Industry: Food & Beverage
President Charles Hellmer says the craft cheesery owes its success to its staff, ingredients, and a few proprietary secrets.
"You wouldn't think that the president of a dairy business would be allergic to dairy," says Hellmer, who hadn't eaten milk products in nearly two decades when he learned about Haystack Mountain founder Jim Schott's company. "I'd read on the Internet that some people who are allergic to cow's milk can tolerate goat milk products," Hellmer says.
When he realized that Haystack Mountain was only 20 minutes from his house, Hellmer drove to the dairy factory to meet with Schott. "He was looking to grow his company, and I was looking for a better job," Hellmer recalls.
Locally owned and operated since 1989, Haystack Mountain produces a large selection of handcrafted raw and pasteurized cheeses known for their fresh, clean flavors and textures. Haystack Mountain's edge can be credited to two things -- high-quality milk and an award-winning cheesemaker.
Hellmer thinks his cheesemaker, Jackie Chang, is more interesting than raw milk, so we'll start with Chang. Originally born in Taiwan, she was educated in Korea before relocating with her family to America. "She's self-made," Hellmer says, explaining that when Chang started her career at Haystack Mountain in 2003, she was feeding goats.
"She did a lot of research on her own, and attended classes in Vermont -- and she went to France eventually," Hellmer says. "Right now, she's one of the top artisanal cheesemakers in the country."
The proof is in the awards. "We've won two or three awards -- sometimes four or five -- every year for the last decade," notes Hellmer. The company is routinely recognized for its goat cheeses, which are "an older European style that crumbles," as Hellmer puts it.
A dozen people work in the cheese room under Chang's auspices, and some of the cheesemaker's processes is proprietary. "We keep things simple, and we keep things cold," explains Hellmer. At Haystack Mountain, cheeses are made in small batches, and they're hand-packaged on-site. The process is best described as "simple," according to Hellmer.
The same adjective also describes Haystack Mountain ingredients. But some of the politics surrounding those ingredients are complex.
Hellmer relies on four local sources for fresh milk. His main supplier is Colorado Correctional Industries, or CCI, a dairy farm located in Cañon City, where inmates from the correctional facility get paid to milk goats.
Collaboration between Haystack Mountain and CCI began in 2006, when Hellmer and Schott were losing a big milk supplier. "We've always had contracted milk, and one of the farms we did business with was going out of business," Hellmer explains. When CCI approached Haystack Mountain about a partnership Hellmer says, "We immediately said yes."
"Being part of the community is who we are," Hellmer continues. The money his company pays for CCI's goat milk helps fund a program that trains inmates, ultimately reducing recidivism. "It also reduces the tax burden on the state of Colorado," Hellmer points out.
But not everybody saw it that way. In 2015, an activist sent a letter to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, demanding that the company stop selling Haystack Mountain's cheese. Whole Foods conceded to the demand, explaining in a statement that some customers weren't comfortable buying products made by prisoners.
"We still have a good relationship with Whole Foods," Hellmer clarifies. But today, the grocery chain only buys Haystack Mountain products made with cow's milk.
For about a decade, the company enjoyed success with Buttercup, a wax-coated, semi-soft mix of pasteurized goat and cow's milk, before it began producing six varieties of pure cow's milk cheeses in 2015. Its latest cow's milk flavor, Colonel Mustard, will hit the market soon.
"Goats are seasonal," Hellmer explains. "The milk peaks at the same time, and it has its low point at the same time." Consumers wanted a product they could buy year-round, and Haystack Mountain wanted to be able to employ workers throughout the year, too. "The other part for me is that the cow milk is where all the competition is right now," Hellmer adds.
Distributors sell Haystack Mountain products to cheese shops and retail stores nationwide, and the brand is also used in local restaurants, including Mercury Café ad Pasquini's.
Haystack Mountain was making 30 types of cheese in its 5,000-square-foot flagship building until 2015, when the company expanded into a second, 8,000-square-foot facility that's also in Longmont. Today, fresh chèvres are still made in the company's original building; other products at manufactured at the new site. "We're still feeling the place out. We have a lot of extra capacity," Hellmer says.
Challenges: When you're manufacturing products by hand, one of the biggest challenges is finding good employees. "Right now in Colorado," Hellmer says, "the employment rate is low, and we have to come up with different ways to attract new people."
Opportunities: Colorado is a large state. "We think there are more potential sources for goat milk," Hellmer notes. In fact, Haystack Mountain has plans in the works to help startup local grazed goat farms.
Needs: Employees. "I have three job openings right now," Hellmer says. He's looking to grow into his new manufacturing plant, and he needs more people on board.