By Alicia Cunningham | Oct 20, 2016
Industry: Food & Beverage
Main Product: Artisan Cheese
Growing up in Heber Valley, Grant Kohler remembers a valley full of pastureland and dairies.
“Now there are only three left, and I heard one might be closing soon,” Kohler says. “We’ve gone from over 100 dairies to two.”
To save his family’s dairy, Kohler began looking for a way to expand the business without having to purchase expensive real estate. “The biggest problem with dairy is that you have to get bigger and bigger,” Kohler explains. Leaving Heber Valley for cheaper property prices was not an option. “Our roots are really deep here,” he explains. So he diversified and opened Heber Valley Artisan Cheese.
For a brief moment, Kohler thought he was moving into unchartered territory. “But I found out my family made cheese generations ago. I was following a family tradition I did not even know about.”
Kohler graduated from Utah State University, and he credits that background and connections with helping him successfully grow Heber Valley Artisan Cheese. “When we got ready to go, we took artisan cheese classes from them. They’ve been an incredible asset. We are pretty blessed,” Kohler says.
Today Kohler manufacturers handcrafted, artisan cheese. He credits his growing business to two key advantages: distribution know-how and complete control over his primary ingredient.
With extensive experience in distribution because of his dairy background, Heber Valley Artisan Cheese quickly found room on the shelves in major grocery chains including Whole Foods Market, Harmon’s and Smith’s. “We are pressing south and pressing west,” Kohler adds.
In addition to distribution know-how, Kohler experiences the benefit of an unfettered access to his main ingredient: milk.
“Most cheesemakers have to buy their milk,” Kohler says. “They don’t have control over the process or how the cows are fed. And it makes a difference. Today, we grass-feed our cows; we quit feeding them corn. You can taste the difference. We are about organic as you can get without being verified. We are fresh, natural and transparent. ”
“Customers are realizing that WalMart is not always the answer,” Kohler says. “People want transparency. They want to know where their food is coming from. And we can not only tell them, we can show them the whole process.”
Challenge: Marketing. “We need to get our product into people’s mouths because our cheese sells itself if we can get people to try it. But how do you get them to you?” Kohler has attended food shows but admits the process is hard. “There are so many vendors and after three or four, people get cheesed out. It’s a challenge to get people to try it, but once they do, they keep coming back.”
Opportunities: Expansion. Kohler is adding to both his plant as well as his herd. “We had to cut back and sell many of them,” Kohler says, “but we’re rebuilding and getting our numbers back up.” Kohler is also moving robots into his family’s historical dairy. “The process is totally amazing,” he says. “The process is more comfortable for the cows, and we are getting more milk from them.”
Needs: Money. “Funding is really a blessing,” Kohler says. He received a marketing grant, and it has helped him grow his company. “Anytime you can get some extra funds, it makes a big difference.”
Alicia Cunningham is South Jordan-based editor of CompanyWeek Utah. Email Alicia or call her at 801-542-0049.