By Lorrie Baumann
David Gremmels’ addictions are cheese, chocolate and coffee, not necessarily in that exact order at any given moment. “I can tell you what’s in my fridge with cheese,” he said as he drove the 31 miles between Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon, and the Rogue Creamery Dairy Farm in the countryside near Grants Pass, Oregon. Those are, in the order they came to his mind: a piece of “that lovely Tarentaise” (Farms for City Kids Foundation/Spring Brook Farm, Vermont, winner of this year’s best of show award at the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition), Mt. Tam (Cowgirl Creamery, California), a piece of handmade Halloumi from Cyprus (Aphrodite), TouVelle (Rogue Creamery), Mount Mazama (Rogue Creamery), a few wedges of Rogue River Blue (Rogue Creamery) and a single wedge of Smokey Blue (Rogue Creamery) that he’d temporarily misplaced, so that he’d had to root through the refrigerator for it when he’d had a craving the previous evening. He found it at the back of his cheese drawer. “I knew I had a wedge,” he said with an air of triumph. “Those are the things I think about as far as my food group addictions.”
Though he didn’t say so when I met with him in Oregon last October, he has other obvious addictions: chief among them, he’s completely hooked on the people he works with at Rogue Creamery. He knows how they came to Rogue Creamery, he knows many of their families, and several of them emerged from their offices to greet him when he and I arrived together at his administrative office in a vintage cold-packing plant that serves as the creamery’s warehouse and packaging facility. Gremmels was the one reaching out for the hugs that were being exchanged all around, but when he did, people leaned in. No one looked surprised. No one seemed to be faking it for the visiting reporter.
A Parable About Business
There’s an old parable that business consultants like to toss around, and like all good parables, it is certainly apocryphal – told, not for the purpose of literal truth, but to make a point. It seems that there was once a business consultant who’d been called to inspect the work on the Notre Dame cathedral at Chartres. As he walked around, he came across a worker and asked him what he was doing. “I’m mixing mortar,” the man said, in the tone of someone who has been asked the obvious.
The consultant walked a little further along the wall and came to a man who was troweling mortar onto a block of limestone. He asked this man about his job. “I am building a wall,” the man said as he dropped the stone onto its course.
He walked further along the wall and came to the man who was sweeping the floor in front of the wall, clearing away the dust and grime of construction. “Tell me about your job here,” the consultant asked.
“I am helping to build a cathedral to the greater glory of God,” the worker told him.
The story you are now reading, as it turns out, is not a story about making the world’s finest handmade cheese, which is what David Gremmels says he does for a living, but about building a cathedral, which is what his employees think they’re doing.
An Origin Story
When I met David Gremmels at his office first thing in the morning, he had a cheese tasting waiting for me. He was wearing, he said, his power shoes and his lucky pocket square because he was nervous about our meeting. I looked down at a pair of polished brown wingtips. “Power shoes?” I asked.
“They were my dad’s,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll be more casual.”
He indicated the wedge of cheese in front of me and invited me to taste and score the cheese on a rubric worksheet set down next to it. Rogue Creamery cheeses are judged at the creamery by a team of people trained in organoleptic evaluation who ensure that the cheeses all taste the way they’re supposed to, which means that although each variety of cheese has its own characteristics, they all share a balance of flavor notes that’s distinctive of the Rogue River Valley – a balance of spice and sweetness and a strong note of umami that’s almost a flavor of bacon with lighter notes of berries and undertones of Grape Nuts cereal. “We have a ‘Cheese is First’ attitude, and it really does start with the flavor,” he said. “We put the berries out in front of us and the cereals and compare…. Euell Gibbons would be proud.”
After tasting the flavor, it becomes a matter of texture; the development of the cavities within the paste that result from fermentation, the amino acid crystals that form as the cheese ages. After that, the inspector comes up with a score at the bottom of the page. A 10 is competition-worthy. A 7 is a respectable cheese. “If it’s below a 5, we think about if we can age it out or send it off to Blue Heaven,” Gremmels said. “Blue Heaven” means that the cheese will be powdered for sale to chefs who use it as a finishing spice.
Rogue Creamery specializes in blue cheeses and has since it was founded by the Vella family, although the creamery also makes some cheddars that comprise about 20 percent of its production. Gremmels bought the creamery from Ig Vella in 2002. Before that, he’d grown up on a farm near Olympia, Washington, the child of artists committed to having a life in touch with the Earth. “They just inspired me to living a similar life – for having and living a generous life,” Gremmels said.
