The Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has been a long standing community staple for residents and tourists to purchase cheese and dairy products. The creamery’s history spans all the way back to 1903 and it is no surprise that the cooperative was once again honored in the Ellsworth Chamber of Commerce “best of” awards.

The creamery won the Best Tourism Destination and couldn’t be more gratified for the recognition.

We spoke with John Freeman, senior manager, about the award, how they were affected by the pandemic, their exciting new products, the Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival and more.

Did you think you’d win this award?

We’re sincerely honored to be recognized as the best tourism destination for several years running. We were up against some very worthy competition in this category and we’ve been told it’s a close race every year. We don’t take this recognition for granted. 

However, it is especially gratifying after the events of the past year. Our farmers, employees and customers all played an important part in this year’s award.

How was your business impacted by the pandemic?

We were impacted in many ways — from the farms to production to restaurant and foodservice to our own retail stores. 

You may recall early in the pandemic the supply-chain issues which led to an oversupply of milk yet shortages of dairy products on store shelves. These types of anomalies are difficult to explain to the general public. Working with perishable products like dairy is a unique challenge even on a good day. When there are disruptions in supply chains and manufacturing, those challenges are difficult to overcome.

The safety of our team members and customers also weighed heavily on our minds. The cows must be milked twice a day and we can’t turn off that supply so it was crucial to keep our production facilities operational. Staff exposures and quarantines put a lot of stress on production. We’re grateful for the commitment of our farm owners, employees and customers. Everyone pulled together however they could and in their own way, which is why we share this award with them. 

What goals and hopes do you have for your business in 2021?

We’re already seeing and feeling some changes in 2021. In restaurants and foodservice, our customers appear to be gearing up for a busy year. In our own retail store, we’re seeing a shift in consumer behavior. People are ready to get out and return to normal or as close to normal as they can. Day trips are a safe activity to turn to when you want to get out of the house and we’re noticing visitors from one to two hours away visiting our retail stores on the weekends to browse our cheese and other specialty and regional product offerings. 

While we’re still requiring masks to be worn by staff and customers in our retail stores, we’ve been working on protocols to safely offer tastings at our stores again. We’re also looking forward to opening our outdoor curd wagons at our stores for the summer so visitors can get their fill of the deep fried cheese curds they love so much.

What do you want to share with the Red Wing community about your business?

There’s a perception that the Mississippi River forms some sort of division, but we don’t find this to be the case! We consider the Red Wing area as part of our community and you as part of the Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery family. We love when our Red Wing area customers visit and take part in our tasting events and the Cheese Curd Festival. Many of our patron family farms are located in eastern Minnesota. Their farms contribute to their local economies and they appreciate you buying the products that support their farms. 

One of our favorite things to show solidarity is supporting our Packers and Vikings with team colored cheese curds when they make the NFL playoffs. We haven’t had the opportunity to make purple and gold cheese curds very often, but we’re always ready! We made our first Viking colored cheese curds in 2018 and our Minnesota friends were 100% on board. It was a fun time and exciting time with a lot of friendly jokes playing on the team rivalry. 

The ultimate would be if the Vikings and Packers went head to head in the playoffs. Can you imagine? Let’s hope for that!

What are the new exciting products coming out?

Yes, we have two new products we’re very excited about. The first is our Cheese Curd Crunchers, which will be rolling out to our own retail stores and grocery, convenience and cheese retailers soon. Crunchers are our all-natural cheddar cheese curds that have gone through a freeze drying process to make them crunchy. We think these are going to be an especially exciting product for those who maintain a keto, low-carb or gluten free way of eating. The product doesn’t require refrigeration and so it will also make a great portable snack for anyone on the go.

Then we have our Antonella Cheese Dips, crafted from our popular Antonella line of specialty cheeses. These cheese dips, which are already available at our own retail stores in Ellsworth and Comstock, have a soft and dippable consistency perfect for crackers, tortilla chips, pretzels and vegetables. We’ve been having fun experimenting with using them in a variety of recipes too. They are smooth and creamy, can be stirred into pasta and potatoes and used as a topping for omelets and burgers. Also low-carb and gluten free customers are loving them for their great flavor and versatility!

Are there any exciting events planned for the spring and/or summer?

In Ellsworth, we’re looking forward to joining with the Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce and other sponsoring businesses to host a hybrid Cheese Curd Festival on Saturday, June 26. Last year the event pivoted to a drive-thru event that was successful and very well received. 

This year the event will once again be based on the drive-thru model with a few fun enhancements that will add to the event while still maintaining safety for all. However, we hope that in 2022 the event will be back in its full glory!

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