The Curd Dimension

Allison Hooper and Bob Reese helped open the door to Vermont’s artisanal cheese industry

by Julia Lynam

Bob Reese and Allison HooperIn the early 1980s, Bob Reese, then the marketing director of the Vermont Department of Agriculture, was organizing a state dinner. The chef needed a Vermont goat cheese — scarce to nonexistent at the time. Reese called Allison Hooper, a state dairy lab technician who had spent time after college in France making cheese. Hooper whipped up a batch of chèvre that dazzled the diners. The long-term result was their formation of Vermont Butter & Cheese in 1984.

This is a significant year for Allison Hooper. She’ll be celebrating her own 50th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the founding of Vermont Butter & Cheese, the Websterville company that she and her business partner, Robert Reese, founded in 1984 with a youthful enthusiasm that has borne abundant fruit.

Hooper was a student at Connecticut College visiting Paris when she first ate goat cheese, she says. “I knew nothing about it.” She returned to France in the 1980s, after graduation, and during the summer, made cheese on a farm in Brittany and another farm in the Ardeche. “The animals went out to pasture in the foothills of the Alps — it was like Heidi. I thought, ‘I could do this.’”

In 1983, Reese and Hooper were working at the Vermont Department of Agriculture, he as director of marketing and she in the quality control lab. He was organizing a state dinner, and the chef needed Vermont goat cheese, scarce to nonexistant at the time.

Reese remembered that Hooper had spent time in France making cheese and called her. “I asked if she could make it. She asked, ‘How much do you need?’” The chèvre was a hit.

Burlington-born, with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Vermont and an MBA from the University of Southern New Hampshire, Reese recognized a business opportunity. Before dessert, they had formed a partnership.

“We grew from the ground up with no capital,” Reese explains. “We decided from the outset to pursue buying milk from other farms and to develop a cooperative system, and it’s taken 25 years to get the group of farmers together!

“We started out on a farm in Brookfield, renovated it into a creamery. We had to prove there was a market, and we found that we never could supply enough. We never had enough goat’s milk — and that’s true to this day.”

By 1988 they felt confident enough to move production to an industrial site in Websterville, selling stock to friends and family to help with the expansion. “There are a lot of moving parts in this business,” Reese, a cautious man, continues, “We balanced things very carefully.”

Hooper explains that goat farming in Vermont has grown along with the company. “We buy our goat’s milk directly from farms, mostly in Vermont. Before we provided an outlet for milk, you either had to make your own cheese or bottle your own milk. We buy every drop we can here and work hard to grow the farmers here.”

Vermont Butter & Cheese has consistently worked closely with goat farmers to help them develop a product of suitable quality for cheese making and to tackle transportation issues.

George Redick, who farms 600 goats at Oak Knoll Dairy in Windsor, confirms this dedication. “We wouldn’t be selling goat’s milk if it hadn’t been for them,” he says.

A hobby farm seeking to develop a market, Oak Knoll began shipping to Vermont Butter & cheese in 1991. “Since branching out in 1999, Redick sells fresh goat’s milk across the United States, he says — three to four times as much annually as the 100,000 pounds of milk sold to Vermont Butter & Cheese.

In addition to award-winning goat cheeses like its fresh Crottin and bonne-bouche, the company produces a range of cow’s milk products including 200,000 pounds of cultured butter every year, crème fraiche, Quark, and mascarpone. Sales have risen steadily to top $10 million in 2008.

Don LaRoseIn 1988, Hooper and Reese felt confident enough to expand, selling stock to friends and family and moving production to an industrial site in Websterville. Don LaRose, plant manager, works with the machine that extrudes cultured butter.

The company thrives on more than product. Allison Hooper is, according to UVM food microbiologist Catherine Donnelly, “the undisputed leader of the artisan cheese movement in the U.S. Period.”

Donnelly, professor of nutrition and food science, who has watched closely as the company sparked the growth of the industry, is one of the founders of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese, as is Hooper.

“Allison and Bob could have built a really successful business in isolation” says Donnelly, “but that’s not who they are. They carved out a niche that no one was filling — marketing to chefs and dealing with the need to supply ingredients to bring culinary art to a higher level here in the U.S. And they were there ahead of the curve. Their whole philosophy has been to move an industry forward, to provide leadership. It’s been an incredible growth in a very short time.”

Among Hooper’s achievements has been her three-year presidency of the American Cheese Society, during which she brought more than 1,000 people to Burlington in 2007 for a conference complete with creamery visits.