From the farm in Olympia, Gremmels went on to have a career in corporate branding, leading creative teams for major corporations, when he realized, as he approached his 40th birthday, that although he was very engaged in moving brands forward, he wasn’t taking time to engage with the neighbors around him. He wanted to change that, so he bought a building in Ashland, Oregon, with the intention of using the woodworking skills his father had taught him to restore it to its original glory as an example of early 20th century Western architecture and eventually turning it into a wine bar that would draw the community in to interact with him. “I think the wrecking ball was in its future. I wanted to change that,” he said. “I used my skills as an artist and designer to redesign its future…. I had the tools and the experience.”
As he was finishing the restoration of the building, bringing it back to its original 1905 appearance, he started looking for the wines and cheeses he planned to put on the menu. That led him to Rogue Creamery and Ig Vella. “I told Mr. Vella I’d love to incorporate his cheeses and his family’s story on the menu,” he said. “He looked at me and said, ‘If you want my cheese, you’ll have to make it yourself.’” Rogue Creamery was for sale, as his family had decided to coalesce back to its roots in northern California, Vella explained. They were looking for a buyer who’d keep the creamery operating and its staff employed, so they’d need a buyer who already knew how to make cheese or was willing to learn. For the right buyer, Vella would stay on for a while to train the new owner. “On July 1 of 2002, we shook hands after making a vat of cheese together,” Gremmels said.
Gremmels thought at first that he’d be making cheese part-time and spending the rest of his time at the wine bar, but it didn’t take him long to realize that he actually had two full-time jobs, and he was going to have to make a choice. He already knew he was hooked on cheese — and the whole idea of making a food that provides beneficial sustenance to nourish individuals rather than leading a corporation forward — so he found a chef who was looking for the right space to serve high-end food using local ingredients, and she took over the newly restored building while Gremmels dedicated himself to Rogue Creamery.
He changed Rogue’s orange cheddars to white cheddar and began working with business partner Cary Bryant to implement quality standards. “We continue to lead in that area of quality assurance in every step we take,” he said. Vella stayed around for about three years to help the new owners get their feet under them, and Rogue Creamery now creates 30 different cheese brands, including 11 different blues, American Original TouVelle, traditional cheddar and a number of flavored cheeses.
For the future, Gremmels is thinking about moving into cheeses in French and Italian styles. “I’m a designer, and I’m an innovator, and I just can’t stop thinking about new cheeses,” he said.
A Culture of Quality
Gremmels also rarely stops thinking about the company culture that pervades Rogue Creamery. Ever since he bought the creamery, he’s pursued a vision of a safe, healthy and positive place that has an impact on food culture, its community and consumers as well as the 48 people employed here. “It permeates every part of Rogue Creamery,” he said. “Everyone is aligned to our vision.”
Rogue Creamery’s mission statement, composed by a team of employees, dedicates the company to sustainability, service to each other, the company, the cheese, the environment, the community and the cows. “The art and tradition of creating the world’s finest handmade cheese – that’s something we aspire to do every day that we’re here,” he said.
All of the Rogue Creamery cheeses are handmade, and most are organic. The exceptions are the mixed milk cheeses, Echo Mountain Blue and Mount Mazama. “Finding an organic goat dairy has been a challenge,” Gremmels said. “We’re so close.”
Rogue Creamery’s company culture includes a dedication to its Nellie Green Pedal Power Program, which encourages employees to commute to work by bicycle, or with a vehicle that gets more than 50 miles to the gallon, or by carpooling. More than half the company employees participate, and 100 percent of them have participated for at least some period of time, dropping in and out of the program sometimes as spouses change jobs, children change schools or a family moves from one residence to another.
If a team member wants to ride a bike but doesn’t have a bike, they sign a pledge that obligates them to commute 45 days out of the next year, to maintain the bike and to learn proactive safety rules. Once they’ve done that, Rogue Creamery buys the commuter bike and sets it up with safety equipment and saddle bags, and when they’ve completed their commitment, they own it. “It’s transformative in knowing what you need and what you need for the next day so you’re ready to go in the morning and the saddle bags are packed,” Gremmels said.
Rogue Creamery has a bike mechanic station and showers in the facility to make it easier. “It makes people proactive and determined to make a change, not only in the environment, but in one’s well being,” Gremmels said. “There’s a camaraderie that develops,” not just with other Rogue Creamery employees who are taking part in the program, but also with other bicycle commuters that they meet along the trail between home and work. Gremmels knows about all of that from personal experience – he himself commutes to work by bicycle. “I made a commitment to have a zero impact lifestyle,” he said.
