Point Artisan Cheese Co. Glacier Point produces the award-winning Dolcina Gorgonzola, a unique, sweet artisan blue-veined cheese, in addition to an excellent, traditional blue and Gorgonzola.

In July 2006, Sartori acquired the Italian cheese manufacturer formerly known as the Antigo Cheese Co. Products made at Sartori’s Antigo plant include the internationally celebrated SarVecchio Parmesan (formerly Stravecchio), Sartori Extra Aged Asiago and other fine Italian-style cheeses. Most recently, SarVecchio Parmesan garnered additional accolades including a “best of class” gold medal in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in March 2007, following its 2006 success at the World Cheese Awards where it was honored as the Best U.S. Cow’s Milk Cheese.

Innovation and creative thinking are key to the success of Sartori Foods. As the company expands and develops beyond traditional cheese products, it continues to broaden its focus to include unique, “Sartori only” signature cheeses such as BellaVitano, a creamy, aged cheese featuring a complex and unique flavor profile, as well as flavor system solutions including Sartori’s line of intensified products engineered to minimize and maximize performance in industrial applications. 

SOURCE: Sartori Foods,


Over the last few years, Sartori cheeses have won more than 50 awards nationally and internationally. Here’s a partial list of some of the company’s more recent accolades:

World Cheese Awards: Canary Islands
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Dolcina Gorgonzola, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Romano, 2009
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve Balsamic BellaVitano, 2009
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2009
Silver Medal, Sartori Aged Romano, 2009
Silver Medal, Sartori Parmesan, 2009

World Cheese Awards: Dublin, Ireland
Best New Cheese, Sartori Reserve Raspberry BellaVitano, 2008
Best American Cheese, Sartori Reserve BellaVitano, 2008
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve BellaVitano Gold, 2008
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper, 2008

World Cheese Awards: London
1st Place, Best U.S. Cow’s Milk Cheese:  SarVecchio Parmesan, 2006

U.S. Championship Cheese Contest
U.S. Grand Champion, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2007

World Cheese Championships
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Rosemary & Olive Oil Asiago, 2008
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2008
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan Shred, 2008
Silver Medal, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano, 2008

American Cheese Society
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Asiago, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Pastoral Blend, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Merlot BellaVitano, 2009
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve Raspberry BellaVitano, 2008
Gold Medal, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2007

World Dairy Expo
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Dolcina Gorgonzola, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2008
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Rosemary & Olive Oil Asiago, 2008

Wisconsin State Fair
Grand Champion, Sartori Reserve Pastoral Blend, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Dolcina Gorgonzola, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Balsamic BellaVitano, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Pastoral Blend, 2009
2nd Place, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano, 2009
1st Place, Sartori Reserve SarVecchio Parmesan, 2008
1st Place, Sartori Reserve Rosemary & Olive Oil Asiago, 2008
2nd Place, Sartori Reserve Basil & Olive Oil Asiago, 2008


For a complete listing of Sartori’s awards, visit

The Sartori Family of Products

Sartori only entered the retail market within the past few years, but already its specialty cheeses have won dozens of national and international awards.

Leading the pack at the head of its Sartori Reserve line is SarVecchio Parmesan, voted the best of more than 1,300 entries from 32 states at the 2009 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. With its distinctively balanced nutty-sweet flavor and lightly roasted caramel notes, SarVecchio Parmesan is considered the best Parmesan cheese in the United States. Sartori also makes Asiago as part of the SarVecchio line, available shredded and shaved, and in wedges and wheels. The Asiago also comes enhanced with a rosemary and olive oil rub, and a basil and olive oil coating.

The latest award-winners from Sartori are part of its BellaVitano line, a proprietary cheese that melds elements of Parmesan and caramelized flavors with a rich creamy texture. Taking prizes at the 2008 World Cheese Awards were the flagship BellaVitano Gold and Raspberry BellaVitano, with its subtle fruity characteristics brought out with a bath in tart raspberry ale. BellaVitano is also available in Merlot, Balsamic and Black Pepper varieties.

Rounding out the Sartori Reserve family is Dolcina Gorgonzola, Sartori’s first blue-veined cheese, with a mild flavor and smooth, creamy texture.

These retail products join Sartori’s longtime foodservice and ingredient offerings, which include a wide variety of Italian-style hard cheeses custom made for each customer’s needs.

Among these products are Menu Makers, a series of cheese blends that restaurants can use for things like salads, pizza toppings and Mexican dishes; and the Intensa line, an “intensified cheese” that can be made with up to four times the flavor intensity of regular Parmesan, allowing customers to deliver the same flavor profile with less fat and sodium.

Sartori also markets whey products made from the byproducts of the cheesemaking process.