FORT COLLINS — Patience, perseverance and some unusual Brie mold is what catapulted this year’s Bravo! Entrepreneur Emerging Entrepreneur award winners to success.
Tom and Kristi Johnson, owners of Bingham Hill Cheese Co., have weathered some potential business-ending catastrophes, a few batches of “interesting” cheese and all the while, kept smiling and creating some award-winning cheese.
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Most recently, the husband and wife survived a U.S. Food and Drug Administration recall on its Rustic Blue cheese. The FDA found traces of listeria monocytogenes, a potentially fatal organism, in a single wheel of the company’s signature product. While further testing showed no other occurrences of the organism or any other pathogen, the recall had the potential to severely damage Bingham Hill and its reputation.
“It is strange because we thought the recall could be the death of our company,” Tom Johnson said. “We called every one of our customers and, because of the contact, we have caused a spike in the number of sales.”
It’s not the only spike in sales Bingham Hill has seen recently. The company signed an agreement earlier this year with specialty grocer Trader Joe’s to supply 22,000 tubs of their fresh soft cheese every week — they previously produced 1,000 tubs a week. The contract increases Bingham Hill’s total production to 500,000 pounds of cheese a year. In 2002, the company produced 80,000 pounds of cheese.
“For us, this is our shot at hitting the big time, and we want to do everything we can to make it work,” Tom Johnson said.
The company also recently signed a contract with Albertson’s to supply 71 stores in the Rocky Mountain region with their products. The contract is about one-quarter the size of the Trader Joe’s deal.
“(Albertson’s) is so excited they were talking to the people down at Cheese Importers in Longmont about how important it is to get these Colorado products into the Albertson’s because that will help make them a local company rather than a Boise, Idaho, company,” Kristi Johnson said.
Bingham Hill Cheese began quite simply with a love of food. Tom and Kristi loved food, loved Fort Collins and the support residents show for local companies. And they love a challenge.
“We had never been trained in culinary arts, but we always loved food,” Kristi Johnson said. “We liked to go out to eat even when we were college students. So we would go out to nice restaurants and risk bouncing checks because we had to have good food.”
In December 1999, they began producing Rustic Blue and found overnight success. When the first batch was ready in early 2000, Bingham Hill already had a major customer waiting in the wings.
Dean & DeLuca, a New York-based specialty foods catalog, received some of the first cheese produced and company officials decided to include it in the catalog.
“That was a big break for us because it put us in 18 million homes,” Kristi said. “That same year we won the first prize in the American Cheese Society Contest. It was really darn good cheese so it really put us on the map.”
In 2000, the Johnson’s earned their first bumps and bruises in the cheesemaking world. During the summer, the milk produced by cows has less fat, and because of this, the cheese-making curd encourages the liquid whey to drain too quickly, resulting in a drier cheese.
“We weren’t experienced enough at looking at the curd and seeing what it does to know how that affects the aging process,” she said. “So in October of 2000, we ended up throwing out a bunch of cheese.”
The resulting loss was approximately $16,000, but the experience gained was priceless.
Bingham Hill decided to expand into fresh, creamy spread cheeses in 2001 to help expand the company’s reputation in the local market. The cheese has a high moisture content and is produced in three days, making it a prime product for farmer’s markets.
“Fresh cheeses are ideal for selling to a local market, especially if you don’t add the preservatives, simply because you can’t get it otherwise,” Kristi said.
Bingham Hill cheese is now as famous in Northern Colorado as it is in the artisan cheese-making circuit. The cheeses produced can now be found in many local restaurants, including Austin’s American Grill, The Moot House, Nico’s Catacombs and CooperSmith’s Pub and Brewery.
“In the fall and winter, we bring out the Poudre Puff as part of a cheese plate,´ said Chris O’Mara, kitchen manager of CooperSmith’s. “We serve it with jabanero jam and crackers. We also serve the Rustic Blue in a compound butter with some of our steaks.”
The proximity of Bingham Hill also encourages local business to purchase from them. The Johnsons can provide unequalled service and speed of delivery.
“The company is really easy to work with,” O’Mara said. “We just call up whenever we need cheese, and they will drop it by later in the day. It is more personable than with some national companies.”