Est. 1919 | Cabot, Montpelier, Middlebury, Chateaugay, N.Y., West Springfield, Mass. | 1028 employees
How did Cabot Creamery become a $400-million cheese biz? Look no further than the logo on any package of extra-sharp cheddar. There, in soft colors, is a bucolic Vermont farm scene with barns and silos nestled under the snow-capped Green Mountains. You can’t miss the outline of the state of Vermont behind the “B” in Cabot.
Unlike a lot of food manufacturers that use farm imagery for products made in urban factories, Cabot can boast that its cheese, butter, yogurt and other dairy products are made pretty close to the farms that supply it. In fact, the idyllic scene depicted on the extra-sharp cheddar label wasn’t concocted out of thin air in some Madison Avenue boardroom; it’s Riverside Farm in Sheldon, an actual Vermont dairy farm that belongs to the Cabot cooperative.
National cheese sales were down 3 percent last year. At Cabot, they rose by 7 percent, according to Ed Pcolar, the company’s vice president of operations. While the recession forced lots of companies to freeze wages and slash benefits, Cabot’s booming sales allowed it to give its 1028 employees pay raises last year, he says. Pcolar credits Cabot’s superior quality — and the strength of the Vermont brand — for the windfall.
Incorporated under the Agri-Mark name, Cabot is a northeast dairy cooperative founded in 1919 and owned by its 1250 member farmers in Vermont, New York and elsewhere. And those flannel-clad, hardworking farmers and their cows figure prominently in Cabot’s branding and advertising.
Cabot buys 2.6 billion pounds of milk annually from northeastern farmers, plus another billion pounds from other sources. The plant in the town of Cabot produces many of the company’s flavored cheeses, cottage cheese and cultured products such as Greek-style yogurt. It also houses the company’s “cut and wrap” operation — a Laverne-and-Shirley-style assembly line, where workers in shower caps move 40-pound blocks of cheese through huge cutting and packaging machines.
Cabot has three additional plants: in Middlebury, where the bulk of cheddar sold in stores is made; in Chateaugay, N.Y., which makes limited-batch cheeses such as Goudas and Muensters; and the West Springfield, Mass., “balancing plant,” where huge volumes of milk are moved through its many milk silos.
Pcolar maintains that the quality and consistency of the cheese is what keeps Cabot successful, noting the company’s numerous medals in national and world cheese competitions. “When we say extra sharp, it will be extra sharp every time,” Pcolar says. “People grow to expect that.”
Locally, Cabot has earned some bad press for its environmental record. The company paid a $50,000 fine for a 2005 ammonia spill and resulting fish kill in the Winooski River. It has also come under fire for disposing of detergent-laden water on area farm fields, rather than at a water-treatment facility. Regarding the latter, Pcolar says, “I will remind people that is very, very dilute — in parts per million. The agricultural process is the most efficient process for handling those materials.”
Pcolar views the inconvenience of dealing with Vermont’s regulations as “part of business.” In the larger scheme of things, it’s a small price to pay for the marketing power of the Vermont brand.
He says simply, “Vermont has a quality connotation.”