I had the chance to sit down with James Keliehor, CEO of Cheesemakers, to talk about specialty cheeses.
Please excuse any typos in this hasty transcript.
Jay Curry: And we’re back. Hello Texas. Welcome back to Texas Business Radio. This is Jay Curry, your host for this segment. Matt has decided that he should go off and take a day off and vacation somewhere in Florida. And George had to step out for this segment but boy we’ve had a good one tonight. We’re talking about wine and cheese. Both are big businesses and both go together. This has been fun. It’s been exciting and I can’t tell you how glad I am to have this next guest in with us. We have from Cheesemakers, James Keliehor. Did I get that right, James?
James Keliehor: Yes Sir.
Jay Curry: And his mother Kate, also involved in the business, big time. Delighted to have you here. So let’s start it off with, what the heck is Cheesemakers?
James Keliehor: Well Cheesemakers, we got started in the business in 1997. When I graduated from college, I came to Houston and I was building equipment. And I built some machines for the baking industry and Land O Lakes found out about us. So then we read a trade sheet…
Jay Curry: As in the National Land O Lakes.
James Keliehor: Oh yes sir.
Jay Curry: Big time.
James Keliehor: Yes sir, up in Wisconsin. We’re at a trade show in Chicago and they came by our booth and they saw our machine running. And we were, we had made some product. It was a live demonstration and they got really excited about it. And so they invited me to their plant in Kiel, Wisconsin. And I went to that plant and we were extruding Colby Longhorns through my technology, is a curd delivery system, and it worked. Pat Hickey had been trying to solve it for like 50 years. How can we extrude the Colby horn, like Longhorn cheese, likes you see at the deli. But it automated that whole process and I got the order and we were so excite.
Jay Curry: And you got the bug.
James Keliehor: Exactly. Exactly. When you’re driving to the plant, you see the old, the small family farms, like the one I grew up on in South Texas. I really started thinking about, you know, why are there no cheese plants in Texas? And so through working with the equipment, we made cheese. And we ran it through the system. And then my mother and Maria Hernandez, you know they made queso fresco. And we ran it through the machine. And then we didn’t want to waste the cheese. So then we went sold it.
Jay Curry: And people liked it and all of a sudden they wanted more. And now you have one heck of a fine business going. All right.
James Keliehor: Yes sir.
Jay Curry: So you’re national.
James Keliehor: Yes sir, we, back in 2010, about seven years ago. We got in stock with Dot Foods. Dot Foods is a national redistribution company. And, which means they’ve got 10 DC’s all across the United States. So, if, if there’s a restaurant or a grocery store that needs our cheese, we can get it there.
Jay Curry: Okay. So you started in 1997. If I count right, that’s 20 years, you’re celebrating your 20th anniversary.
James Keliehor: Oh yes sir. We’re, it’s it’s hard to believe. I mean it’s just been a lot of fun.
Jay Curry: So tell us about your customers, who are you selling this cheese to? You’re actually making the cheese. Folks, this is cheese being made in Texas. OK. Who you selling the cheese to?
James Keliehor: Well, you might have, one of our first customers… You know we’re north of Houston there in The Woodlands, between Conroe and Cleveland. We’re in Montgomery County, birthplace the Lone Star flag. One of our first customers was HEB, everybodies heard of HEB. We sell our lone star goat cheese to all the delis. So on the retail side, you can find Lonestar Texas fresh goat cheese at Specs, HEB, Kroger’s, Randalls, Tom Thumb. You can see it at all the signature stores. Up in Dallas, you can find it at United Supermarket. It’s in a Whole Foods. We make two pound goat cheese logs for all the Whole Foods. We also make bulk cheese for HEB’s commissary. So maybe if you were at the chef on the run, you ate our goat cheese. They do fried green tomato with goat cheese and they’ve always used our Texas fresh goat cheese. So on the, on the restaurant side, you might’ve heard of Torchy Tacos, they use our our cotija cheese in all their locations. Pappasito’s uses our queso fresco. Our panela is in the shrimp diablo at all the Guadalajara Rancho Grandes.
Jay Curry: So, you’ve got quite a clientele. Needless to say. That’s pretty, but what is unique about the Cheesemakers, is that, that’s not, what your brand. I mean you’ve got a couple of brands, right? You don’t go by Cheesemaker, that’s your company name.
James Keliehor: Right.
Jay Curry: What your brand? If I go into the grocery store, what am I looking for?
James Keliehor: You’re gonna look for Lonestar Texas Fresh Goat Cheese. It’s got a… you know, mother, tell them how we have the, what our brands are.
Kate Keliehor: Well, we needed to come up with brands and he has, right off the bat, made me the grandmother of boy/girl twins. So that’s been exciting from the beginning. And so we decided that we would name the mexican style cheese, jaimito, which means little James because the twins name is, the boy twin is James Carson. And then he has a twin sister and she’s little Miss Lonestar. So she’s on the Lonestar Goat Cheese with a cow, red cowgirl hat.
Jay Curry: Just cute as it could be.
Kate Keliehor: Thank you.
Jay Curry: It’s a great logo.
Kate Keliehor: You know, those are real people. When you go and look at, and see Kayla on the shelf with the red cowgirl hat. That’s not something we made up. That’s actually her when she was about four years old.
