Spreading the News

by James Dudlicek
Cheese — is there anything it can’t do? It slices, it melts, it shreds — and it spreads, as Rondelé Specialty Foods knows well.
For three decades now, the Merrill, Wis.-based processor has been delivering innovative and flavorful spreadable cheese products for every conceivable snacking medium. The company’s offerings encompass some 125 SKUs, including gourmet spreadable cheese in dairy boxes, deli cups and snack packs; Pub Cheese; Bagel Temptations; Bread Essentials; and Rondelé Kitchens.
Truly, Rondelé seems to have something for everyone. “Rondelé gourmet spreadable cheese consumers between the ages of 30 and 65 have more disposable income, entertain more and are more indulgent,” says Bob Constantino, president and chief executive officer. “Meanwhile, Rondelé Pub Cheese consumers have a median income and enjoy family and friend gatherings.”
It’s the expansion of this line that Constantino identifies as one of the key elements to accelerating growth for the privately held company, which reports $25 million to $30 million in annual sales.
“We believe the new Pub Cheese line we’re introducing right now could essentially double the size of our company in the next two to three years,” he says. “We have ESL technology that we’re just beginning to exploit beyond the conventional supermarket trade to alternate channel suppliers. For our Rondelé bakery products, Bread Essentials and Bagel Temptations, we’ve had two separate consultants come in and give us independent research studies that have told us it’s anywhere from a $15 million to $30 million business that we’re just starting to exploit. The potential for growth for us is enormous. We’re at a very good place right now.”
Reinventing Rondelé
In 1974, InoFoods introduced its first product, a soft spreadable gourmet cheese named Rondelé. Soon after its introduction, Rondelé began competing favorably against the European imports that had long dominated the spreadable category. But Rondelé’s history goes back further than the 30 years the brand has existed.
At around the turn of the 20th century, three cheese factories were established in Wisconsin’s rural North Central region — the Hamburg Cheese Manufacturing Co., the Cornbelt Cheese Factory and the Riverside Cheese Factory. These were known for producing outstanding bulk cheeses.
As these factories were handed down through generations of family ownership, competition became increasingly fierce, but not from one another. Family-run cheese companies were under pressure from cooperatives and large processors that had taken cheese production to new levels. Modern manufacturing facilities, huge investments in research and development, and even larger investments in marketing and distribution were challenging the capabilities of many family-operated companies.
In 1969, in an effort to remain competitive, Hamburg, Cornbelt and Riverside merged to create Wisconsin River Valley Cheese Inc. The new concern constructed a manufacturing plant on 80 acres in central Wisconsin, where production would continue on the high-quality cheese products for which the three predecessor companies had become known.
Production began in 1970, but just two years later, Wisconsin River Valley Cheese was purchased by Connecticut-based Anco International. In 1974, the company was renamed InoFoods and the Rondelé brand was born.
The popularity of Rondelé’s spreadable cheese increased with each year of production. Early sales and marketing success at national and international cheese contests brought acclaim to the company, and soon its gourmet cheeses were introduced to the European market. By the early 1980s, Rondelé had captured 60 percent of the U.S. spreadable cheese market, a share that the company would never relinquish.
Through the 1980s, Rondelé caught the eye of cheese giant Kraft, which acquired InoFoods in 1990. Kraft made enhancements to the production facility, but in 1996, its focus on gourmet cheeses changed and sold InoFoods to Vermont-based Waterbury Specialty Foods.
Waterbury’s interests were then acquired by the independent Rondelé Specialty Foods, which re-established the product line, refocused distribution and initiated manufacturing initiatives, while driving brand equity. “We spent the first four years reinventing Rondelé,” Constantino recalls. “We changed everything. We changed packaging, products, formulation – we just really changed a lot of things to get us ready for the last two or three years and the future.”
New and Exciting
Rondele’s branded product lines include Rondelé gourmet spreadable cheese, Snack Packs, Bagel Temptations, Bread Essentials and Kitchens. The company’s most successful product line continues to be its spreadable cheese deli cups, which purport to offer 23 percent more cheese per package than competing brands.
Its new designer serving cup offers convenience while the paperboard packaging sleeve features recipes, serving suggestions and entertaining tips.
More excitement, however, comes from what’s inside that packaging. Rondelé continues to create new and exciting volume-based flavors, like peppercorn parmesan, goat cheese, tomato basil feta, blue cheese and salsa, all introduced in the last year.
