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Crave Brothers: Stay in the Groove

This is a picture of George Crave with mozzarella cheese.

Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese is a family-run business that has created great cheese – and  employment for many local residents – near Waterloo, Wisconsin, over many years.

Fromagination recently spoke with George and Debbie Crave – one of the brothers, and his wife and work partner –  who led a brief tour of the Crave Brothers operation.  At the outset, visitors saw a display of many Crave Brothers’ awards, including the 2019 Best in Class Award for mozzarella cheese at the U.S. Cheese Championships.

On this Monday morning, they led visitors past windows to a production area where six employees were turning 2000 pounds of smooth, white, creamy mascarpone cheese into 4000 eight-ounce cups that must be packed and sent to buyers such as Whole Foods.  The walls in the hallway display posters of other products – mozzarella balls, cheese curds, string cheese – that have made Crave Brothers a well-recognized cheesemaker.

Crave Brothers employees pack mozzarella into containers for shipment.

By some standards, the Craves’ operation in the northwest corner of Jefferson County is large: 1100 cows that are milked in that one facility across the road from the cheese plant – 110,000 pounds of milk per day, and another 80,000 pounds at another facility.  In total, they have 3300 cows, and 90 percent of them are of the Holstein variety.  They milk around the clock at both sites, and sell milk to other cheese producers, as well.

Quality control on that side of the road includes keeping a very clean calf facility where newborns are held for two months after birth and fed high protein feed and slowly socialized to prepare them for the milking area.  Their small calf pens have removable side walls that eventually allow the youngsters to get accustomed to a second calf and be ready to move on to a larger pen with eight young cows.

As he pointed out features of the large facility, George Crave explained this process to illustrate the science that goes into modern milk production.  He emphasized the learning process Crave Brothers has gone through to be able to keep its herd healthy and produce more milk per cow.

From that milking facility, Crave Brothers constructed a 340-foot stainless steel pipeline that brings the milk to the cheese-making facility on the other side of the road.

Growing Into a Family (Big) Business

The family business was not always big.  The Craves grew up near Beloit, Wisconsin, where they milked 40 cows.  Next they rented a farm in Mount Horeb, in Dane County west of Madison, and then moved to Waterloo in the 1980s during the national farm crisis to buy their own land.

“We had zero equity, so we were a very high risk for the bank,” George said. But “it turned out to be a good move, because a lot of people were retiring. I was the farm veterinarian at the time,” he added.

Debbie Crave points to marketing based on recipes using Crave Brothers’ fresh cheeses.

By 1992, the Crave Brothers facility was milking 400 cows, and in 1999 they decided to look at other business models.  In 2001, they built the cheese factory, and ran their first milk to it in February 2002.  Success and more work lead to expansion of the operation in 2006.

“After 20 years, we needed to have a career change. We did the illogical thing and built a cheese factory,” George said with a laugh.

George now manages that cheese production facility, which now employs about 45 employees. Crave Brothers employs nearly the same amount of people across the road at the milk production facility.  He is still up every day at about 5:00 a.m.

His three brothers, Charles, Mark and Thomas, manage other portions of the overall business.  And several of their children are also working in the business, too.  Their father is in his 90s and still very interested in the family business, George added.

The next generation will eventually take over the Crave Brothers business.  One of them works at enticing customers to taste their products.

Marketing for the Stomach…and the Conscience

In a conference room, Beth, Debbie and George’s niece, arranged a large assortment of delicious-looking plates, including fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, and a chocolate pie made with Crave Brothers’ mascarpone cheese. Beth is Customer Service Manager, and has a culinary background and develops recipes used in Crave Brothers’ marketing efforts.

“We love serving things buyers can eat during tours,” Debbie said, whose own career includes working in the former Marketing Division of Wisconsin’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. She detailed the now selective efforts they make to promote Crave Brothers products.

Shop for Crave Brothers products

“We get to ACS every year,” Debbie said, referring to the national American Cheese Society conference.  Crave Brothers also maintains a presence at the Fancy Food Shows in New York and San Francisco, where they participate in the Wisconsin-related dairy pavilion that is organized and partially funded by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board).

