Adam Blanchard started out at a stovetop, making a kilogram of cheese at a time.
When his artisan cheese started selling out at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market, he realized the potential it had. He quit his restaurant job in 2011 and made cheese his new full-time gig.
Five Brothers Artisan Cheese has gained a lot of momentum since the stovetop days. The cheese wheels are turning a lot faster since the business had new equipment installed in its new facility this winter. With a 1,000-litre heated milk vat — and a dedicated team — the company’s big cheese is able to produce about 100 times more than he used to.
“Going from eight litres and one kilogram to 1,000 litres and 100 kilograms, it’s a big change,” he told The Telegram Thursday.
“I’m spending the same amount of time and I’m getting 100 kg. I think after the first three days, 300 kg was in the fridge there,” he said, still sounding amazed.
Behind the scenes
Blanchard invited The Telegram behind the scenes on a production day this week. He and the crew walked The Telegram through the process of making curds, from cooking them to draining them to breaking the cheese up and salting it with locally-sourced sea salt.
Dealing with that much cheese is physically demanding work, and it’s easy to see why Blanchard likes having help on production days.
Generally twice a week, Blanchard and staff spend a day producing a vat worth of cheese, which normally results in about 100 kilograms of either white cheddar, smoked cheddar, queso fresco, curds and monterey jack. The facility has two walk-in cheese fridges: one just for cheddar (that’s Blanchard’s favourite place) and another for the rest.
Those cheeses find their way onto shelves at multiple grocery and specialty stores across the province, and onto plates at a bunch of local restaurants.
“Everyone’s been so supportive. Chefs in the restaurants continue to amaze me with taking the cheese and the cool stuff that they do with it. I’m really lucky that way, because we have some of the top restaurants in the country here these days,” said Blanchard.
Although momentum is rising, the business still hasn’t grown as much as Blanchard would like.
“At this point we’re trying to get where we need to be. We’re not there yet. Our business model is based on four vats a week; right now we’re about 2 ½,” he said, adding Five Brothers has experienced a few growing pains, including mechanical issues.
The company is working on getting HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) certification, which will give it a major boost: then, it will be able to sell products in larger grocery stores such as Sobeys and Dominion, giving it a national presence.
“Obviously we want to be able to get outside the province, but right now, in the short term, it’s just to get going enough in here where we’re paying the bills and taking care of business,” Blanchard said.
From the purchasing of supplies to the making, packaging and selling of cheese — not to mention the cleaning and maintenance of the equipment and facility — the small staff at Five Brothers work hard. Thursday, The Telegram got to chat with the quality-control officer, Nicole Hawco; the sales and packaging manager and jack-of-all-trades, Julia Bannister; business partner Dave Collins; and employee Andrew Collins.
Speaking with Bannister — who is Blanchard’s partner in life and work — the company’s passion for cheese is obvious. A professional fromager originally from Port Rexton, she fell in love with cheese during her years of waitressing in Toronto.
“What really drew me into the cheese world is that there were all these very unique stories about how that cheese came to be, or who made it, or why it was different,” she said, going on to tell of cheese made exclusively by women, Swiss cows grazing on specially planted vegetation on their way up a mountain, and French farmers evading the taxman.
Bannister earned her fromager papers from George Brown College in Toronto and quickly got to work as a cheese professional.
Now that she’s face and eyes into the only commercial cheesemaking operation in the province — she points out that the business is the start of an industry here — she shares big dreams with Blanchard of where it could go.
“Hopefully, in the future we’ll be able to have our own retail store and spring in maybe some international cheese, and sell our own cheese,” she said.
The couple also dreams of expanding the line to include blue cheese and camembert-style cheeses, which would require a secondary facility due to the introduction of mold, and of eventually having their own herd of cows.
But their first goal remains achieving a regular four-vat week. Five Brothers continues talk of collaboration with local companies such as Rodrigues Winery and Purity Factories Ltd., and maintains its search for more retailers and restaurants with whom to do business.
N.L.’s cheesiest couple
Adam Blanchard and Julia Bannister are probably the province’s cheesiest couple.
During The Telegram’s visit to Five Brothers Artisan Cheese Thursday, Blanchard told the cheesy story of how they met. The cheesemaker and the professional fromager were introduced by a mutual friend in the cheese industry when Bannister, originally from Port Rexton, still lived in Toronto and had an upcoming layover in St. John’s.
Blanchard remembers her showing up at the door.
“She walked in and sort of caught me off guard with everything,” he said.
They talked cheese over a couple of pots of coffee and hit it off, and the rest is cheesy history.
“I somehow convinced her to leave her 30th-storey condo in Toronto and come down to start a cheese business with an old cheesy Blanchard,” he said.
The couple now lives in St. John’s with their 18-month-old daughter.
“Our house is like a shrine to cheese, and people were like, ‘Oh my God, are you going to name the baby after cheese?’” Blanchard said.
(Spoiler: they didn’t.)