VERMILION, Alta. — The Old School Cheesery at Vermilion, Alta., is turning into a destination for connoisseurs of locally produced artisan foods.
“The plan was to make some goat cheese, but when I did my market research I found out that Canadians only eat two kinds of cheese: cheddar and mozzarella. So we changed our business plan to make cheddar and cheese curd,” said owner Patrick Dupuis.
He was looking for a business opportunity before he retired from the Canadian military in 2015. He was based at CFB Wainwright as a munitions and explosives expert and realized he needed a new career as he transitioned to civilian life.
He had completed bachelor and masters degrees in commerce and wanted his own business.
Originally from Quebec, he and his wife, Josee, loved homemade cheeses and decided that could be the right opportunity for them.
Working with a business mentor from Calgary as well as taking training courses in cheese-making at the University of Guelph and milk processing at the Leduc food processing centre, they opened for business last fall.
The Dupuis family gets raw cow’s milk from Alberta Milk and plan to add 50 goats this fall to expand their product line.
They live on an acreage near Vermilion and started work last March to convert a Quonset into a milk processing and cheese-making facility. They picked up equipment from a closed cheesery at Kitscoty.
Their daughter, Valerie, works with them full time, while their son, Sebastien, helps at the farmers markets. Their daughter, Victoria, works on a sheep station in Australia.
The family sees the business as a long-term enterprise for the adult children to take over in the future.
The business has taken off beyond their expectations and Patrick attributes much of that to the changing demographics in Alberta.
He said 7,000 to 8,000 people leave Ontario and Quebec and come to Alberta every year.
“They bring their taste buds with them and they like cheese curds.”
They started advertising the plant by word of mouth and roadside signs. Local media covered the opening and the customers started to flock to their farm.
Social media changed everything with encouragement from Valerie.
“I really had to prod him. He was really against Facebook for so long and I finally told him this was the number one social media account,” she said.
Added Patrick: “The power of it is unbelievable and people are sharing information.”
Their main outlets are farmers markets and pop-up markets.
Every week, they go to Alberta farmers markets at Bonnyville, St. Paul, Lloydminster, Vegreville, Vermillion, Sherwood Park and two Edmonton markets.
Dupuis also struck a deal with a local Fas Gas outlet with a corner store. No one was sure if people would buy cheese curds from a gas station but demand is strong.
They started by offering four 450-gram bags and now deliver 14.5 kilograms every few days.
Working with a local meat processor, they have developed a pepperoni and cheese curd snack that is sold at the corner store and a local school. Local restaurants, a golf club and four retail outlets also take their cheeses.
Patrick starts the morning with cheese-making at 4 a.m. and finishes with packaging at 9 p.m.
“In the business plan for the first year, I had included that I would not make money this year,” he said.
“The goal was to get to three batches a week in a year to be in the black. It took me three and a half months to get to three batches and now I am up to five batches,” he said.
Patrick also did not expect to buy a second vat for another three years.
The Dupuis couple pasteurizes 2,500 litres of raw milk per week, up from 1,000 litres when they started. Patrick plans to double production when a new cheese vat arrives.
“We will be able to make in two days what we make in one week,” he said.
The product line continues to grow. Besides fresh curds they make cheddar, brie, mozzarella and camembert.
They have created their own recipes, and product lines include cheese with dill, chipotle and garlic and a smoked cheddar.
“Our goal is to follow the seasons: herbs in the summer, peppercorn in the fall and cranberry or berries of any kind for Christmas time,” said Patrick.
No preservatives or artificial colours are used.
“It is basic cheese like Mom and Grandma used to make,” he said.
Their cheese is sold in Canada, the United States and France.
“I was selling some cheese (at a farmers market) and a lady bought a big brie and came back and said that was the best cheese she ever had,” said Patrick.