There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. But sometimes real life gets in the way of an ambitious business plan. Then you have to adapt.

Consider Nuestro Queso, the six-year-old start-up cheesemaker based in Rosemont, Ill., near Chicago. President and CEO Mark Braun recalled the original plan and the early days of getting the business off the ground.

“We started in 2009. Financial markets were in calamity. There was an intense nervousness. Banks weren’t out lending. There was no risk-taking going on. And here, this little spirit of entrepreneurialism was kind of bright. And that’s when this company was formed, at the worst of times,” Braun said.

The owners saw a potential in making Hispanic-style cheeses. (Nuestro Queso is Spanish for “our cheese.”) Though smaller in terms of pounds produced, Hispanic cheeses were growing faster than the natural cheese category in general. In 2003, production of Hispanic cheese increased 17% over the previous year compared to 3% for the entire natural cheese category and 2% for American-style cheeses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hispanic cheese production has increased every year in the last 10, except for 2012 when production was flat.

Originally, Braun and the other investors planned to grow the company into a national brand by building distribution centers throughout the country. At one point it did have four company-owned distribution centers with 25 trucks on routes from California to New York.

The owners realized that managing the logistics was taking their focus off the business of making cheese, so it gave up the DCs. The owners also saw the value in being a co-packer of private label brands, in addition to selling its own brand. Nuestro Queso re-dedicated itself to making quality cheeses at its plant in Illinois. The proof of that came with gold medals in major competitions.

To grow, Braun brought on board key individuals, including Jon Nilson to run the plant, Paul Esposito to head the sales operations and Arturo Nava to direct the marketing.

Today, Nuestro Queso is winning retail accounts by consulting with dairy buyers who want Hispanic cheeses, and helping them set up programs. The cheesemaker is gaining co-manufacturing clients because of its SQF 2 designation and reputation for high-quality product. And it is building a loyal following among consumers with its community involvement and social media engagement.

Working with customers

The Nuestro Queso brand consists of a variety of fresh Hispanic-style cheeses, sour creams and drinkable yogurts.  The company has two kinds of grocery store customers: those who already sell Hispanic cheeses, and those who want to but don’t know anything about the products or the Hispanic market.

Braun mentioned one customer that has heard about queso fresco and queso blanco. But that’s about all they know, Braun said. “They know that they have a certain demographic that’s visiting their stores, so they want to know: What product offering should we have? What are the price points? How do we get something to that price point?”

The sales team steps in with information. If the retailer wants a private label, the cheesemaker will even help with the label design and packaging.

“You become highly consultative, especially when you’re dealing with private label into the non-Latino stores and those market segments,” Braun said.

Over the last six years, Nuestro Queso has built a presence in ethnic, independent retail businesses from up and down the East Coast to the Midwest. Esposito said the base is well over 2,000 customers with more being added every day.

A new focus has been on the private-label business and foodservice channels. The latter includes small taquerias, larger restaurants and “high-level” chains, Esposito said.

The Hispanic market in the United States is “54 million strong and growing,” Nava said, and Nuestro Queso offers a cheese for every Hispanic segment.

“Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, you name it,” he said. “If anybody is looking for a Hispanic dairy that has all the options they’ll need for any part of the country, we’re it.”

Nava, who was born and educated in Mexico, broke down the cheese preferences of the overall Hispanic market.

“For the Mexicans, obviously they like their Oaxaca. They like their quesadilla cheese, their panela. Then you talk to a Central American. They like their duro blanco. Then you talk to a Colombian. They like the blanco. So you have different needs across the different segments, because that’s what they’re used to,” Nava said.

“With Hispanics, they keep their traditions. Food unites the Hispanic family and transcends the generations and the culture. It’s passed down. So that’s why the Hispanic business and cheese is here to stay,” he said.

Nuestro Queso also sees potential in what it calls the “Latin-inspired market.” These are non-Latinos who are influenced by Latino culture in America. Nava calls that “a shadow market” which is under the radar.

“People are discovering the Latino food, Latino culture, Latino music, and they’re embracing it,” he said. “Non-Latinos, as they get introduced to the cheese, love it, because it’s a great cheese. It’s a superior cheese. So then you have a great crossover opportunity with the non-Latino population. It’s a win-win.”

To appeal to non-Latinos, Nuestro Queso might simply change the format. It offers a version of Oaxaca in shredded strips (in addition to the traditional braided presentation). The strips are “less intimidating” to non-Latinos, Nava said. “Oaxaca, you got it in a ball, you have to untangle it, and so forth. Especially for the non-Latinos, this would be a great package for snacking, for melting, and it’s totally innovative. It’s a new-to-the-market product.”

Selling and marketing of Nuestro Queso

When Esposito meets with a prospect, he says he always leads with “our superior quality, and who we are, the passion that we have behind our cheese making.”