One result of that camaraderie is a rich sense of accomplishment and pride. “They are making a difference. They’re conserving valuable resources,” Gremmels said. Everyone who participates is eligible for a monthly stipend to help offset their costs – the higher car payment for a hybrid vehicle or extra time at daycare for a bicyclist who has a longer commuting time on those days. “It’s a nice healthy gift every month that we provide,” Gremmels said.
Participation is tracked on a board in the company’s break room, and Rogue Creamery measures the total mileage clocked up by the employees using alternative transportation and uses that as an offset on the company’s carbon footprint. “That’s one of the metrics we track for our contribution to a carbon offset,” Gremmels said. In 2013 alone, Rogue Creamery’s Nellie Green program saved more than 12,000 commuter miles, and the successful program has been emulated by the Rogue Federal Credit Union, Cowgirl Creamery and Vermont Creamery.
Rogue Creamery Marketing Director – or as the company’s website calls him, Cheese Narrator – Francis Plowman is one of those who mentioned the Nellie Green Pedal Power Program to me as a point of particular pride. “It sounds corny, but for my generation, it’s sales and marketing to be sustainable,” he said. He pointed out that the program has put more than 100 bikes on the road, and it’s part of an overall culture of sustainability and community involvement that drew him to the company when he was hired here in 2005. That includes annual sponsorships for the Ashland Independent Film Festival, which produces the posters that decorate the hallway outside Plowman’s office; the 17 people involved this year in the annual Day of Caring, participation in the local United Way chapter, the annual Central Point Street Cleanup and a major sponsorship for the local Boys & Girls Club. “It’s not enough for just David to be involved,” he said. “We try not just to say we’re community-minded and green, but we have some things we can say we’ve done.”
Helen McCann works just down the hall from Plowman’s office. She’s been with Rogue Creamery for 31 years – well before Gremmels arrived on the scene – and her title, according to the company website, is “Original Rogue.” She’s actually a second-generation Rogue Creamery employee, since her mother worked here for 60 years. “There’s nothing that Helen hasn’t done at Rogue Creamery,” Gremmels said. Her accomplishments include that she’s the fastest blue cheese wrapper in history, he added.
“I just think it’s a wonderful place to work,” she said. “I love the people. I love my boss. And I love cheese, too.”
While I was visiting with McCann, Production Supervisor Chris Shannon stopped in to feed her some production data. He’s been with the company for six years. He grew up in the neighborhood and had been employed as a roofer for a family-owned company When he went looking for another job, he started his search locally, and he was glad to hire on in the warehouse at Rogue Creamery.
He started out the way most Rogue Creamery employees start out – wrapping and boxing cheese for shipment, but he didn’t stop there. It wasn’t long before the company noticed his hard work and sent him into a cheesemaking apprenticeship. “They saw that I was a hard worker and sent me over to make because make is a hard job – more of a manual labor job,” he said.
When he started work here, he didn’t know much about cheese, but he knew about the company’s reputation for community involvement and its commitment to environmental sustainability. “They’re always here for their employees,” he said. “And I love their products … I wanted to be part of that.”
Midway through my day at Rogue Creamery, Gremmels walked with me a few blocks from the office and warehouse facility along Oregon Highway 99 to Rogue Creamery’s creamery building and retail shop, where I was due to meet Production Manager Brian Moss and Quality Control Supervisor Emily Aldrich for a tour of the cheesemaking facilities. Gremmels has worked with the city of Central Point and other businesses to turn the stretch of highway through the center of town into an artisan corridor that celebrates local food and wine and that’s also the home of the annual Oregon Cheese Festival. Lillie Belle Chocolates, the Ledger David Winery and Rogue Creamery joined together with the city and state to build sidewalks along the highway and reduce the speed limit on the highway from 50 to 35 miles per hour to make the area safer for pedestrians as well as bicyclists. The property owners granted easements and planted trees, and children who used to walk to school along the railroad tracks that parallel the highway can now use the sidewalks. “It was just a critical mass of small businesses that said they wanted to jump in,” Gremmels said. He persuaded the city to cooperate by inviting the city fathers down to the Oregon Cheese Festival site just a little way down the highway from City Hall. There, they could see for themselves that the festival was bringing people into the community, bringing their money with them. That demonstrated for them what they might not have known before – that Rogue Creamery is more of an economic powerhouse than its modest location along the highway would suggest to people who aren’t familiar with the strength of the artisanal food movement. “There’s power in cheese,” Gremmels said.
