Member Spotlight: Keith Hintz
Springside Cheese Corp., Oconto Falls
Like so many Wisconsin cheese companies, Springside Cheese is a multi-generation family affair. And like many small plants that faced increasing competition from large commodity cheese producers, Springside has worked to differentiate itself by making value-added, specialty cheeses its calling card.
The company, founded in 1908 near Green Bay in Klondike, is now owned and operated by Keith Hintz, along with his brothers Nathan and Bradd. Their dad, Wayne Hintz, purchased Springside Cheese Factory in 1973 and continues to serve as its head cheesemaker. Their grandfather, Eugene Winter, ran Elmwood Cheese Factory in Little Suamico from 1949 to 1989. Eugene employed Wayne as a cheesemaker and then funded Wayne's purchase of Springside. Their great uncle, Paulus Winter, operated the Kosciusko Corners Cheese Factory from 1945 to 1961 and the Krakow Cheese Factory from 1961 to 1976, where Wayne first learned the trade; and their great-grandfather, Edward Winter, was a licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker who started making cheese in the early 1900s.
Under Keith's leadership, the new generation is building on the family legacy of award-winning cheesemaking and bringing fresh ideas to the business, which includes a retail store at its factory in Oconto Falls, where the company moved in 1982, and a specialty cheese shop under the Springside Cheese banner in Pueblo, Colorado.
Your family clearly has deep roots in the cheese business. Is this always the direction you were headed with your own career?
For the most part. I literally grew up in the business. I remember being in the plant as early as the age of three and as soon as I could walk I was helping to put liners in 40-pound block boxes. After college, I worked a few other jobs and in 1994 returned full-time as business manager. I then went back and forth for a number of years between spending time at Springside and trying other things, but even when I was away I remained involved in Springside in a consulting role and as a corporate officer.
When, and why, did you ultimately come back and assume a leadership role?
Six or seven years ago, my dad came to me and my siblings and said that he was getting ready to retire. He let us know that if we had an interest in the business, he would reinvest in it. If not, he wouldn't spend the money on upgrades needed to meet new regulatory requirements, etc., and start shutting things down. My brother Nathan and I were interested, so we returned and took it from there. Most recently, our younger brother, Bradd, also joined the business as part of the management/leadership team. The hand-off and management transition from our dad to us took some time, but we now have majority ownership of the company and we're grateful that our dad is still with us as our head cheesemaker.
What's your focus now as Springside's next-gen leadership team?
We're returning to our roots as an artisan plant and a producer of cheeses with attributes that today's consumers value – local milk from grass-fed cows, organic, non-GMO, small-batch. We had gotten away from that over the years. In the 1990s, for instance, there was a lot of pressure to increase capacity and we were headed into a large-scale production mode. We had begun making a significant amount of Pepper Jack, but that quickly was starting to be mass produced at larger facilities and we were less and less competitive. When Nathan and I made the commitment to run Springside we took a long, hard look at the business and asked ourselves what it was that we really wanted to be doing on a day-to-day basis. We knew that we'd rather have our hands in the vats and be close to every aspect of the business versus managing a large staff. We wanted to keep our locations small and to co-locate our retail business with our production facility to create an educational experience and a strong customer-connection dynamic.
And you've focused in on specialty varieties, from Monterey Jacks to an original variety unique to Springside?
Yes. Monterey Jack is still one of our bigger sellers, but we also produce a wide variety of flavors beyond Pepper Jack, such as Garden Vegetable, Morel & Leek, Peppercorn Ranch, Pueblo Chile and Ghost Pepper. We also produce a number of flavored cheddar and Colby cheeses. And our signature artisan cheese is Krakow. It's styled after the traditional Polish cheese Podlaski. We initiated it back in the early 1990s, when the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) began holding artisan cheese classes, and brought it to market as Krakow, a butterkase-style cheese that has great melting qualities. Its make procedure has similarities to many of our current products, so it was a good fit with what we're already doing. Our dad was introduced to the craft of cheesemaking at the Krakow Cheese Factory in Krakow, Wisconsin, so this cheese honors that association.
Springside is one of few small Wisconsin cheese companies to have multi-state locations. How did that come about?
In addition to our factory and retail store in Oconto Falls we have a retail store in Pueblo, Colorado. My wife grew up in Pueblo and when we got married we decided to settle there. There wasn't much access to specialty cheese in that market, so we opened Springside Cheese Shop. We carry Springside cheeses but also a lot of other Wisconsin specialty cheeses. They're almost all products that aren't found in mainstream grocery stores near Pueblo, so we fill a gap for artisan and specialty cheeses. Our membership in WSCI has been helpful as we've worked to get our out-of-state business and our supplier networks established.
How else has membership in WSCI helped Springside through its evolution?
My initial exposure to WSCI was back in the 1990s when CDR started encouraging manufacturers to look at specialty cheese as a focus. Joining the organization helped us to begin identifying opportunities to provide value-added products that could differentiate us. We can't compete on the mass scale or reduce costs to a level that the large manufacturers can, so we have to specialize. WSCI helped us to realize that and shift our business model accordingly. It's been a very valuable association for us.