Rondelé deli cups have been showing double-digit growth, surpassing the deli category over the past two years, according to data cited by the company from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. Helping to push that growth along is a marketing strategy that includes FSIs, demonstrations, in-store promotions, case cards, partnering programs and recipe/coupon pamphlets.
But the big push right now has been with the new cheddar varieties in Rondelé’s Pub Cheese line. The company introduced three new flavors — Sharp Cheddar, Cheddar & Jalapeño and Cheddar & Horseradish — in January at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. Joining the existing Pub Cheese flavors of Garlic & Herbs and Zesty Salsa, the new varieties are a blend of Rondelé’s soft spreadable cheese base with cheddar cheese and other flavors.
Rondelé’s research indicated a desire from consumers for spreadable cheddar suitable for everyday use as well as entertaining. Focus group research by the company further showed consumers were searching for a cheese product that would spread right out of the refrigerator and not break crackers or bread sticks.
Rondelé Product Lineup

Spreadable cheese offerings from Rondelé are designed to be consumed on virtually every snacking medium — bread, crackers, bagels, chips, vegetables — as well as in recipes like those suggested on product packaging and on the company’s Web site. Rondelé’s products encompass 125 SKUs, including numerous flavors among several varieties for retail consumers and foodservice customers.
Deli Cups — These 8-ounce cups come in Blue Cheese, Garlic & Artichoke, Garlic & Herbs, Garlic & Herbs Lite, Garden Vegetable, Goat Cheese, Peppercorn Parmesan, Salsa, Toasted Onion and Tomato Basil Feta. They’re also available in Party Packs of two or three flavors.
Snack Packs — This 3-ounce consumer size is available in Garlic & Herbs.
Dairy Boxes — These 4-ounce portions are offered as Garlic & Herbs Pasteurized Cheese Spread, Garlic & Herbs, Garlic & Herbs Lite, Garden Vegetable, Toasted Onion, Tomato Basil Olive and Four Pepper.
Pub Cheese — Available in a 12-ounce consumer package and 21/2-pound bulk size, this product has recently added Sharp Cheddar, Cheddar & Horseradish and Cheddar & Jalapeño to its lineup that also includes Garlic & Herbs and Zesty Salsa.
Bagel Temptations — With a shelf life of 130 days after manufacturing, this product can be merchandised out of refrigeration. Available varieties are Original Plain, Apple Cinnamon, Garden Vegetable, Garlic & Herbs, Mixed Berry and Strawberry.
Bread Essentials — Designed to complement crusty, artisan bakery breads, this spread also has a 130-day shelf life. In 1-ounce portions and 4-ounce cups, it comes in Classic Garlic, Peppercorn Parmesan, Mediterranean Feta and Goat Cheese.
Kitchens — This spreadable cheese format comes in 2-pound and 5-pound tubs for foodservice. It’s available in Plain, Garden Vegetable, Garlic & Herbs, Apple Cinnamon, Strawberry and Mixed Berry.
In the spectrum of Rondelé’s largely upscale products, Pub Cheese is what Constantino describes as “everyman cheese,” in a class by itself.
“Rondelé has always been positioned similar to our competitors Alouette and Boursin to the upscale, white-collar, higher-income consumer,” he says. “But we had this Pub Cheese brand that’s been around for years, and we looked at how we could take this gourmet spreadable category that’s been fairly stagnant over the last few years and add some excitement to it. Cheddar in general continues to be a huge market and continues to grow. So we decided to take our Rondelé gourmet spreadable base and add real cheddar to it, and come up with a product that really hasn’t been available on a national basis with a national brand. It’s being specifically merchandised in the gourmet cheese section. It’s not a cold-pack cheese — that’s a whole different process that’s sold in a whole different department. We’ve essentially created a whole new product that doesn’t exist right now.”
The company is looking into expanding Pub Cheese nationally to all venues of the trade, says Constantino, “not just to supermarkets but to club stores and mass merchandisers of the world. The acceptance rate on this — we just started introducing it at the beginning of this year — has been phenomenal. It’s been unbelievable. It could literally double the size of our company in the next several years.”
Growth Spurt
Rondelé’s strategy for expanding its market share is simple — continue to provide retail consumers with quality value-added products that fill a niche while increasing distribution in alternate channels like club stores, convenience stores and mass merchandisers with club packs and multi-packs.
