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My Block: The rural Wisconsin town that became the 'Cheese Capital of the World'

Posted at 1:34 PM, Mar 22, 2024

PLYMOUTH — Many Wisconsin license plates have a common phrase, "America's Dairyland." It's not groundbreaking information. Many know The Badger State could easily be called the Dairy State. After all, the National Dairy Shrine Museum is in Fort Atkinson.

All of Wisconsin contributes to this impressive dairy reputation. However, a community of just about 9,000 people stands out among the rest for its cheese production. This tiny town is responsible for about 14 percent of all the cheese consumed in the United States.

"The reputation today is we are the Cheese Capital of the World. There is simply no community anywhere in the world that either packages or stores cold cheese in cold storage, processes cheese - there's just nobody in the world that produces more," Lee Gentine, who worked for Sargento for about 23 years, said.

Welcome to Plymouth, the 'Cheese Capital of the World.'

The Cheese Capital of the World
Plymouth, Wisconsin is known as the Cheese Capital of the World because it produces about 14 percent of the cheese consumed in the United States.

“This is what we're about cheese," Jenna Schram, the store manager at the Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center in Plymouth said.

The Town of Plymouth is home to major cheese companies like Sargento, Sartori, Master's Gallery Food, and Great Lakes Cheese. Together, the four companies process, store, and ship millions of pounds of cheese every week through this town an hour north of Milwaukee.

"Roughly at peak season, we’re probably (packaging) 3.5 million pounds a week, so on any given day we’re probably (packaging) 800,000 pounds," Dean Geraldson, the Sargento Plymouth Plant Manager, said.

The people of Plymouth are incredibly proud of the city's reputation.

Sargento was the first company to shred cheese in the United States," Gentine said.

Gentine is the son of the founder of Sargento, Leonard Gentine. Lee worked for the company for 23 years officially, but thanks to his dad, he has been around cheese basically his entire life. It only made sense for him to work at the family business.

"This has been the biggest privilege of my life to be part of a family company like this," Lee Gentine said about working at his dad's company, Sargento.

I met with Lee so he could show me his neighborhood through his eyes and experiences. Everywhere we went and who we talked to was all up to him. There was no script to follow. Welcome to Lee's neighborhood.

Lee Gentine

"We want to produce the best cheese possible," Gentine said about the goal of Sargento.

My Block: Plymouth, Wisconsin the 'Cheese Capital of the World'

Lee worked in the sales and marketing division for Sargento. However, he almost didn't join the family business.

"I really didn't want to be part of Sargento," he said. "I went to work in Chicago for a short period of time. Then I realized this is a fabulous opportunity. Why wouldn't I want to take advantage of this family business?"

Ultimately, Gentine said it was the 'best decision of my life'. Being part of a company that is part of the fabric of the community makes it easy to get involved in town happenings. Gentine is the chairman of the redevelopment authority for Plymouth and the president of the Plymouth Advancement Association. He's also a local developer that has built about 100 new homes around Plymouth and Elkhart Lake and has restored 24 homes.

"It's such a great place to raise a family," Gentine said about living in Plymouth.

Sargento

Lee’s father Leonard, who was originally an undertaker, started Sargento in 1953 with the help of another Plymouth cheese company, Sartori.

Sargento Cheese
Joe Sartori (left) and Leonard Gentine (right) pose for a photo in 1953 when Sargento was founded.

“Joe Sartori which is Sartori Cheese. They took the G and T from Gentine and plunked an O on the end to make it sound Italian," Gentine said.

When you take S-A-R from Sartori and G and T from Gentine you get Sargento which today is worth about $1.8 billion, according to the company.

Sargento has about 2,500 employees. It has production locations in Plymouth, Kiel, Hilbert, St. Cloud, and Elkhart Lake.

Sargento
Inside the Sargento factory in Plymouth.

The company is responsible for a few key innovations in the cheese world. In 1955, Sargento designed a way to vacuum seal cheese in plastic and sell it pre-sliced. In 1958, Sargento became the first company to sell shredded prepackaged cheese. In 1986, the company designed the first perishable food package with resealable technology.

Louie Gentine

Two members of the Gentine family still work at the company, Executive Vice President of Operations, Mike McEvoy and CEO Louie Gentine.

