Sartori Co. has proven through multiple generations that creative artisan cheesemakers using milk from carefully chosen Wisconsin farmers yield a taste your mouth will never forget.

But until recently, the Plymouth, Wis.-based company didn’t know if its cheeses would have the same effect on the palates of consumers in other countries. They know now.

Sartori’s cheeses have won numerous international competitions and are being exported to dozens of countries, earning the company the 2017 Tom Camerlo Exporter of the Year Award.

“I don’t think my Grandfather Paolo ever dreamed that the small, Wisconsin company he started back in 1939 would [have its products] sold in 47 countries and be named Exporter of the Year,” said Jim Sartori, the company’s CEO for the last 31 years, following his father, Joe Sartori.

The award is presented annually to a U.S. dairy supplier that exemplifies leadership in advancing U.S. dairy exports, demonstrates commitment to export market development and makes exports an integral part of its overall growth strategy. Sponsored by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) and presented by Dairy Foods magazine, the award was given to Sartori executives Oct. 17 at the USDEC Board of Directors and Annual Membership Meeting.


Testing the global market

In 1970, Sartori became the first U.S. exporter of cheese to Japan and Italy. Selling Wisconsin cheese in Paolo’s native country was always a dream. But that effort fizzled as Sartori built its U.S. brand.

In 2007, SarVecchio Parmesan was featured in a Businessweek article titled “Products that Rival Europe’s Best.” But making a major commitment to exports wasn’t seriously considered until 2010, with encouragement from the USDEC.

Sartori had some tough questions to ponder, including:

  • Could the company compete with the world’s best cheeses, including the prestigious European brands?
  • If it was successful in Europe, could Sartori create the infrastructure to export to other markets? If so, which ones?
  • How would a new global focus change the culture of the close-knit company?


Taste-testing in Europe

Sartori decided to test its products at two of the biggest European trade shows: Anuga in Cologne, Germany, and SIAL in Paris.

The initial reaction ranged from skepticism to incredulity. Hardly anyone would even take a sample.

Sabine Hruza of French importer Fransial was one who did, trying Espresso Bellavitano, a combination of cheddar and Parmesan that has a texture Sartori describes as “somewhere between creamy and rich.”

The cheese is hand-rubbed with freshly roasted espresso, the result of an experiment by one of Sartori’s Wisconsin-certified master cheesemakers.

The idea of adding coffee to cheese intrigued Hruza, who said she was “very surprised by the high quality” and delighted by the espresso experience. Sartori had a brand ambassador in Europe as it partnered with Fransial to sell Sartori cheese in Austria and France.

“We had to fight to convince some visitors to taste American cheeses because of the image in Europe of American food,” Hruza said. “But after tasting Sartori, they said it was a wonderfully extraordinary experience.

“We are very proud to have the opportunity of working with Sartori to offer the French people the possibility to discover that America is not just an industrial foods country,” she added. “It can produce high-quality, fine cheeses as well.”


Raising eyebrows in Europe

Fransial’s good taste was validated when Espresso Bellavitano took a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards in 2013. It has been honored numerous times since then, including with a gold medal at the 2017 International Cheese Awards.

In all, Sartori cheeses have won more than 380 awards, medals and ribbons at competitions around the world, raising more than a few Italian and French eyebrows.

Perhaps the best example is when Sartori’s SarVecchio Parmesan traveled to the small town of Frome, England, to enter the Global Cheese Awards, a showcase for the world’s best cheeses since 1861. The U.S. upstart came away with the gold medal in the Parmesan category.

The Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese Consortium, based in Italy, was not pleased. It threatened legal action on grounds that Parmesan is a cheese with a unique place of origin that does not include any address in Plymouth, Wis.

Suddenly, SarVecchio Parmesan’s gold medal win could not be found on the Global Cheese Awards’ website. It disappeared like a slice of Sartori cheese.

“But we still have the award to prove we won,” said Sartori President Jeff Schwager, with a smile.


A reflection of U.S. cheesemaking

Sartori’s success is an example of the growing international acclaim of U.S. cheesemakers.

“It’s not just us,” Schwager said.“There are a lot of cheese companies in the United States that are making incredible cheese today.”

But as an exporter, Sartori certainly has stood out.

In its letter informing Sartori that it was chosen as the 2017 Exporter of the Year, Dairy Foods cited five reasons:

  • A commitment to serving the export market, as seen in the company’s participation in annual trade shows in Dubai, China and Europe. Sartori cheeses are found in over 40 countries, including those in Europe, Latin America, Australia and Asia.
  • A multichannel strategy that includes overseas foodservice and retail customers, with a dedicated sales team to serve overseas regional markets.
  • A customer-first approach to innovation in production, packaging and shipment.
  • A dedication to making the best cheese possible, as evidenced by the number of honors and awards Sartori cheeses have received in such competitive venues as the International Cheese Awards.
  • Service to the industry, including active participation in the Consortium for Common Food Names and the USDEC.

Sartori Global Markets Manager Sam Allison has seen a “significant shift” in attitude toward Sartori cheese in particular — and U.S. cheese in general — since Sartori attended its first trade shows in Europe. Allison said it “has been a really neat experience” to watch people’s reaction once they put Sartori cheese in their mouth.

“A realization sort of melts over their face as if to say, ‘Hey, this is really good cheese,’” he said.


Ambitious growth plans

Exports are transforming the company, and its plans for the future.

“Our global sales represent about 5% of total sales, and we would like that to reach about 15% of total sales in the next five years,” Allison said. “Realistically what that means is that 25 to 50% of our overall growth is going to have to come from our global markets. We have a big task ahead of us, for sure, but we believe there is a tremendous amount of opportunity out there.”

Allison used to be the solo global sales person. This year, Sartori created a global sales team of seven, with five responsible for their own global market and the other two assisting. Allison retains responsibility for Europe.

“One of the things we put a big focus on internally is developing careers,” he said. “We came up with this idea of basically creating add-on positions for our existing sales team members who used to focus exclusively on the United States. Adding a global market to their responsibilities allows us as a company to get into these markets more frequently instead of relying on one person to cover the world.

“We are going to be putting our face forward in all of these markets,” Allison added. “We think it’s going to help our ability to learn about each market. It’s going to help our partners in these markets drive sales. It’s going to help us grow the brand into a true global brand.”


Challenge from the EU

Sartori’s future as an exporter looks bright. But if left unchecked, the European Union’s (EU) push to negotiate trade deals insisting on “geographical indications” could throw a wrench in those prospects.

The EU claims it should have the exclusive rights to use common cheese names such as feta, Asiago, Gorgonzola and Parmesan.

“Our position is these names should be based on trademark law and intellectual property rights,” Schwager said. “Take Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s trademarked. They’ve got the rights to that. But Parmesan is a generic name and always has been.”

Schwager urges other dairy companies to join and actively support the Consortium for Common Food Names because “the fight over these naming rights is going to have a big impact on the entire U.S. dairy industry.”

Sartori has shifted to becoming a global brand, and that’s reflected in a mission statement that says the company is “dedicated to making the best cheese in the world,” not just in the United States.

“At Sartori,” said Jim Sartori, “we feel it’s important that there is great cheese on every plate, no matter where you live. People all over the world love great cheese!”


Previous Recipients

2016        Swiss Valley Farms

2015        California Dairies Inc.

2104        Dairy Farmers of America

2013        Agri-Mark

2012        Glanbia USA

2011        Leprino Foods

2010        United Dairymen of Arizona

2009        Hilmar Cheese Co. and Hilmar Ingredients

2008        Schreiber Foods

2007        Darigold

2006        Davisco Foods