Aldrich and Moss showed up to meet me in Rogue Creamery’s retail shop, where we dined together on grilled cheese sandwiches made of Rogue Creamery TouVelle, an American Original named after a local park that showcases the peace and beauty of one of the most pristine river valleys in the country, Moss said. It’s the creamery’s best melting cheese – sort of Cheddar and Jack meet Gruyere, sweet and light on the palate with nutty notes to give it extra depth. It made a perfectly gooey and delicious grilled cheese sandwich.
Moss, 34, who is Rogue Creamery’s Production Manager, is a fourth-generation Oregonian who grew up in Portland and went to college for a degree in economics. He was working in software development when he got a yen for open spaces, so he went to work for a Capay Valley organic farm, where he met his wife. The two of them decided to pull up stakes and go out on their own with a few acres and a few goats as the beginning of a cheese business. He still needed more work, so Gremmels hired him as a cheesemonger and assistant cheesemaker, and then Gremmels asked him to oversee the cold storage and packaging operation. Today, in addition to being the creamery’s full-time production manager, he also has beef cows on the 40 acres of Rolling Sky Farm in Ashland, where he’s also still making cheese. His first focus in life is as a father to Cameron, John and Susanna; then as a husband to Jennifer – a family nurse practitioner in Ashland; then as a farmer and only then as a team member at Rogue Creamery – an order of priorities that raised a nod of approbation from Gremmels when I mentioned it to him later. “I’ve had three kids since I started working here, so they’ve grown up with Rogue Creamery,” Moss said. “It was this lifestyle – a family commitment to know what we’re eating, to support local agriculture and local food. Slow food. … When I moved here, I knew all about Rogue Creamery. It wasn’t until I was here that I realized how comprehensive that really was.”
“About four years ago, he [Gremmels] told us we were going to be an organic company. Now, 85 percent of the production has been moved to organic,” he added. “None of those things were happening when I started here. … Even bigger than his personality is his vision.”
Southern Oregon has turned out to be a good place to raise a family on the land, Moss said. Ashland is small, and it’s surrounded by other small towns, so the kids aren’t subjected to big-city influences. The climate is mild enough to allow a 10-month growing season, and that’s encouraging artisans and people who want to learn sustainable and biodynamic farming to settle here. That gives him a unique opportunity to help reshape the food system around caring farmers and entrepreneurs. “There’s a lot of people with a similar mindset, so it’s about supporting farmers, doing it the right way. … At Rogue Creamery, we’re always focused on continuous improvement, both for myself and the company,” he said. “I feel like we’ve been on the forefront of cheese for a long time. I feel like we have the potential to do some pretty incredible things in the next few years. … I feel like we could be a showcase for the right way to do agriculture – and the small way to do agriculture.”
Aldrich, 26, got her introduction to dairy science and cheesemaking as a high school student at the Putney School in Vermont, a progressive school with its own dairy herd and a strong belief in the value of work for its own sake. After a high school education that taught her a lot about milking cows as well as the more usual high school curriculum, she went on to the University of Vermont for a degree in chemistry that she wanted to apply to food safety and regulatory compliance. Eventually, she decided to leave Vermont and move to the West Coast to start her career. After a couple of years in California, she decided that she wanted to come back to cheese and started networking with that in mind. She got in touch with an old friend in Mexico City who put her in touch with Gremmels. “That friend was a close friend of David’s, as it turns out,” she said. “He [Gremmels] got me into my dream job, and I’m pretty grateful for it. I think he does a lot to make things happen for people.” She’s putting her education to work as a quality assurance supervisor for the creamery, running analyses on the milk that comes in from the creamery’s dairy and working with the farmer to ensure that the cows are raised and the milk is produced with the cheeses’ needs in mind. “The quality of our milk has so much to do with the quality of our cheeses,” she said. “If our grass isn’t right in the pasture, the cheese isn’t going to have the flavor we want.”
She’s also an enthusiastic participant in the Nellie Green program. “We work towards setting our own goals for sustainability,” she said. “We’re committed to minimizing our fuel use by ridesharing and bicycling. … We really put that as a priority for our own business.”
Rogue Creamery has given her opportunities to learn a wide variety of knowledge related to quality control, from thinking about how the grasses in the dairy’s pastures affect the flavors of the cheese to working on the creamery’s HACCP plan to ensure that the cheese is safe. “I don’t think that I would have gotten that at a smaller facility or at a bigger company,” she said. “The size of this company has allowed me a lot of freedom.” Her ambition for her career is to stay in quality control for as long as she possibly can, she said. “I fell in love with the cheese world as soon as I walked into it,” she said. “Everyone is so awesome and passionate and generous.”