Jay Curry: So James we don’t go into the studio or into the grocery store and ask for Cheesemaker. We need to know, are they branded? It’s called Lone Star that is your brand.
James Keliehor: Yeah, you’d ask for Lonestar Goat Cheese and then…
Jay Curry: Okay.
James Keliehor: And then the jaimito mexican style cheese.
Jay Curry: Say that again Lone Star…
James Keliehor: Lonestar Goat…
Jay Curry: Cheese.
James Keliehor: Right. Lone Star is the goat cheese and jaimito is the authentic mexican style cheese. Which is made the authentic way, just like they make it in Mexico. So that makes Cheesemakers. You know, we’re right here, based in Texas, making authentic recipes, that are very consistent and please try them.
James Keliehor: So there’s a there’s a little story around that. When you say authentic Mexican in Texas. What, how did you come up with that? I mean, did you go in the closet and make your own up? Or how do you know it’s authentic Mexican.
James Keliehor: Well, when we first got in business, the first cheese we made was queso fresco. Well, my cousin’s a food scientist. And over at A&M, I met Dr. Richter. One of his students is Luis Alonzo Gonzalez. He’s from San Luis Potosi, Mexico. So I met Luis and Luis helped me develop all of my recipes. I went to Mexico, stayed down there for three months, studied in his plant. And then he came up, flew would fly in to Bush Intercontinental. I’d pick him up and we’d work all weekend making cheese. And then we started growing and everybody loved the cheese. And then I got another Hispanic cheese maker and I mean, now we’ve got over 20 employees. It’s,it’s been…
Jay Curry: Your, you’re selling cheese all over the United States. But in Texas particularly, you’re really all over, everywhere, right?
James Keliehor: Oh yeah.
Jay Curry: You started, you were saying and as we were talking before we went on air, you were making like 45 gallon batches and now you’re making what?
James Keliehor: Well, a full tanker milks 5000 gallons. So the cheese that size or, or some of them are half a, half a tanker and then some are a full tank. So we’ve gone from four, forty five gallons all the way to 5000 gallons.
Jay Curry: Gee, how do you even approach that. That’s incredible. And it’s all done right here in Texas. So it’s got to be difficult though. This is a product that will go sour, will go bad. How do you, how do you deal with that?
James Keliehor: Well one of the things you want to try to do is make sure you have a customer for the product before you make it. You know, that, that’s, so that’s why you said well you’ve been in business 20 years. You know we’ve worked hard to make sure our customers are happy with our products and we’ve grown as our customers have grown. So we make everything fresh to order.
Jay Curry: Okay and then you got to move it. So you have special facilities for that, your customers take care of it. How’s that work?
James Keliehor: Well, we have, we, well about, it’s been about 10 years ago we built a really nice cold storage facility at our cheese plant. Which really helped us grow. And we’ve got automated processes to where our, the products handled, very sanitary. We don’t touch it, when we make, it’s automated. That’s my background, is engineering. And we have a cold storage facility there, where we can prepare the orders. You know, run them through the metal detector, inspect all the product and then… Now that we’re in stock Dot Foods, they’ve got 10 coolers all across the United States. So it’s really enabled our company to grow because we got all that additional capacity. So if, if a Cisco or a US Foods or a Benny Keith or a PFG or a Hardie’s Produce, these Texas companies, it makes them easy to get our products. So then, in turn, they’re very fresh. So if the restaurant owner or chef, if they get that product, I mean, they’re getting it a week, two weeks after…
Jay Curry: So it coming across it fresh.
James Keliehor: Yes sir.
Jay Curry: Okay. Folks were talking to James Keliehor, who’s the founder, CEO of Cheesemakers. James if somebody just wanted to learn more about, about you, where do they go?
James Keliehor: Well, you go to cheesemakers.com. And on that Web site you can see all about; recipes, videos, how to make, using the cheese in recipes. We even have sample kits for chefs, so they can try our cheese.
Jay Curry: That’s great. All right folks. This wraps up a really great program. James thank you for being here. Kate, Thank you.
Kate Keliehor: Thank you.
Jay Curry: Nothing like having good cheese with good Texas wine. And now through Cheesemakers, we can have good Texas cheese with good Texas wine. This is great. Folks, we’ve got to wrap this up. This has been a great day and a wonderful program. I just love Texas cheese and Texas wine. So let me remind our listeners that every program, every guest, every sponsor, every thing about Texas Business Radio is at Texasbusinessradio.com. If you heard something and you have a question. You can call in to our 24 hour line. I mean, really, wake up, you can’t sleep because you got to tell, tell somebody or ask somebody. Call us at 844-814-8144. We monitor #TBR on Twitter. We’ve got lots of ways to get hold of us. We’re going to have to wrap this up for the day but this has been a tremendous program. We’ve enjoyed having you with us. And we’ll talk to you next weekend.
Sponsored in part by:
Jay W. Curry
Along with hosting “Texas Business Radio”, Jay is a Professional Certified Coach and Master Chair facilitating four Houston-based Vistage peer groups. In addition to being a best selling non-fiction author, the 2015 release of his award winning novel, Nixon and Dovey: the Legend Returns, adds novelist to his title. Jay holds a BS in Mathematics from Oklahoma State and an MS in Computer Science from Kansas State. You can learn more about Jay HERE.