In a board meeting room dominated by a framed oil painting of his great grandfather, Errico Auricchio tells the story about his audacious entrepreneurial dream. In 1979, he left Italy with his wife and young children to craft specialty cheeses with the same artisan methods his family had used for 100 years.
“The idea was to start a cheese company in America, find a good manager and go back to Italy,” Auricchio explained.
He paused for dramatic effect.
“That manager was never found,” he said, bellowing with laughter.
Auricchio stayed in the United States to become the manager, president and CEO of Green Bay, Wis.-based BelGioioso (pronounced BEL-JOY-OSO) Cheese Inc.
Over four decades, Auricchio has methodically built a cheese company with more than 700 employees making more than 30 varieties of specialty cheeses, not just for America, but for the world. BelGioioso has exported its cheeses to 45 countries.
These and other accomplishments have earned BelGioioso the title of the 2019 Tom Camerlo Exporter of the Year. The award is presented annually by Dairy Foods magazine and sponsored by the U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) in honor of Tom Camerlo, a former USDEC chairman.
Honoring leadership, commitment to dairy exports
This year’s winner was announced on Oct. 15 at the USDEC Board of Directors and Annual Membership Meeting in Chicago, with Auricchio receiving the award and an ovation from fellow USDEC members.
The Exporter of the Year must be a U.S. dairy supplier that:
- Exemplifies leadership in advancing U.S. dairy exports.
- Demonstrates a commitment to export market development.
- Makes exports an integral part of its overall growth strategy.
In a letter to Auricchio announcing the award, Dairy Foods magazine said it chose BelGioioso as its 2019 honoree because:
- The company has grown its export activities substantially since the mid-1990s.
- BelGioioso’s strategic partnership with Tropical Foods helps it target key markets, including the Middle East/North Africa.
- The company has helped USDEC design its cheese activities to meet the needs of specialty U.S. cheesemakers, encouraging more of them to consider exports.
- BelGioioso has led efforts to preserve the right to use common cheese names around the world, with Auricchio serving as chairman of the Consortium for Common Food Names.
- The company has found a way to export fresh mozzarella as its No. 1 product at a time when many foreign buyers insist on longer-shelf-life products.
In Wisconsin for its milk
Auricchio arrived to the United States with his wife and three young children, as well as two young and talented cheesemakers, Mauro Rozzi and Gianni Toffolon, who are still with the company today. They settled in Wisconsin, a location carefully chosen for the dedication of nearby dairy farmers and the quality milk that is one of Auricchio ‘s nine “secrets” (https://www.belgioioso.com/Secret) to making great cheese.
The company’s first cheese was a variety familiar to Americans, provolone. Customers loved the way BelGioioso made it, crafted from fresh local milk and brined, roped and hung to age in curing rooms to develop its signature flavor and tantalizing aroma.
Only three years after starting production in the United States, BelGioioso’s provolone was judged “Best in Class” at the World Championship Cheese Contest and won the coveted title of “World’s Best Provolone.”
Building on that success, the company made Parmesan, then Romano.
“Every few years, we added a new variety of cheese,” Auricchio says with an accent that conveys he is not a native of Wis-CAHHHN-son.
Consumers wanted new flavors with new aromas. So BelGioioso became the first American company to produce Italian mascarpone. It now offers three types.
Exceptional attention to detail is required with all of the company’s cheeses. Take, for example, the creamy Gorgonzola, aged 90 days in special caves. Cheesemakers hand-rub each wheel with salt and pierce small holes into the rind of the cheese, allowing air to penetrate, facilitating the growth of beneficial mold and creating an exceptionally earthy flavor.
BelGioioso’s breakthrough: fresh mozzarella
In 1994, BelGioioso introduced fresh mozzarella to the U.S. market.
“That was the beginning of the boom,” Auricchio said. “At that time, everyone knew mozzarella was for pizza, but very few knew about fresh mozzarella for salads.”
Sales increased 15% to 20% every year for several years.
The company packaged it a variety of ways, including 1-pound wrapped loaves pre-sliced for convenience.
BelGioioso fresh mozzarella not only remains popular with consumers, but also is highly acclaimed by cheese experts. It won first place, Best of Class, at the 2019 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.
