In rural Ohio, equidistant from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, lies America’s oldest family-owned butter and cheese creamery. A fifth generation operates 129-year-old Minerva Dairy today, with a sixth generation on the way.

Currently running the Minerva, Ohio-based dairy processor are Venae Watts and brother and co-owner Adam Mueller. Watts serves as vice president of sales and also works with public relations, marketing, and new product development. In addition, she works closely with the production department, which Mueller runs. 

“[Atalanta is] mostly known for their cheese and deli products. They have a great distribution network that will help us reach more areas of the country that we may have been unable to reach on our own,” Watts says. “We will help them expand into the dairy category.”

Minerva’s cheese is manufactured on a co-packing and private-label basis. Beyond butter and cheese, Minerva Dairy manufactures ingredients. In fact, butter is an ingredient. 

“It could only be on toast, but it is an ingredient,” Watts maintains. “We also make cheese as an ingredient, which goes to other manufacturers. We make more cheese than butter, but we are more known for our butter because it is in retail stores. Our cheese ends up in retail but through another manufacturer.”

Minerva Dairy’s goal is to be the company to come to for quality and innovative butter and cheese. Its philosophy is to keep changing and not do something just because it was always done a given way. “Life is change. Make change and seek it out,” Watts says. “We are dreamers and innovators. We want to keep creating new ways for consumers to have butter and cheese.”

Regarding butter, Minerva states on its website, “Think we’re just a bunch of crazy, obsessed butter lovers? You’d be right!” Minerva-branded butters include Sea Salt, Unsalted, Garlic Herb, and seasonal flavors, including Smoked Butter. Minerva Dairy also has a recipe book of different flavors that can be used for co-packing or private label. 

Minerva Dairy does not process non-dairy items but has the capability to convert alternative packaging to these items. However, the dairy only takes on this task if requested from a co-packaging customer, Watts says.

Minerva Dairy’s products are distributed in all 50 states. A national distribution plan commenced more than a decade ago. “Our butter gets a lot of attention. We see an opportunity to keep growing with our name,” Watts affirms.

One of the many reasons Minerva Dairy’s butter gets attention is its creative and colorful packaging. The company’s packaging goals are to have fun and express that it loves what it does.

“We want the packaging to also show that family is first,” Watts states. “The pattern on our packaging was picked to be fun and also a throwback to a quilt pattern. We put a lot of thought behind it and determined it had to represent who we are and what we are about. Our quilt pattern represents an extension of the family farm.”

Minerva Dairy's Front Door
Minerva’s fun packaging design can also be seen when one walks in the front door.

Minerva Dairy keeps looking to the future as well. Watts announced during our interview that it struck an agreement with Atalanta Corp., Elizabeth, N.J. “They are mostly known for their cheese and deli products. They have a great distribution network that will help us reach more areas of the country that we may have been unable to reach on our own,” Watts says. “We will help them expand into the dairy category.”

Long runway

Minerva Dairy has no concerns about the next generation. Watts and Mueller combined have 13 children. “We wanted to make sure we did not go down with the fifth generation,” Watts jokes. “We are making sure we have plenty of longevity. Out of 13 children, we are confident somebody will say ‘yes, this is what I want to do.’”

In fact, some of the older children have already expressed interested in the business, including Orrin Mueller, 19, who was working in the plant on the day of Dairy Foods’ visit. Orrin learned how to make butter when his school shuttered during COVID. He now serves as a butter maker.

“On Christmas Eve, we try to shut down early, have all of our family members come to learn how to roll butter and then we go to church together,” says Watts. “It is a great way to get the younger children involved.”

Storied history

Minerva Dairy’s long history began in 1894 thanks to the foresight of original founder, Max P. Radloff, who made butter and cheese on the farm. Other family members were doing the same in the region, so Radloff decided to consolidate the business. Today, the street Minerva Dairy is located on — Radloff Ave. — is named after the company founder.

“I heard the story a lot from my grandmother growing up. He took a train to Minerva, met with farmers and local economic businesspeople in the area,” Watts stated.

Minerva's colorful silos
Minerva has colorful silos and often gives them names.

Clearly, Radloff liked what he saw. “We love being in Minerva. It is a great small town,” Watts notes. “There are about 4,000 people here and it is a great agricultural center. It is also a great suburb of the Canton-Akron area.”

The fourth generation of Minerva Dairy is also still involved, with Watts and Mueller’s father, Phil Mueller, holding an important role. 

The patriarch has imparted plenty of advice on his kids. “Walk the Line,” also a famous Johnny Cash song, is Phil Mueller’s favorite saying. “He likes to say most problems can be solved if you walk from where it starts to where you are going and where you are,” Watts maintains. “That can be taken literally in a processing environment when you walk a water line or a processing line. It also can be taken figuratively.”

Always challenges

Despite its rich 129-year history, Watts acknowledges that like any business, Minerva Dairy has challenges to overcome. As a result, the co-owners often looks years into the future, thinking about what those challenges might be and the best ways to overcome them. 

“We always look at what we are doing today and how it will benefit us in two or three years. How does it help us achieve our long-term goals?,” Watts asks.

Safety of employees and food safety are among the biggest long-term decisions taking place, stresses Kenneth Ray, Minerva Dairy’s director of food safety and sanitation, who has been involved in food safety since 1986. Minerva Dairy’s program is part of the Global Food Safety Initiative and incorporates Safe Quality Food standards, which the company has been involved in for several years. 

“Any company we serve is looking at those qualifications as a baseline,” Ray explains. “It is great to have another set of eyes making sure we are meeting every standard and always getting better.”

Both food safety and the safety of 75 employees are paramount for Minerva, Ray adds. “We have seen industry recalls and want to make sure we never have anything that can be harmful to a consumer,” he asserts. “Good manufacturing practices remind our employees how to handle products safely. We also make sure we create awareness and education to our workforce about the ‘dos and don’ts.’”

Garlic Herb, Unsalted and Sea Salt are among Minerva Dairy’s butter flavors
Garlic Herb, Unsalted and Sea Salt are among Minerva Dairy’s butter flavors.

Sustainability, a big dairy industry buzzword, is also an important goal for Minerva Dairy, which is trying to minimize what goes into the wastestream. “We try to conserve water and chemicals we use to clean equipment and recycling when possible,” Ray states. 

Minerva Dairy partners with some 80 farms, most of which are family-owned in Northeast Ohio. “They are focused on having pasture cows, which speaks a lot not only to the diet they have, but the humane treatment of cows,” Watts stresses. “Pasture raised means they can go out on pasture if needed. If it is raining, they can come in the barn. If it is freezing cold, they come in where it is warm. Healthy cows create healthy milk.”

Ready for the future

Although the industry will always have several challenges, Watts is optimistic about the future of dairy, which enjoyed a sales spike during COVID. Recently, sales have leveled off industrywide. However, Watts sees a bright light with premium dairy products, whose sales remain strong.

“It tells me that consumers were in the grocery store and had the time to look at products and determine what they wanted,” Watts states. “Consumers are smart people. They educated themselves and continue to buy premium products. There is a slight drop in unit sales of premium products, but the amount people are spending is going up.”

The dairy industry will often change, Watts concluded, but if processors change with consumer demands, the future of Minerva Dairy and the industry will be robust.