By Tom Collins
ST-ALBERT Having finally recovered from a devastating fire that burned the factory to the ground two years ago, the St-Albert Cheese Co-op has finally re-opened.
On Feb. 3, 2013, a fire ripped through the cheese factory in the little village east of Ottawa, causing $25 million in damages and putting 120 people temporarily out of work. Construction soon started on a new factory and the first cheese was made in the new building last August. There are still details to finish not all the machinery is installed, and there are no signs around the building but officials are already looking to triple its annual pre-fire production of three million kilograms of cheese in the next few years.
The new building houses a store, restaurant and a viewing room where customers can watch cheese being made.
On Jan. 5, production was at about 75 per cent of what it was before the fire, and should be at 100 per cent by Feb. 3, two years to the day after the fire, said director general Eric Lafontaine, who is hoping to double production by this time next year.
Lafontaine said there are new challenges on the horizon, such as the trade agreement between Canada and European Union which will allow more imported cheese into Canada. He said the co-op needs to be aggressive to survive. There is concern about the new Canada trade agreement with the European Union, he said.
“Cheese factories are going to close down. In order to survive the next 100 years, we need to be bigger.”
Of course, more cheese requires more milk. After the fire, the co-ops board passed a motion to not allow any new farmers into the co-op. That restriction is still in effect, but could be lifted as early as the co-ops next annual general meeting later this year.
The co-op, which was founded in 1884 by 10 farmers, currently has 35 to 45 dairy farmer members, and that number will have to increase for the co-op to get all the milk necessary for expansion. The co-op reached an agreement with the Dairy Farmers of Ontario to allow their milk to be processed in Quebec plants until the St-Albert plant was ready.
There were some hiccups with rebuilding. Usually, the planning stage for a major building is two-and-a-half to three years just for the design. But the co-op had the plans and building up within two years. A piece of ordered equipment that had a six-month delivery period was six months late.
Lafontaines hope is buoyed by the fact that sales of cheese products all of which have been made with 100 per cent milk have been great. Four months after they re-opened on Aug. 11, sales have surpassed what they were before the fire.
The co-op store has a devoted customer base. So much so that they ran out of cheese curds for sale on Christmas Eve, angering some customers who came to buy the curds for Christmas Day.
Cheese curds are easily the co-ops biggest seller, accounting for 50 per cent of their wholesale sales. Just before the fire, they sold one million kilograms of cheese curds a year, which would be equivalent to 2.5 million 400-gram bags.
Lafontaine expects to surpass that number this year, as sales of cheese curds in the last 4.5 months are 25 per cent higher than what they were before the fire.