With snack foods increasingly supplanting shelf space formerly occupied by entrée-focused offerings, and fresh foods free of artificial ingredients becoming more and more sought after, Sonoma Creamery has proven to be on the forefront of two very large-scale food trends. Over the past six years, with the company’s Mr. Cheese O’s and Cheese Crisps—shelf-stable, real cheese snacking offerings, Sonoma Creamery is proving that with ingenuity and integrity of ingredients, the traditional artisan creamery can conquer snacking and deliver a product customers love—cheese—in a format that fits their lifestyle.
I recently had a chance to talk with John Crean, President and CEO, to find out more about the Sonoma Creamery’s storied history, its current trajectory, and new product offerings slated to hit the shelves soon.
“Our business has really morphed from an artisan fresh cheese business into a shelf-stable, real-cheese snack business.” John explained. “But it leverages all the same capabilities our team has always had—cheesemaking and blending cheese with different herbs and spices and inclusions—that’s something that Sonoma has been known for all these years. We’re just taking it to a different level and a different application by bringing it into the better-for-you, healthy snacking world, which is how people really eat nowadays.”
Though Sonoma Creamery’s popular Cheese Crisp and Mr. Cheese O’s lines are relatively recent additions to the company’s product line, John tells me that the Creamery can trace its roots back to 1931.
“For most of its 86 years, Sonoma Creamery was run by a family as an artisan fresh cheese company,” John noted, telling me that eventually the company was sold and exchanged hands several times after 2005, before John and several other investors purchased Sonoma in 2011. “We bought the company, and we knew it had a great product line, a great brand name, had great brand equity—particularly in the Bay Area, Northern California, and parts of the West. But we had to really look at the product line and decide: ‘what are we going to do next?’ The product line had to be refreshed. So, we spent the first two years focusing on the fresh cheese business and updating the product line.
Having revamped the company’s packaging, and introduced a number of new fresh cheese offerings, the Sonoma team set its sights on a new territory—shelf-stable, packaged snacks made with real cheese.
“In 2014, we really had our breakout year with our new product line Mr. Cheese O’s, which is a baked, crunchy real cheese snack line,” John added, noting that with its innovative baking process, the Sonoma team was able to take its artisan cheeses into the space of shelf-stable snacking. “It’s light; it’s crunchy; it’s shelf stable; it won’t spoil; and you can take that cheese with you wherever you go. That’s really the innovation of our team over the last three years.”
After initially rolling out a line featuring four flavors—Parmesan, Cheddar, Tuscan Herb, and Sweet Chili—the company would add French Onion and then Zesty Barbecue the following year, and expand pack sizes to include a 1 oz, multi-serve 3.75 oz, and 8 oz club packages.
And following the success of these products Sonoma Creamery would introduce its signature line of Cheese Crisps, in 2016.
“I think the different form factor plus the fact that it eats a little differently in that shape—and the packaging was different—made the Parmesan crisp a huge success,” John explained. “Then on the heels of that we launched companion flavors Bacon Cheddar—made with real, all-natural bacon with no added nitrates or nitrites—and Cheddar. We have three flavors in a 10 oz club and a 2.25 oz snack pack, and that’s been extremely successful over the last 2 years”
John noted, the company is currently in the process of rolling out two new flavors of Cheese Crisps—a Hot Pepper Jack Crisp, based on Sonoma Creamery’s iconic jalapeño-infused fresh cheese, and a Savory Seed Crisp, which includes sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds. The former flavor is already available in 10 oz club packs, with a 2.25 oz snack pack in both flavors to follow.
With an iconic brand, a tradition of exceptional quality products, and an innovative approach to cheese, the future is looking bright for Sonoma Creamery.