The company’s Queso Oaxaca won two gold medals in the 2014 American Cheese Society Competition and in the 2015 US Cheese Championship. Other honors include gold and silver medals in the 2013 United States Championship Cheese Contest and a silver medal in the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest.

“From a sales perspective, it’s real important that you understand the region that you’re doing business with, understand your customer and your Hispanic demographics within that,” Esposito said.

“If you’re dealing with national customers, [they] have four, five, six banners that are across the country. One aspect may be Mexican cheese. But on the Northeast it may be Central American cheese, Caribbean cheese. You’ve got to be able to diversify and have the right product offering to sell them. That’s a big piece of the target and the sales pitch as we sell in to customers. We feel Nuestro Queso has the correct portfolio to target all aspects of the business, not only from a regional standpoint, but on a national standpoint as well.”

Esposito said the company’s direct sales team has close to 200 years of combined sales experience. “That’s a lot of sales experience, that’s a lot of expertise to drive the business forward,” he said.

Esposito is a veteran of dairy product sales. Braun is experienced at starting grocery stores. They know the market well and how to talk to cheese buyers. One way in which Nuestro Queso is driving retail growth is with incentive programs. For example, a retailer might receive incentives to increase its cheese presentation from 4 feet to 6 feet, or to add the cheese to the deli section. “We want to have presence in that category,” Esposito said.

The company tailors it programs to the customer. It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, Esposito said. “Every retailer has a different program that meets our needs and their needs to drive the business forward. Some are more price-oriented versus those who focus on the program. But you have to successfully execute the process. You have to have a sales team, or distribution team, or a broker network to help manage the pieces. That’s critical.”

Braun explains how sales and manufacturing are tied to each other. “It’s so much better for us to be able to make those five-pounders [the deli case size], than a little 10- ounce [package]. You know it’s a through-put game, too. That’s why I said you’ve got to link and tie all these things together.”

Marketing Hispanic cheeses to consumers

Nava had just signed off on a new package design when Dairy Foods visited in July. He described the new design and product positioning as “freshness and quality for family, but doing it in a way that will be very relevant for the non-Latinos.” A look that is “too ethnic” might drive away non-Latinos, he said.

A blue sky and green grass connote freshness, he said, and the color combination is “eye-catching, so that the consumer will notice it right away. We also incorporate appetite appeal. The uses [are] very important so that the consumer can see what they can do with the cheeses,” Nava said.

Braun added that Nava has been “adamant” about being natural. But there are trade-offs in doing so, Braun acknowledged.

“One is price. We’re not the cheap guy,” Braun said. “Second, it’s shelf life. Some companies will have 100 days-worth of shelf life. For example, our retail fresco only has 75 days of shelf life. Everyone else has 90 days or more. So if you get truly fresh cheeses with shelf lives out longer, obviously there are other things involved.”

Building a consumer base and a loyal one at that helps Nuestro Queso in its relationships with retailers, because it brings shoppers to the supermarket looking for the brand. The cheesemaker works with the Spanish-language broadcast network Univision to create promotions for retailers. For example, it makes television commercials for Pete’s Fresh Market in the Chicago area that feature Nuestro Queso products. View a slide show of the cheesemaker's activities in the Chicago area.

Nuestro Queso has a robusst social media focus

Nuestro Queso has built a loyal following from its social media activities. The cheesemaker does a lot to nurture consumers. A cooking show on broadcast and cable television called “Nuestra Cocina” (Our Kitchen) stars Ambrocio Gonzalez, a Chicago-area chef.

The Mother’s Day campaign “Premio Homenaje a Nuestras Madres” (Honoring Our Mothers Awards) asked the Hispanic community to nominate outstanding mothers. Nuestro Queso narrowed down the hundreds of submissions to a handful of finalists, who were posted on the company’s Facebook page. Thousands of people voted and the three top vote getters received a cash prize at a ceremony at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. 

“We’re not just selling to them, we’re supporting them,” Nava said. Talking about an event the company sponsored for Latina authors, Nava said, “We were part of that. We have this vision of giving back to the people that support our business. Right now, in terms of consumers like Latina moms, we’ve created an entire strategy that highlights our commitment to these multitasking women and their families. And they respond through social media and naturally with purchases of our products.

The Nuestro Queso brand is also about safe, quality cheeses and beverages

In six short years, Nuestro Queso has gone from an idea to a leading maker of Hispanic cheeses, cultured creams and yogurt drinks. It acquired a vacant cheese plant, invested in equipment, staff and recipes, built business relationships with customers and suppliers and won over consumers. Today, Nuestro Queso serves retail customers and private label accounts on the East Coast, Midwest and south to Texas.

“The brand is more than Nuestro Queso products. The brand is safe, quality products for anyone,” Braun said. “We treat Nuestro Queso product almost as a separate business, because we can’t be only Nuestro Queso. We have to be something special for [our other accounts], too.”

 That’s a business plan that will never go out of style.