Ropp Cheese embraces "field-to-fork" in steady regional expansion
By Mary Ann Ford
About 10 years ago, Ken Ropp manufactured his first batch of cheese from some of the milk produced by the family’s 62 Jersey cows.
It was a historic event. The Ropp farmstead on the west side of Normal was the first in Illinois to have a “Cheese on Wheels” modular dairy plant, invented by Ted Thuli, vice president of Darlington Dairy Supply Co., Darlington, Wis.
That first run also fulfilled the dream sixth generation that Ropp farm owners – Ken and his wife Becky and his parents, Ray and Carol Ropp – had been talking about for years to diversify the dairy farm.
The venture has become so successful – growing about 25 to 30 percent each year – the family now plans to build and open a permanent cheese-making facility this year.
“It took a while to get established but five years ago, I finally said we did the right thing,” said Ken.
In addition to an on-site marketplace, Ropp continues to increase exposure among local grocers and also provides larger-scale inventory to sports and entertainment concessionaires. Ropp Cheese is currently available at 225 locations within a 200-mile radius of Bloomington-Normal, including 42 Hy-Vee retail stores. It’s sold at wineries and used in several restaurants.
"For years, word-of-mouth and repeat customers have driven our sales, and we continue to grow and seek to expand our brand," Ken said. "What we have is a developing brand with an established tradition."
The operation has 15 employees and the Ropps now use all of the milk from their cows for cheese production after recently discontinuing selling some of the raw milk to co-ops.
But the 62 cows still have a tough time keeping up with demand, and the small modular dairy plant is cramped, prompting the plan to build and expand to the new permanent cheese-making plant on the farmstead.
“We’ve spent the last four years planning it,” said Ken. “The last 1 ½ have focused on putting it on paper, getting zoning, and talking to banks.”
They tore down an old house to make way for the new 4,000-square-foot facility – 10 times the size of the modular plant. In addition to a cheese processing area three times as big as the current one, it will have space for offices and an employee breakroom.
It also will include a brining tank that will be used exclusively for a partnership between Ropp Cheese and Destihl Restaurant & Brew Works in Normal and Champaign. Cheese in that tank will be brined with Destihl-crafted beer and used at Destihl restaurants.
Giotto Troia, Destihl’s marketing and communications manager, said initially Destihl took Ropp one-year aged cheddar and brined it with Destihl’s Vertex IPA.
“It turned out great so we started using it in several menu items, and we have expanded our use of it at the new Beer Hall at Destihl Brewery.”
Troia said Ropps’ plan to install the new brining tank dedicated to brine Ropp Cheese with Destihl–crafted beer will produce 200 pounds of cheese every four days.
“We hope to co-package the cheese in the future,” Troia said.
Once Ropps’ new permanent facility is up and running, visitors to the farmstead will be able to watch the cheese-making process through a plate-glass window across the front of the new plant.
Plans also are in the works to build a larger milking barn this fall that will accommodate an additional 15 to 25 cows that will help produce the milk for cheese making, Ken said.
“What I imagined to happen now is starting to happen,” said Ken. “It’s not exactly how I thought…” but it’s successful just the same.