“I don’t think we could do so well if we were in a little corner next to some noodle vendor. We just need to keep working with who we already work with.” she said.  “Wisconsin always does get the recognition” for high quality cheeses at those food shows, she added.

The mural outside the Crave Brothers facility embodies aspects of the dairy industry.

Accordingly, Crave Brothers seems to excel at telling its story…even through outdoor art.

The giant mural on the outside, south-facing wall of Crave Brothers’ cheese plant is said to represent the cheese production journey “from crops to cows,” according to Debbie.  Created by a California muralist, it is one of several in the U.S. that was funded by a national dairy program, and prominently features a Holstein cow in the middle, flanked by a dairyman, a cheesemaker, a farm father and daughter, and a woman in an apron holding a tray of Crave Brothers’ products out to the viewer.

It’s the sort of vision they want to present to a dairy-product consuming public, including patrons who paid $150 per person to attend Madison Magazine’s “Farm to Feast Dinner,” which was held at the Crave Brothers’ facility in June.  But while great mascarpone pie may impress the locals, another message that Debbie Crave stresses is Crave Brothers’ commitment to sustainable practices.

Across the road, they constructed not one, but two methane digesters, which process gas from the large quantity of cow manure constantly produced by the herd into electricity and bedding for their cows.  While government entities such as Dane County have assisted with construction of manure digesters to protect local water quality, Crave Brothers’ has approached it as a smart business venture. It owns two of 29 in Wisconsin.  According to Clean Wisconsin, biodigesters “have benefits such as reducing odors from manure storage facilities, improving air and water quality, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s not only good for the environment and public relations, Crave Brothers’ “Our Green Story” is also good for the bottom line.  As their website says, “Our manure digester produces more electricity than we need for our farm and cheese factory.”  Consequently, the marketing materials they shared show a “Produced with Renewable Energy” logo and call their operation a “carbon-negative company.”

Crave Brothers’ cow manure-fueled biodigesters are part of what they call “Our Green Story.”

When asked what the most rewarding thing about his family’s business is now, George Crave paused before saying, “Just seeing what it is today.  To have someone say ‘Yeah, you guys make really good cheese.'”  But he also alludes to a desire for continuing to control the process that maintains a tradition.

“The goal is just to use our milk and keep it a family business,” he said.  “We’ve had offers to sell out.”

Learning from Others

Perhaps one reason they have retained control and remained “small” is their strong interest in the Italian cheese varieties they produce.  They have not only collaborated and learned from consultants and colleagues in places like the UW-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, they have also traveled to Italy.

Debbie Crave has relatives in Lombardy region of northern Italy, and their daughter has studied in Florence.  But they have also been befriended by Italian cheese producers, including a dairy nutritionist who has attended World Dairy Expo in Madison.  That has lead to learning directly about real Italian cheese production, and learning about more of the many types of local Italian cheeses.

As they pointed out the mozzarella production at Crave Brothers, which was turning out “medallions” of the cheese on this day, Debbie explained their molding equipment is from Italy.  They also produce logs, balls, egg-shaped mozzarella and more.  It’s an interesting combination of local business in America’s Dairyland with direct reference to a cheese-producing country with the oldest roots of cheesemaking.

The greatest challenge for his business now, according to George, is to keep up the quality of their products, including the milk.  During a plant tour complete with food safety-required booties for the visitors, he pointed out the company-provided white uniforms and footwear for employees, and talked about keeping the plant – and Crave Brothers employees – clean. (Crave Brothers does not give tours to the public.)

That led to a joke about their quality control lead, Kurt, who the Craves say is people-avoidant.  “Don’t make me work with people,” George quoted him as saying – just let him focus on making the cheese facility run well.  So…they have done that, and seem to be getting the desired results.

Finally, the Craves assured visitors that they do not work round-the-clock at the cheese plant. 

“We’ve got lots of nice ladies with children at home that want to get home,” Debbie said, clarifying that one reason they maintain limited shifts is to retain cheese production employees.

The Craves seem to have found their groove.  And they’ve made the decision to stay in that groove.

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