“We’ve been on a growth spurt the past two or three years because of our new product development and our new flavors,” says Constantino. “The last two to three years have been the best time for Rondelé. We’ve gained significant market share and come up with some terrific, new innovative products. We’ve got a very sound staff of people both internally and externally. We’ve got one of the best broker networks in the United States of any company. So we’re in a growth spurt. We’re looking to continue to grow.”
Trumpeting its history of quality and excellence hasn’t hurt Rondelé’s success either. The company has captured top award placements in the World Championship Cheese Contest, United States Cheese Contest and Wisconsin State Cheese Contest. Its processing plant has earned a superior rating for five consecutive years from the American Institute of Bakers, maintains stringent safety measures by meeting all requirements to be certified kosher and organic, and is HACCP compliant.
Ways the company delivers its message to the public include industry print advertising, FSIs, coupons, recipe pamphlets, case cards, IRCs, merchandising racks, cross-merchandising programs and partnering programs.
“We’ve had tremendous growth in our deli cup line over the last three years,” says Constantino. “We’ve been able to improve the product to make it creamier, smoother and more spreadable. We’re able to add real ingredients to our Rondelé base, like blue cheese, goat cheese and feta cheese. Because of the improvements we made in our manufacturing process, it’s allowed us to make cheese with cheese. Not blue cheese flavor or goat cheese flavor — we’re putting the real deal in there. And we’ve had to do this while maintaining kosher approval in the plant, so that’s been a challenge. We’ve had to source out kosher ingredients for all this to happen. It’s a number of pieces of the puzzle that have been worked on over the years that have come together to allow us to do all of these things. We’re not sitting on our past — we’re always investing in the future.”
Still, the growth likely would have been even bigger had it not been for the low-carbohydrate diet phenomenon that has been sweeping the country. Followers of diets like Atkins and South Beach have abandoned or drastically cut back on high-carb goodies like bread, bagels and crackers, depriving themselves of the main vehicles for Rondelé’s spreadable cheeses.
But Constantino is confident the company will not be deterred from its mission. “It hasn’t had a negative impact, but it has stalled the rapid growth that we were experiencing,” he says of the low-carb craze, explaining how Rondelé still holds a good overall position.
“All of our products are naturally low in carbs. They’re anywhere from one gram to a maximum of three grams of carbs per serving,” says Constan­tino. “Now that bakery is going through this dynamic — they’re rapidly coming out with a lot of low-carb bagels and breads and products of that nature — we are a perfect partner for them. We can help them deliver this message to the consumer that you can buy bakery products and partner them with Rondelé products and enjoy a low-carb scenario. Our products just happen to be naturally low-carb. We didn’t make them that way, they just happen to be that way.”
To drive that home to consumers, Rondelé is emblazoning the front of its packaging with the products’ carb content. “When this dynamic started
happening a year or so ago, we immediately took a position — frankly, one of the first — to start flagging our products,” says Constantino. “We’re not coming out on the front and saying we’re low in carbs. We’re stating what we’ve always said on the back of the package in the nutritional information and putting it on the front. It’s been there for years. We’re just reminding people, if you’re concerned about this, we happen to be there. And we’ve gotten some pretty good feedback from it.”
And it’s a great way for Rondelé to enhance its position in the eyes of consumers. “When we talk to our business partners, the chains or whoever we’re selling the product to, we now add a very positive spin on the whole low-carb dilemma, which we can make a positive,” says Constantino.
Constantly Improving
Continuing growth requires manufacturing that can keep up, and Rondelé has endeavored to keep pace. In the past year, the company has seen multiple process equipment improvements that have resulted in improved productivity and a reduction in utility consumption.
“We have extended shelf-life technology that Rondelé’s had for over 10 years,” says Constantino. “That allows us to sell real dairy products out of refrigeration and in an ambient temperature environment. We’re constantly improving the quality, shelf life and flavor profiles, and making improvements in the plant helps us do that.”
One of the latest improvements allowed for the production of the new Pub Cheese cheddar products, for which a whole new production line is expected to begin operation this summer.
Constantino likened the new Pub Cheese process — the addition of cheddar to the Rondelé base — to the creation of a popular confection. “It’s like taking chocolate and peanut butter and putting them together to make a new product. Both chocolate and peanut butter sell terrific, but no one has been able to put them together since Reese’s,” he says. “We believe we’ve done that with Rondelé gourmet spreadable cheese base and real
cheddar cheese. We’ve added flavors to that, like horseradish and jalapeño peppers. But until we were able to make the process improvements, we weren’t able to do it. It was always something that was on the drawing board for the last couple years.
