Innovation can help drive a company’s success. But in order for a company to be innovative, it needs a specific mindset and processes in place that allow it to be truly open to new ideas.
For Sargento Foods, nothing rings more true. Founded in 1953 in Plymouth, Wis., Sargento leads with innovation, and is proud to be the company that successfully introduced America to pre-packaged sliced and shredded natural cheeses and cheese blends.
As the leading national brand of natural cheese in the United States, and with more than 2,300 employees and net sales of $1.5 billion, Sargento is a family-owned company that has been a leader in the cheese category for close to seven decades.
“We pride ourselves on our innovation successes over our almost 70 years of being in business,” said Louie Gentine, chief executive officer, Sargento Foods. “We were the first to have prepackaged, shredded and sliced cheese for consumers. What’s more – and fun – is we were the first perishable food product to have a press-to-close or resealable feature on its package.”
Sargento is in its third generation of family ownership, and is dedicated to creating a company culture of treating everyone like family.
“It started by my grandfather, Leonard Gentine, back in 1953,” the CEO said. “At the core of the company’s culture is the business philosophy he started from day one, which is to hire good people and treat them like family. And that very simple message runs through our organization today.”
A sense of family
Gentine said the company culture at Sargento comes down to how its people show their care and appreciation for each other.
“I think the way it really comes to life is in how people show mutual support and respect for each other. And that could be working out on the line in one of our manufacturing facilities, or working on a new creative project in our marketing department, or working with our vendors and suppliers that help us do what we do,” he said. “That’s where you really see the culture come to light.”
The philosophy also involves building long-term value for stakeholders, he said, adding that group includes Sargento employees, customers, suppliers and the community. Gentine said when all four work together, the company can achieve great things.
“When we win, everybody wins, because we do truly share a success with those who contribute to that success,” he said. “So for an employee, for an example, it comes to light in the benefits we’re able to provide, the bonuses we’re able to pay, and the wages that we’re able to provide them. Those all happen because we’re successful.
“Our customers can win. We’re successful because we’re going to help grow their category and bring more shoppers into their stores. Our suppliers are going to win because as we continue to grow and purchase more cheese or purchase more packaging, they’re able to make continued investments in their companies, as well.
“And then the community wins, which again I give a lot of credit to my grandfather for making sure that that the community was a key stakeholder in how we make decisions as an organization. Certainly, the investments we are able to make into the community is because of the success we’ve had as a company. That’s a big win, as well.”
Mike McEvoy, executive vice president of operations for Sargento Foods, said the company has a long legacy of innovations that are still present in the dairy category. McEvoy added those were established and cultivated by company founder Leonard Gentine.
“Innovation is the backbone of what Sargento is all about,” he said.
To that end, there are several innovations that really stand out for Louie Gentine. For example, he said, Sargento was the first company to incorporate two different types of cheeses in its shredded cheese blends.
In 1994, amid a boom for homemade Italian and Mexican foods that the company’s products had helped fuel, it introduced Sargento Recipe Blends. The new product line combined different kinds of natural cheeses commonly called for in Mexican and Italian recipes, allowing consumers to combine authentic taste with cooking convenience.
The product line initially launched with two options. The 6 Cheese Italian blend contained Mozzarella, Provolone, Parmesan, Romano, Fontina and Asiago, while the 4 Cheese Mexican blend featured Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Queso Quesadilla and Asadero Mexican cheeses. The debut products’ success would lead the company to continue developing and refining multi-blend cheeses for recipes.
In 1969, Gentine said, Sargento revolutionized the dairy aisle with its peg bar. The company’s use of peg bars to hold up its products changed how cheese was displayed in grocery stores. Previously, cheeses were usually displayed on their backs on a dairy case shelf, which meant only the bottom end of the package was visible and shoppers’ eyes tended to wander right past the product.
Leonard Gentine and his longtime associate, future Sargento president Chuck Strobel, found the solution to this problem in the lunchmeat section. Lunchmeat was often hung from metal pegs that allowed the product to be displayed facing out, making customers more likely to notice it. Leonard and Strobel realized the same principle could raise the profile of Sargento cheese.
Implementing the peg boards required a huge investment on the part of the company. Packaging had to be redesigned to suit them, salesmen had to be trained to install them and stores had to be convinced to carry them. Today, peg boards are just a natural part of the grocery store cheese case.
Sargento Ultra Thin Slices were revolutionary, as well, the company’s CEO added. Production cut a slice of cheese in half, which is very difficult to achieve at high speeds.
“Our engineers worked tirelessly to figure out a way to make it happen without sacrificing safety, throughputs and efficiency,” Gentine said. “Ultra Thin allowed consumers the option of having a slice of real natural cheese, with the same richness, texture and flavor of full fat cheese, but with half the calories.”
Ultra Thin earned Sargento its first Nielsen BASES Breakthrough Innovation in 2014, following its 2012 launch.
“This is one of the highest honors in the CPG world, where the criteria is relevancy with consumers, execution in market, distinctiveness and clearing $100 million in sales in the first two years of launch,” Gentine said.
Sargento has since earned two more of those awards — one for Balanced Breaks Snacks (2017 win; 2015 launch) and now Balanced Breaks Cheese and Crackers Snacks (2022 win; 2021 launch).
