Cheese maker finds recipe for success

Roger Schwab (left) is upholding a proud tradition. Roger Schwab

One of a new breed of cheese makers, who the industry is pinning its hopes on, is Roger Schwab, who runs a dairy in the village of Corgémont.

This content was published on February 7, 2002 - 08:41

The 38-year-old began production in November 1998 at a time when many cheese makers were looking for the exit rather than for a way in to the industry as the loss of state subsidies and the lifting of trade barriers put the squeeze on many businesses.

But while others struggled to keep their heads above water, Schwab has seen his operation in the Jura grow by up to 10 per cent every year to the extent where he now employs around a dozen people, has a turnover of SFr3.5 million and, in his own words, is "doing very well indeed".

The dairy, which dates back to 1897, produces more than 500 cheeses a day, Monday to Sunday, with 80 per cent of production given over to Tête de Moine and the rest made up of homemade speciality cheeses, such as "Reblochon du Patron" and "Raclette de Corgémont".

Surveying his achievement

His entire stock of Tête de Moine is sent for export, principally to Germany but also to Finland, Belgium and France. He has also set up a website to help sell his cheese.

Standing amid the scrupulously cleaned vats, with the smell of the day's batch of cheeses still hanging in the air, Schwab is understandably proud of what he has achieved in such a short time.

For him, the way forward is clear: today it is not enough to be simply a master cheese maker - one has to be a first-class businessman as well.

"Today you must think more like a businessman because the marketplace has become that much tougher," says Schwab. "We no longer have fixed prices but prices which fluctuate daily; you have to negotiate with milk producers and buyers to get the best prices for your products; and you have to make sure that your own product is of the highest quality."

In this respect Schwab had a head start over many of his rivals. Having qualified as a master cheese maker, he then went to work for 10 years as head of production at Swiss Dairy Foods in Saint-Imier.

Launching his business

"I learned a lot of things and for me it was the best place to learn how to run a cheese factory," says Schwab. "I could see what worked and what didn't."

Schwab's biggest obstacle was finding the start-up funding to launch his business. Four years ago the arrival of a cheese maker looking for a loan would send alarm bells ringing in most banks, he says.

He had to put together a 10-year business plan and fight tooth and nail to persuade his local bank manager to loosen the purse strings. But now both parties are delighted with the venture and Schwab is three years ahead of schedule.

Every month he gets together with the area's eight other Tête de Moine producers to fix production limits and discuss any problems they might be experiencing. The meetings help to ensure that no one forgets that the quality of the product is paramount, he says.

Each of Schwab's cheeses is stamped with an identification number - CH-5631 - before being sent for export and, according to Schwab, some of his buyers will not touch a Tête de Moine unless they can see it is a Corgémont cheese.

"If a cheese maker has confidence in himself and his product he will sell it, and we will still have small cheese producers here in Switzerland," insists Schwab. "It is only through the small producers that we can guarantee that the label 'Swiss cheese' remains synonymous with quality."

by Adam Beaumont

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