By MATTHEW LAMBERT Agri News
CANNON FALLS, Minn. (AP) — Jackie Ohmann and Deeann Lufkin found themselves trying to make mozzarella one evening in 2012.
The pair joke that they were “bad alcoholics” after trying to make beer and wine, finding themselves unable to consume all their beverages.
So they decided, why not try their hand at cheese?
The results were less than ideal. Ohmann, a Christian education director in Northfield, said the finished 20-minute mozzarella resembled “Silly Putty.”
With little to no dairy experience between them, Ohmann and Lufkin weren’t deterred by the slushy cheese-like substance before them.
Shortly thereafter, at a Philanthropic Educational Organization meeting, the women approached Kathy Hupf, a longtime dairy farmer who left the business to work for the United Methodist Church in Northfield, as a children and family ministries coordinator.
Only minutes into their pitch, Ohmann and Lufkin were cut off by Hupf, who’d heard enough. She was in.
“They said something to the effect of ‘do you want to join’ and (I said) yes,” Hupf told Agri News.
Thus began CannonBelles, a cheese-making business that converted from a hobby to what is now a premier cheese-making facility in southern Minnesota.
Established in Cannon Falls, the trio did market research, going to every grocery store in a 25-mile radius to test cheese and find price points, and inquiring with local cheesemakers about their secrets, aside from recipes.
In August 2016, the women went to the University of Minnesota Food Science and Nutrition building in Falcon Heights where they made 500 pounds of cheese curds.
“We had an entire refrigerator entirely full of 500 pounds of cheese curds,” Hupf said.
In the beginning, Lufkin said they had a lot of waste, trying to find a way to make delicious and delicate cheeses as well as finding buyers.
While all three women help with the cheese-making process, with some family member volunteers, Lufkin, a retired Air Force meteorologist, has become the head cheesemaker, studying the process at places like the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
CannonBelles has found ways around the cheese-curd dilemma, converting some of the cheese into blocks of an aged variety and the rest going to the bite-sized pieces.
Even before mass producing cheese curds, the women made cheeses like gouda and queso fresco. The gouda, Lufkin said, gave them the confidence to sell their cheeses.
However, the women acknowledge their queso fresco recipe, which is more of a traditional Spanish recipe, has helped push them further into the cheese community.
This year, CannonBelles’ queso fresco won the American Cheese Society first prize in the queso fresco and queso blanco category in Denver. It’s an honor that helps make the cheese a better seller, said Hupf, who handles the marketing for CannonBelles.
The owners of CannonBelles said when they enter contests like the American Cheese Society, they aren’t necessarily looking to win an award, but receive critical analysis and get advice from experts. But they won’t complain about getting the recognition either.
“When we won, it was a definite confidence booster,” Ohmann said. “We’re actually a legit business now, not just some three goofballs doing whatever.”
It was also acknowledgement that they are cheese-making professionals.
“For me, I felt like sometimes we were looked at as, ‘oh, you’re bored housewives, aren’t you cute,’” Lufkin said. “Once we got this award, it just seems like they see us differently now.”
With their cheese selling in places like Rochester’s People’s Food Co-op and the Hy-Vee on West Circle Drive, being bought by Parley Lake Winery in Waconia and Tanzenwald Brewery in Northfield, the women feel like they’ve made it and are looking ahead.
They want to diversify their product line and build a plant in Cannon Falls.
They’d like to break ground this spring on a new plant, rather than reconfigure an existing one, and are looking for an investor.
CannonBelles also wants to use Square Deal Dairy, a dairy farm in Randolph, for their milk after their plant is built. Right now, they have to use the University of Minnesota’s milk while in their facility.
Ohmann said using Square Deal Dairy’s milk would be “huge,” calling them a reliable farm with a solid family at the helm.
Hupf said they want their products to be locally sourced and to reflect their family-style company atmosphere.
“One of our goals, when we started this, was to make a family friendly cheese, an affordable cheese for families,” Hupf said. “That’s truly one of our mission statements.”