Lee and Louie Gentine
Lee (left) stands next to his nephew Louie Gentine who is the current CEO of Sargento.

Louie Gentine is the grandson of the founder.

“What do I love about cheese? I love to eat it," Gentine said.

After working just about every job from the production line to sales, he became the CEO in 2013.

“Being a third-generation leader at Sargento is quite humbling. To be able to be leading the company that my grandfather and grandmother founded back in 1953 is something that when I was a kid I never really thought would happen.”

Jenna Schram, the Cheese Counter, and Plymouth's Cheese History

Sargento had humble beginnings in 1949 starting as a small cheese shop called the Plymouth Cheese Counter. It was a small little shop that sold various cheeses. Eventually, that small shop turned into what is now Sargento.

Plymouth Cheese Counter
The Plymouth Cheese Counter which was created in 1949. The company would eventually turn into Sargento.

In 2017, the Plymouth Cheese Counter was re-built as the headquarters for the Cheese Capital of the World. It's part museum, heritage center, and lunch spot.

“We are actually the only cheese store in the city," Jenna Schram, the store manager said. “So the factories don't have any sort of experience for locals or, you know, outside people who are traveling to experience. So they send them here, so they get to see and here about our history.”

A small exhibit shows what cheese makers wore in the 1950s and an original bubbler. Along one of the walls is a timeline showing significant moments in Plymouth and Sheboygan County's cheese history.

There have been more than 100 cheese producers in Sheboygan County since the 1860s.

"Some of them are actually still cheese factories. Most of them of course have become residences, a lot of them have become bars," Lee Gentine said.

Cheese Counter
The Cheese Counter is a remake of the Plymouth Cheese Counter which was a small shop that eventually became Sargento.

Today, there are four main companies: Sargento, Sartori, Master’s Gallery, and Great Lakes Cheese. In fact, Master's Gallery was started by the son of the founder of Sargento. Leonard Gentine Jr., started Master's Gallery as a cheese brokerage firm in 1974 and eventually turned into one of the country's largest cheese suppliers, according to its website. Today it's run by Leonard Gentine Jr's son, Jeff.

This makes the Gentine Family cheese royalty. Louie Gentine is the CEO of Sargento and Jeff Gentine is the CEO of Master's Gallery. They both have the same grandfather. The family separately operates two of the largest cheese companies in the United States.

Jenna Schram
Jenna Schram is the manager at the Cheese Counter and Dairy Heritage Center in Plymouth. The shop acts as the cultural hub documenting the history of cheese in the area.

Cheese has a deep family tradition in Plymouth. The current CEO of Sartori is Jim Sartori, a fourth-generation owner.

“We were competitors but all collaborate within the community which is exactly what happens at the Cheese Counter," Lee Gentine said.

Great Lakes Cheese is headquartered in Ohio, but it has a major production facility in Plymouth.

A Hallmark Town and Stephanie Bruce

Of course, Plymouth is known for cheese, but the town wouldn’t be anything without the people.

“I never thought I really wanted to live in a small town growing up in a suburb of Chicago, but I found that even though this is a small town population wise you still have everything the major city has," Lee Gentine's friend Stephanie Bruce said.

Before moving to Plymouth, Bruce and her family lived in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina.

Stephanie Bruce
Before moving to Plymouth, Stephanie and her family lived in North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina. She said Plymouth is one of her favorite places she ever lived.

“This is our 4th home in 12 years time, but we really wanted to put down our roots in this community and in this home.”

She said Plymouth is one of her favorite places she ever lived.

"I absolutely love how the kids are able to just go places on their own. They're able to go golfing. They're able to walk downtown to the bakeries, the coffee shops."

She lives on Reed Street which is known for beautiful homes. Many are them are at least 100 years old.

“So it totally reminds you of a Hallmark movie. Plus, everybody does really love to decorate. So finding a home without Christmas decorations is pretty hard.”

One Last Question

As is tradition, the last word is always given to the tour guide of the My Block story.

"Is there anything else you'd like to say about your community?" I asked.

"This is a great place to visit. It's a great place to live. It's a great place to shop. It's a great place to get educated. This is a cool city."