Still on the horizon, as part of Rondele’s continuing efforts to improve efficiencies, are packaging equipment upgrades that will enable greater flexibility and increased productivity.
Challenges and Opportunities
Rondelé sees consolidation as the biggest challenge to doing business. The consolidation of raw-material producers creates fewer avenues to source out needed supplies. But while the consolidation of retailers limits product distribution opportunities, Rondelé maintains very strong relationships to ensure continued success.
Of course, having sufficient capital to pursue corporate goals is always a challenge. “We’re a small- to medium-size company, and we consider ourselves to be a pretty creative company — we’re always coming up with new products, new concepts and product development technology,” says Constantino. “The challenge is, how do you finance that growth? What products do you focus on first? You can’t do it all, so you’re constantly analyzing what will bring the most growth and profit to the company short term. We believe we have a lot of talent, and we have to choose our products, choose which ones we bring to market. We have a lot of things going on at any one time, and we think they’re all pretty exciting and creative. But you can’t bring them all to market at one time. The challenge is, how do we properly finance and support those products? Getting them in distribution is one thing, but you have to continue to support them at a high level to the customer and the consumer. That’s always a challenge for us.”
Rondelé sees the biggest potential gain for the industry in the consumer’s ongoing desire for new and innovative products. The company plans to stay in touch with consumer wants and needs — as it most recently did for the new Pub Cheese flavors — and produce solution items.
“If we were a stagnant company, we could remain dormant and continue to muddle along,” says Constantino. “But we’re always thinking outside of the box. It’s what makes Rondelé unique.”
Philosophy and Future
What also makes Rondelé unique, its leaders say, is the ones doing the thinking. “My philosophy has always been it’s about the people,” says Constantino. “We have a very good culture of people who have been with Rondelé for a long time. I have never been with another company in my life that has had as many people that have been around as long as we’ve had, both in manufacturing and operations, and sales and marketing.”
In fact, many of Rondelé’s employees have been with the company for a decade or more — some still since its founding 30 years ago. The average tenure for Rondelé’s 72 employees is 10 years.
“We have people who have a long history with Rondelé and through all the changes it’s had over the years,” says Constantino. “Our philosophy is that everyone has a say in what goes on at Rondelé. Our people in the plant are continuously encouraged to come forward and give suggestions on how we can be more efficient and how we can make products better. Our sales and marketing people work very closely with operations, and new product development and product improvements.”
This latter relationship is unique unto itself, says Constan­tino. “In many companies, production and sales and marketing hardly talk to each other; they’re certainly not considered to be friends. We have a very, very cooperative situation between our sales, marketing and operations departments,” he says.
Rondelé’s overall philosophy is three pronged, says Constantino —people, products and profits. “It’s really ‘the three P’s,’ as I like to call it — our people, our products and profits,” he says. “When we have all three of those in sync, the company seems to work very, very nicely.”
Constantino describes Rondelé as an “icon brand,” and maintaining that status means constantly looking for ways to keep it fresh. “Consumers look to us for innovation, new ideas and constant improvements in the product,” he says. “We look at it that way by using our people, and we look at our products, and the ultimate goal is to make profits. But people are huge in what we are as a company. It’s no one person.”
Rondelé’s top officer envisions continued strong growth for the company. “We see ourselves continuing to grow both internally with new products, through strategic alliance and possible acquisitions,” says Constantino. “We’d like to be a $75-to-100 million company within five years. We would achieve that through these three things — internal growth, strategic alliances and possible acquisitions.”
Constantino declines to discuss specifics, but says growth could involve diversification into other specialty food products beyond cheeses. “We are always exploring different options and looking at things,” he says. “We have a national broker network. We sell our product nationally, so we have great distribution, great presence on the shelf, terrific relationships. We cross over all avenues of the (supply chain) — we sell to supermarkets, club stores and mass merchandisers. So we would primarily look for specialty cheeses, but not limited to that. It could be gourmet foods.”
Beyond that, growth will rely on some basic factors: “To have sound financial backing, to be strategically aligned with people in the industry who have the same vision for growth, to continue to create and produce products that are user-friendly,” says Constantino.
In all, Rondelé is ready to really spread its wings. “I’ve been here seven years,” says Constantino. “It’s a very good time for us. We’ve spent all the hard dollars to get us here. Now we’re ready to branch out.”