'Nacho' average factory: The labor behind Bongards cheese
Bongards took a few tour groups through their Perham factory recently and explained just exactly what it takes to make their cheese.
PERHAM, Minn. — People sure do love their cheese.
That is, according to Perham Bongards employees who mentioned that they produce 3 million pounds of cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Colby Jack, and mozzarella per week.
As several tour groups entered the Bongards factory on Thursday, March 30, these employees and guides explained all the business and production that goes into creating the delicious, creamy cheese behind pizza, sandwiches and even a certain famous macaroni dish.
Though many may look at the factory in downtown Perham and always think of it as the Bongards plant, it was once a Land O' Lakes factory before it was purchased by Bongards, about 20 years ago. Since then, workers from in and around the Perham community dedicate a lot of time and effort to bring Bongards products to American dinner tables.
"Bongards is a little bit different than some companies in that our goal is to pay as much as we possibly can for the incoming ingredients, and we try to run really efficiently and sell our product for a really good price," said Bongards human resources manager and tour guide Ross Vettleson. "Here at Bongards, we run about 4.1 to about 4.6 million pounds of milk every day, which equates to about 85 to 90 truckloads of milk coming in and going through those intake bays."
Workers at the factory take those 4 million pounds of milk and turn it into about 500,000 pounds of cheese each day. The cheese that leaves the Perham plant does so in either a 40-pound block or a 500-pound vacuum-sealed barrel. As this cheese is formed, packaged and sealed, it's then carried off to the plant's refrigerated warehouse — which was recently expanded in the last year — in preparation for transportation.
"Just in the last year, we went from a 17,000-square-foot warehouse that was here going back to when Land O' Lakes owned the plant," Vettleson explained. "In the Land O' Lakes days, this plant ran 1.5 million pounds of milk a day, so we have just about tripled the production. But we had all the same stuff inside. Last year, we added a 70,000-square-foot cooler addition, so we're better able to accommodate the cheese production that we're turning out."
This expansion, which started construction in August 2021 and finished in 2022, was built on the east side of the existing building . This new refrigerated warehouse holds the factory's finished cheese blocks and barrels before they are loaded onto trucks for transportation to different customers. Each horizontal row in the warehouse holds one truckload, which is about 43,000 pounds of cheese. The cooler features multiple vertical lines of these semi loads, with about 75-plus truckloads per said vertical line.
Sure, Bongards makes a lot of cheese, but what happens to the rest of the 4 million pounds of milk that comes into the plant? Well, according to Bongards Whey Plant Manager Brad Boutiette, about 89% of that milk volume ends up being water and whey solids (the by-product of cheese-making). Employees then separate those whey solids from the water through a series of membranes.
"We separate it by molecule size," Boutiette explained to the tour groups. "So we're separating sugars out. We're separating proteins out and other items — calcium and whatnot. We divide that into a couple streams. It goes through our process equipment. We condense it up, and then it goes in one of our two dryers, which are the ones you see blow steam all the time out the roof. We make about 200,000 pounds a day of powder stuff."
One of these powders is WPC (whey protein concentrate), which is the protein powder often found in protein drinks and shakes. According to Boutiette, the process and technology to create WPC was actually developed in the Perham factory in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was even the first plant to run whey proteins through it, he shared.
The water that is left over from this whey process is often heat treated and run through another series of membranes to become standard soft water. This water is then used to wash the plant's equipment.
These are a lot of processes that take place in one plant location, and it only scratches the surface of everything Perham's Bongards factory does. All this work takes a large number of individuals to complete. Between the Perham plant and retail store, Bongards employs about 147 people, with about 135 of them as full-time employees.
The plant runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Vettleson shared. "We never shut down," he said. "This plant has not had a down day in over 10 years." Shifts are created in a way to make sure people are present at all times.
Knowing the amount of work that goes into making those shreds of parmesan you add to your spaghetti makes you look at your food just a little bit differently.