Monday, February 06, 2006

1999 Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, LARRY STECKBAUER: Antigo Cheese Company – Antigo, WI

In 1973, Larry Steckbauer was fresh out of college with a history major and geography minor, and a career in urban planning was on option on the table. He retuned to his home town of Antigo, where his father once was an ice-cream maker and fluid milk bottler, and where Larry began feeling the pull of the dairy industry. That same year, he began his 26-year cheesemaking career at the Kraft Cheese plant in Antigo, becoming a licensed cheesemaker in 1981. He has never regretted his decision, and is now proud to join the upper echelon in his profession as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker.

In 1993, after Kraft announced it would close the Antigo plant, Steckbauer led a group of employees who sought to keep the facility in operation. With community support, dairy farmer loyalty, and tremendous assistance from Kraft and Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, the plant was purchased by employees and community investors, giving birth to Antigo Cheese Company, which has thrived ever since.

Steckbauer refined his cheesemaking skills over the years, studying at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) at the University of Wisconsin. Once he learned about the Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker program, he decided it was a opportunity he wanted to investigate for himself and his company.

With the full support of Antigo President John Jacobs, Steckbauer enrolled in what he described as "an incredible learning experience," and his today certified as a Wisconsin Mater Cheese Maker in Parmesan and Romano cheeses.

"This was a special personal goal for me and I knew it would be a tough program," he says. "But the CDR makes it as user-friendly as possible. I traveled to Madison just twice a year, in Spring and Fall. The written exam was open-book, so I could complete it at home during a specified time-frame. Since I begin work at 3:00 a.m. and work at least a 10-hour day, this was a critical point for me. I found that as I did the test research, I learned so much more than just the answers to the questions. Another great program benefit was having cheese graders come to the plant on a periodic basis to test our cheese. I recommend the program highly and it's made me feel really proud."

Antigo Cheese Company plans to promote Steckbauer's achievement as a Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker. The company feels it's a significant product benefit for its customers. The company's business has grown steadily because of its commitment to quality. The number of accounts it sells to has grown from five when the company formed in 1993, to more than 80 today. Meanwhile, production increases 10 to 15 percent per year. The plant has produced Parmesan cheese for over 50 years and stepped up production several years ago with Italian-style specialties Romano and Asiago.

In 1997, Antigo introduced a unique specialty product, Stravecchio, Parmesan aged for 20 months, and their own retail product line, WISANTIGO.

Antigo Cheese Company has won several awards, including the prestigious Wisconsin State Fair First Place Govenernors Sweepstakes blue ribbon in 1995, 1996 and in 1998 for the Italian Grana category, and the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year Award in 1996 for the emerging companies category and as a Manufacturer of the Year in 1998.

Steckbauer and his wife, Sally, an accountant, are proud parents of Ben, 18, Anne, 16 and Sam, 11.

Mr. Steckbauer can be reached at (715) 623-2301