As he added varieties, Auricchio constructed more buildings and hired more employees. He now has nine plants, each devoted to particular varieties of cheese.
“That’s not super-efficient,” Auricchio said. “But it’s super quality.”
Exporting with patience
BelGioioso’s relationship with Miami-based Tropical Foods as its distributor opened up global opportunities. Mexico, South Korea and the Dominican Republic became BelGioioso’s top export markets, in that order.
Exports now comprise about 6% of BelGioioso’s sales.
“The goal is definitely to increase that percentage,” said Auricchio. “But it takes a long-term investment. You don’t want to go too fast. The consumer should know your brand, know your quality. You need to establish a relationship with a good distributor. You don’t want to do this overnight.”
Take China, for example. It has a population of 1.4 billion, the largest in the world. Cheese has not been part of the traditional Chinese diet, but Chinese consumers are discovering and falling in love with it. The potential upside is huge.
An ongoing trade war featuring retaliatory tariffs between the U.S. and Chinese governments has made exporting cheese to China far more expensive for U.S. suppliers. But Auricchio wants to play the long game, maintaining a presence in China as he builds his brand around the world.
Consequently, when Costco opened its first China store on Aug. 27 to an overflow crowd in Shanghai, BelGioioso provolone was on display. It sold out in one day, thanks in part to a relationship brokered by USDEC with Costco.
Protecting common cheese names
In his role as chairman of the Consortium for Common Food Names (CCFN), Auricchio works closely with CCFN Executive Director and USDEC Senior Vice President Jaime Castaneda to protect cheese and other food names in the public domain.
For years, the European Union has aggressively moved to argue geographical indications (GIs) should give particular countries sole ownership of common cheese names such as provolone, Parmesan, Asiago and feta.
Auricchio and the CCFN support the proper use of GIs for specialized foods from particular regions but oppose any attempts that would force farmers and food producers outside of Europe to rebrand familiar foods with unfamiliar names.
Auricchio cited a new agreement brokered by CCFN as a “real breakthrough” that can serve as a model for other food name controversies. The agreement provides greater support for robust protection in the United States and around the world for the name Mozzarella di Bufala Campana. The agreement protects Mozzarella di Bufala Campana as a product originating from specific parts of Italy, but also establishes the free use of the generic term “mozzarella.”
The deal is a win-win, said Auricchio, because the agreement provides clarity while reducing expensive court battles, enabling cheesemakers to get on with the business of making cheese.
What would great-grandpa think?
Auricchio leaned back in a padded swivel chair and looked up to the portrait of a powerful and passionate man portrayed at the entrance to his villa in Naples.
“Great-grandpa was a talented cheesemaker and teacher,” Auricchio said. “He taught that in cheesemaking, traditional ways are always the best. To him, integrity meant taking the time to do things right and without cutting corners.”
In the portrait, the patriarch is groomed in a three-piece suit featuring a crisp, neatly folded white handkerchief emerging from the jacket’s pocket. His legs are crossed and his black shoes are shined. With a Mona Lisa smile, open to many interpretations, he sits in the garden he loved and Auricchio remembers. He peers from the painting, as if sizing up the family cheesemaking enterprise he started 140 years ago.
Auricchio has fulfilled his American dream. What’s more, this family-owned and managed business is poised to continue for at least another generation because three of Auricchio’s children work at BelGioioso and want to continue.
Thinking of great-grandpa on the wall and his children working at his side, Auricchio paused for a moment of reflection.
“Mamma Mia!” Auricchio said.
The famous Italian expression can convey a wide range of emotions, including surprise, fear, pain and joy. It is what great-grandpa would no doubt say if he learned that the global cheese company still using his Italian artisan methods had been named the U.S. dairy industry’s 2019 Exporter of the Year.
Past Exporter of the Year winners:
- 2018 Milk Specialties Global
- 2017 Sartori Co.
- 2016 Swiss Valley Farms
- 2015 California Dairies Inc.
- 2014 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 International
Downloadable profiles of previous winners are on the USDEC Exporter of the Year page, http://www.usdec.org/about-us/exporter-of-the-year.