The Nielsen BASES Breakthrough Innovation Award recognizes consumer products that deliver on many core objectives, including generating broad appeal, achieving longevity in the market, growing the brand, expanding the category and developing a product with a consumer need in mind.
“The products on Nielsen’s list represent the best of the best, and Sargento is thrilled to be included alongside so many great products,” Gentine said.
When Sargento brings innovations to the marketplace, Gentine said it certainly helps the company, but also the entire category.
“So when you look at it, everybody is ultimately working together to make it a more successful overall category,” he said. “Beyond the innovation, even just the millions upon millions of dollars that we spend in building our brand is also a benefit to the category overall, because we’re bringing awareness to the natural cheese category and helping it thrive and grow with consumers.”
Listening to consumers
Gentine said that the company believes if it continues to listen to the consumer, Sargento is going to be able to have more successful innovations in the marketplace.
“So we focus a lot of effort on really understanding and listening to the consumer,” he said.
Gentine said Sargento leverages outside parties to help it assess and look at trends seen in consumer behavior, not only in how they consume food or the types of food that they’re consuming, but also what their interests are and how they engage with different media forms.
“It’s really a holistic view of the consumer,” he said. “We then use this information as a foundation to then help develop concepts through our innovation group and working with our insights team.”
Take snacking for example.
“Everyone can relate to snacking. But 10, 15 years ago, snacking was there, but consumers were still widely consuming breakfast, lunch and dinner. And as the trends of snacking and people eating smaller portions and grazing throughout the day gained popularity, our team took that insight and said, ‘OK, how can we further develop our snacking cheese category beyond string cheese to address where the consumer is going, which is not necessarily just three meals a day, but things that get them through the day?’”
Balanced Breaks were born out of that work, Gentine said.
“It’s been a great success. That insight and trend was identified and validated with consumers,” he said. “To be an innovative company, you have to be willing to invest in the right ideas.”
Sargento manufactures and markets a wide variety of natural cheese products, including sliced cheese, shredded cheese, block and refrigerated snacks.
Its Creamery line of sliced and shredded cheeses uses real, natural cheese that delivers a great melt because of the addition of real cream.
Sargento’s Creamery Shreds come in a variety of flavors, including Cheddar, Mozzarella, 3 Cheese Mexican and Cheddar Jack. Sargento’s Creamery Slices also come in a variety of flavors, including Cheddar, Baby Swiss, Pepper Jack and Provolone.
Within the snack category, Sargento offers string and stick cheese, as well as its award-winning line of Balanced Breaks products, which pair its natural cheeses with crackers, dried fruit and nuts.
“Sargento teamed up with Mondelēz International to pair our cheeses with its cracker brands to create our Balanced Breaks Cheese and Crackers Snacks,” Gentine said. “Our partnership has been very successful and we’re looking at a number of different ways to continue to leverage the power of two great brands.”
The snack packs come in four combinations, each featuring 7 to 9 grams of protein and 170 calories or fewer per serving. Varieties include Pepper Jack and Colby Jack Natural Cheeses and Ritz Mini Crackers; Gouda and Sharp Cheddar Natural Cheeses and Triscuit Mini Original Crackers; Monterey Jack and Mild Cheddar Natural Cheeses and Wheat Thins Mini Original Snacks; and Low Moisture Mozzarella and Fontina Natural Cheeses and Wheat Thins Mini Sundried Tomato & Basil Flavored Snacks.
Sargento also recently acquired Wisconsin-based Baker Cheese – one of the top producers of string cheese in the US – which Gentine said gives Sargento the opportunity to further its position as “America’s No. 1 natural cheese brand.”
Sargento’s current block offerings include Fiesta Pepper Jack, Sharp Cheddar Jack, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Sharp Cheddar and Mozzarella.
Beyond just the product, there’s also the process.
McEvoy said the company always tries to make decisions that impact the long term.
“What’s been the recipe for success for Sargento is managing and thinking further ahead and thinking about the long term,” he said. “Being family owned, we can do things differently and take those chances, making sure we are committed to the future.”
In terms of manufacturing, McEvoy said the industry has seen many aspects evolve in the past 15 to 20 years.
“We, along with a lot of our peers, historically did things very manually in our facilities. But Sargento started pushing the boundaries on new products and new innovations,” he said. “We had to think differently in our plants to be able to maximize our resources, maximize our investments, our assets, and started looking at how we could automate equipment and make process changes better and more ergonomic for our employees.”
Doing things differently at the manufacturing plant level has been the focus of McEvoy and his team for the past 10 to 15 years.
“So that comes down to a lot more automation and a lot more robotics,” he explained. “Because of our family culture, one thing that’s important to us is we don’t lay people off because of automation. We find them a new job with the company if we’ve automated their current job. But our philosophy has always been: you will always have a job as we automate.”
Bringing forth a new product to market comes down to the company’s stakeholder philosophy.
“We have very capable new product engineers, but we have fostered strong partnerships with our vendors and equipment manufacturers to help design the production lines that create the products Sargento develops for the consumer,” McEvoy said.
Gentine said Sargento also works hard at creating a culture of food safety and quality.
“One of our five key strategies is to never compromise on food safety and quality,” he said. “We instill across all channels of the organization a tremendous focus on food safety and quality, because of our values as a company.”