“It was very business focused,” she says. “It was a great networking opportunity: a chance for Vermont cheese makers to show off to this very targeted group of buyers, and for those who already buy our products to get a much deeper understanding of what we do.”

The event echoed the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival that the partners organized in 1996, as recipients of the Vermont Small Business Person of the Year award. A second festival is planned at Shelburne Farms in August, celebrating the company’s 25th anniversary.

“In 1996, there were 19 cheese makers in Vermont and we were able to get them all to attend,” recalls Hooper, “including large industrial cheese makers like Stella Cheese, then in Hinesburg. Now there are 40.”

The silver anniversary celebrations include publication of a cookbook, From a Cheesemaker’s Kitchen, due out in the spring. “Our operations manager, Adeline Druart, had the idea,” says Hooper. “It evolved to exceed our wildest expectations. The whole idea was: Let’s demystify this category of food, because whether it’s our chèvre they’re using, or somebody else’s, it really helps people to understand cheese and cheese making.” The collection includes recipes by New York chef Eric Ripert and Michel Richard of Washington, D.C.

Hooper is unperturbed by the current economic downturn, because the company offers a range of price points within its product line. Sixty percent of the company’s product goes to food service restaurants and wholesalers , and 40 percent goes direct to retailers.

“Within our product line we have different cheeses priced differently. The everyday log of chèvre that costs between three and four dollars in the store is less than a box of cereal, less than a Starbucks coffee. We do have some cheeses that are more exclusive, selling for over $30 a pound — they may not fly off the shelf quite as quickly.

We’re going to talk about value, try to push the things that people will have to think less about. We don’t anticipate that people are going to stop buying butter that they love. Our business is healthy, and we have the opportunity to spend a little more money on our marketing and sales effort.”

UVM’s Donnelly agrees. “In time of recession people still need to eat,” she points out. “They may pull back on buying large luxury items like boats and cars, but historically, specialty food sales have never suffered, because people will treat themselves to little luxuries instead of larger ones.”

Adeline DruartIn addition to award-winning goat cheeses like its fresh Crottin and bonne-bouche, the company produces a range of cow’s milk products, including 200,000 pounds of cultured butter every year, crème fraiche, Quark, and mascarpone. Adeline Druart, operations manager, stands next to the trophy case.

Reese takes a slightly more cautious approach: “With the economy, we’re going to have to be very careful, and I run the company very conservatively,” he says, pointing out that the specialty cheese industry has seen 15 percent annual growth over the last five years, compared to 2 percent growth in the cheese industry in general.

“The 25th anniversary means quite a bit statistically,” he continues, “Very few companies make it through the first two to five years. We’ve developed an industry in Vermont that was non-existent before we started the company, and I’m very proud of our employees; they really represent the next 25 years.”

He considers that the food service sector is more susceptible to a downturn in the economy as people rein in spending at fancy restaurants. The retail market may be less affected, he says. “People may not eat out so much, and instead spend the money in the grocery store and on entertaining at home.

“We’re still a regional company and we’re trying to develop a national network of sales, marketing, and distribution. We’re at the scale where we can give it a good shot. We have to expand and we’re in the process of buying the building to secure our expansion.”

A new butter churn due to arrive soon from France will help double production of the company’s signature cultured butter. By January 2010 the company plans to have completed its expansion, providing accommodation for cheese that is currently stored in refrigerated trailers, as well as for expanded production.

The holistic approach of nurturing suppliers producing high-quality goods and educating consumers has paid dividends for Vermont Butter & Cheese. Integral to the success of the company has been the extraordinary 25-year partnership of Hooper and Reese.

Hooper, originally from New Jersey, lives on a 62-acre farm in Brookfield with her husband, Don, a regional representative for the National Wildlife Federation and a former state legislator. They have three sons: Miles, 17, and 15-year-old twins Sam and Jay.

Hockey mom and perennial gardener, Hooper was a founding member of the board of the Vermont Fresh Network, which she has just rejoined, and is on the board of Shelburne Farms Inc.

Reese, 52, lives in South Hero with his wife, Sandra, a watercolor painter and real estate professional. They, too, have three sons: Brendan 25, Matthew, 22, and Nathan, 16. An outdoor enthusiast, Reese hikes, bikes, and swims, generally enjoying Vermont.

As the partners in Vermont Butter & Cheese look toward their next quarter century, they do so with confidence in that precious phenomenon, a market that is growing — thanks largely to their own efforts. •