by Sarah Hall
for The Beacon
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers returned to his hometown of Plymouth last Thursday to share news uniquely important to the Cheese Capital of the World.
The state of Wisconsin is supporting a major expansion of Masters Gallery Foods with up to $1.5 million in tax credits, Evers announced during a lunchtime gathering at Plymouth’s Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center.
Masters Gallery has just completed a $60 million, 100,000 square-foot expansion to its cheese packaging and distribution facility in Oostburg, which will create 105 new jobs paying an average of more than $23 per hour. Recruitment has already begun and will continue for the next three years, adding to the company’s existing workforce of 975 employees.
“Nobody knows dairy like Wisconsin, and I’m proud of our work and investments to ensure this industry continues to succeed and thrive for years to come,” said Evers. “This investment today not only supports the growth of Masters Gallery Foods, but also new opportunities for good-paying, family-supporting jobs in the greater region.”
“Plymouth is my hometown, where I went to school and worked at my first job, scraping mold off cheese,” Evers noted. “I can’t think of a better place to celebrate June Dairy Month.”
Jeff Gentine, Masters Gallery Foods president and CEO, said that “Sheboygan County has been our home since 1974, and we’re thrilled to continue our growth with the recently completed expansion of our new Oostburg facility.”
“We’re fortunate to be in a great industry. The cheese industry is fantastic… the growth is tremendous, but it takes a lot of capital investment, so we are appreciative of all the support we get, especially from the state,” he continued.
Gentine noted that “our biggest challenge will be staffing the lines, something we never thought we’d have to worry about in years past.”
Last year, Masters Gallery began work on the 110,000-square-foot addition to its Oostburg facility. The project doubles the size of the current production area and also adds storage and warehouse space. The company is spending about $23 million in construction costs as well as about $37 million on equipment.
Based in Plymouth, Masters Gallery was founded in 1974 by Leonard “Butch” Gentine Jr. and has grown from a small cheese brokerage firm into a national cheese supplier. The family-owned company now has two cheese packaging facilities located in Plymouth and Oostburg. Serving private label, retail and food service customers, Masters Gallery has one of the largest privately held cheese inventories in the United States.
The tax credit Masters Gallery is receiving will be funneled through the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which also provided a $100,000 Community Development Investment grant to the City of Plymouth to help create the Cheese Counter in 2016.
The shop and café offers a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches, soup, macaroni and cheese, ice cream and beverages, as well as refrigerated cheeses, gift boxes, novelty items, clothing and souvenirs. It also functions as a museum highlighting the area’s rich dairy heritage and is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, with hot foods served from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Brian Doudna told the crowd at the gathering last Thursday that “this building we are standing in today truly is an economic development project we can all be proud of and shows the collaboration and partnership that make Wisconsin great.”
“Later this year, the redevelopment authority of the City of Plymouth will have the opportunity to buy this building from our foundation for $1,” he added, which drew an enthusiastic round of applause.
Nearly 50 onlookers – some of them local dignitaries in suits, others curious customers in t-shirts and shorts – were there for the event.
One of them was Lee Gentine, one of the owners of Sargento Foods, the uncle of Jeff Gentine and a childhood friend of Evers, who spent time with him at St. John the Baptist Elementary School, as an altar boy and on the yearbook staff at Plymouth High School. The two of them hugged and reminisced before official remarks began.
Other attendees included Plymouth Mayor Don Pohlman, Sheboygan County Administrator Adam Payne, Sheboygan County Board Chair Vernon Koch, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation Secretary and CEO Missy Hughes and Village of Oostburg President Allen Wrubbel.
“Cheese companies, such as Masters Gallery Foods, support our family dairy farms and help feed our world,” Hughes noted. “More than that, though, Wisconsin companies and workers continue to move the dairy industry forward with innovations, research and training that make our state a leader in the food and beverage industry.”
Wisconsin is the country’s No. 1 producer of cheese with nearly 1,200 licensed cheesemakers producing more than 600 types of cheese.
About one-fourth of all U.S. cheese is produced in Wisconsin with the state producing 877 million pounds of specialty cheeses last year, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Plymouth is home to Masters Gallery, Sartori, Sargento and Great Lakes Cheese.
The city estimates that up to 15 percent of the nation’s cheese goes through Plymouth.