A Look Inside: La Grander’s Cheese Curds
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - Here in Wisconsin, cheese-making is a family business. Tucked away in rural Clark county you’ll find La Grander’s Hillside Dairy. This family of Master Cheesemakers have made quite a name for themselves by creating quality cheese products including cheese curds. In “A Look Inside” WEAU takes a look at those cheese curds have become a mainstay in a Wisconsin restaurant chains delicious menu.
Wisconsinites’ passion for deep-fried hunks of cheese has been a staple at a homegrown franchise that’s spread across the Midwest and beyond. We’re talking Culver’s.
They serve up butter burgers, frozen custard and of course, crunchy fried cheese curds. Wisconsin cheese curds. In fact, the curds come from right here in West-Central Wisconsin. The mastermind behind these cheesy creations, La Grander’s Hillside Dairy in Stanley.
“We’ve literally grown up doing this, lived on top of the cheese factory, so it’s been in our whole family’s blood forever, and it’s almost like an art form when you really get down to it.”
Plant manager and owner Ryan La Grander is third-generation of the business, taking after his grandfather, Dannie, who bought the dairy in 1960. La Grander’s has been making bulk frozen cheese curds which are then sold to companies that create the deep-fry curds used by Culver’s.
“We were approached in the late 90′s when Culver’s added cheese curds to their menu, it started really small, we were making cheddar so we were pressing them into forms, round wheels and the long horns. I credit my grandpa and father for saying we’ll try that, we had to install a freezer and a whole new line to do that and it worked out really well,” says Ryan La Grander.
La Grander’s currently ships 7-million pounds of curds per year to Culver’s breading factories, in total, 25-percent of the curd business goes to Culver’s. Ryan La Grander is thankful Culver’s core philosophy is to use quality products from a family business supporting local farmers.
La Grander adds, “Without farms, we couldn’t do any of this. The producers that ship milk to us do a great job of shipping us high quality milk. Every time somebody comes in or a customer buys cheese, I know that they’re not just supporting our plant, but they’re also supporting those family farms that are shipping the milk to us.”
Craig Culver and Culver family introduced the world to butter burgers and custard in 1984. The menu has evolved through the years, adding cheese curds in the late 90′s.
“There’s that level of trust and that certainty that they’ve helped us grow along the way and we look at that as a point of pride, both Wisconsin companies, both family owned and it’s an important part of our brand identity to reinforce those type of relationships and continue to showcase that Wisconsin is famous for,” says Quinn Adkins, Culver’s Director of Menu Development.
“What really sets our curds apart, is they travel well. We serve a breaded curd, not a battered curd. They hold up well, they maintain their heat and their crunch and they’re great flavor. If you have to drive ten minutes before you get home, when you get home they are still crunchy, gooey and delicious,” explains Adkins.
So what goes into creating the perfect cheese curd? It starts local.
“Every truck comes in gets tested for antibiotics and quality and just to make sure it’s good, we unload the milk into the silos that you see outside...”
La Grander’s receives about 800-thousand pounds of fresh, quality milk from 140 dairy farms within a 50-mile radius of Stanley, Wisconsin. It’s that milk that allows the factory to produce about 27-million pounds of curd a year. That works out to be about three semi loads of curd per day. Ryan says the tasking process of making curds used to be done by hand, but thanks to technology and the advent of automation, La Grander’s is able to meeting the increasing demand for their curds.
“So we’re pumping that cheese from that vat into the top of this machine. It’s a drain belt, so the cheese is pumped out... allowed to drain out, and the cheese fits together into a big slab. It’s allowed to drain and stretch and when it comes out on this end it’s called a cheese mat, we slab off the end and run it through a curd mill and that’s how the curds are actually made,” says La Grander.
The La Grander family’s passion for cheese runs deep. Starting with his grandparents, Dan and Lorraine, more than six decades of quality highlights by a delicacy found in a simple curd.
“It’s our family business, we want to carry on the family tradition and keep doing the best we can on a day to day basis and make sure people know when they come out here for cheese, that they know what they’re going to get. They’re expecting high quality and that’s what we’re going to give them every time.”
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