Leadership at Plymouth-based Sargento Foods have their sights set on becoming a $2 billion company in the coming months, a goal not too far off as the food manufacturer has already reached $1.8 billion in revenue.
BizTimes Milwaukee reporter Ashley Smart recently spoke with Louie Gentine, chief executive officer of Sargento, and Mike McEvoy, EVP of operations, to learn more about how they’ll help the company reach its next milestone. Below are portions of the conversation:
How do you balance the decades-long tradition of cheesemaking with a desire to innovate?
Gentine: “Innovation has been a part of our DNA from the very beginning in 1953 when my grandfather Leonard started the company. I would say the core driver of that is our ability to truly understand the consumer needs that are there for cheese and, although it may sound like a very simple thing, there’s thousands of varieties of different cheese. What we look to do is take those varieties of cheese and put them in different forms and packages, to address whatever consumer need we’re trying to solve for. We also work very closely with some of our cheese suppliers on developing unique, natural cheeses to satisfy (consumer) needs. A great example of that is our creamery line, which we launched a couple of years ago. It adds cream to the cheese making process to give it an even creamier flavor that you don’t typically find in a normal cheddar. It all centers around truly having an understanding of the consumer.”
Is it challenging to sell cheese as consumers continue to lean into modern diet trends?
Gentine: “There’s definitely a market for vegan style cheeses or other plant-based cheeses. Like a number of different trends, we follow those very closely. We believe it’s a rather niche market right now and we have greater opportunities to continue to focus on innovating and marketing the Sargento brand as natural cheese. Some of our more recent innovations, a lot of them center around the area of snacking because of how people are eating differently today. People aren’t eating three meals a day; they’re pretty much eating multiple mini-meals throughout the day. Our snacking portfolio of products like Balanced Breaks, which was one of our greatest innovations throughout our 70-year history, continues to do really good with the consumer. That’s a blend of different cheeses with dried fruit and nuts. In 2024, we’re going to be launching another Balanced Breaks platform called Fun, which has cheese, some famous cookie brands like Chips Ahoy, and Teddy Grahams, and some fruit snacks or chocolate-covered yogurt bites. Those Balanced Breaks are delivering against that snacking desire for consumers.
What other new consumer trends have you been seeing?
Gentine: “Some of our other innovations that you’ll see hitting store shelves next year leverage our newest capability in string cheese at our St. Cloud facility. We’re going to be launching a smoked string cheese, and we’re also going to be launching a fiesta pepper string cheese, which is a blend of a jalapeno and habanero peppers. Both of those products leverage trends in smoke flavored foods, which you see a lot of across the grocery store. Spice just continues to be a trend that is very positive for consumers, really consumers of all ages.
How are you continuing to guarantee that Sargento gets prime shelf space at the supermarket?
Gentine: “We have great relationships with all of our retail partners across the United States. I would say what allows us to maintain and actually increase our presence on the grocery store shelves is the focus on innovation that is incremental, so it’s additive to the category. We want to make sure we’re bringing innovation that helps increase retailer sales and helps put multiple items in the consumer’s basket. When we come with the propositions and new items that do that… I wouldn’t say it’s easier but it certainly helps the case of continuing to look at how we can optimize the category.”
What steps will help you meet your goal of becoming a $2 billion company?
Gentine: “We’re going to continue to grow and not only deliver against a $2 billion revenue target, but hopefully in years to come, continue to see much higher growth from Sargento. It all really comes down to three areas. The first one is continuing to drive innovation, both from a product standpoint as well as a process standpoint. We also want to continue to build our brand with consumers. We really want to talk about the fact that our cheese is 100% real and natural and we want to build that relationship with the consumers and continue to drive growth, not only for ourselves, but for the category. The third area that’s going to allow us to continue to grow is a continued focus on our employees. At the end of the day, an engaged workforce will allow us to continue to do all the great things that we’ve been very blessed to have been able to achieve over the last 70 years of being a being a company.
McEvoy: “We continue to innovate not only in the products we put out, but how we produce those products. So, new equipment, new machinery, robotics, a lot of automation, not to displace our workforce, but to make their jobs easier and ultimately kind of counter the challenge of finding enough workers. We’ve put a lot of automation into our facilities and that’s going to continue to be a trend that we look at. Obviously, controlling your costs is an element of the automation that we’re doing. A lot of work goes into producing the products and then there’s the kind of behind the scenes of everything we do to get it ready to get on store shelves.”
Will there be any new investments in facilities or people to support the company’s goal?
McEvoy: “From a growth and facility standpoint, I think that’s something that we continue to look at. Our first objective is to optimize the assets and the space that we currently have. As for workforce development, I’ve been really pleased with the efforts that we’ve done in working with our area high schools and technical colleges on making sure that we have individuals who are trained appropriately to be able to come to work at a manufacturing place that is becoming more technical, just with some of the automation that we’ve brought in. The key to doing that is just having really good relationships within the community and really making sure we’re connecting with all the different schools in the area. We also just need more people in our area. Sargento, along with three other companies and Sheboygan County, have invested in a housing development to bring affordable housing to our area.”
What do you want Sargento to be known for another 70 years into the future?
Gentine: “Our vision is to be the most innovative, best-loved real food company. So, 70, 75 years from now, my hope would be that consumers see us as an innovative company that’s bringing great solutions to their dinner table.”