Locally Made: Fountain cheese factory distributes nationally

August 17, 2014
Edna Mitchell ties cheese bags.

Edna Mitchell ties cheese bags.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief. 

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SHERMAN TWP. — I’ve lived in Mason County most of my life. It’s always amazing to find out the amount of niche businesses there are around this county. Some have been around for decades while others are fairly new. Almost all of these businesses were started by entrepreneurs, though. The latest installment of Locally Made is Michigan is the Michigan Farm Cheese Dairy located just south of Fountain at 4295 E. Millerton Road.

The dairy has been owned and operated by the Andrulis family since the Great Depression.

“My grandparents, John and Angie Andrulis, started this business in the late 1930s using a kitchen sink,” says Shannon Andrulis Thomas, the company president. “They basically started in the basement and began selling the cheese. Demand grew and they had to expand into a bigger facility.”

Jessie Muralt, left, puts cheese into bags while Shannon Andrulis ties the bags.

Jessie Muralt, left, puts cheese into bags while Shannon Andrulis ties the bags.

Shannon grew up at the cheese factory.

“I’ve been in this place since the time I could probably walk, trying to be involved as a little kid. My dad, Allen, had me doing anything that could be done in here. It was always my dream to come back here some day.”

Shannon, a 1987 graduate of Mason County Eastern High School, left the operation as an adult but in 2011 returned to become president. Her father passed away in 2002 and the factory was operated by one of her uncles for several years. Today, she and her four siblings own the company.

“It’s just something I’ve always taken so much pride in. Being here has just meant so much to me. It’s just in my blood.”

Cheese is a byproduct of leftover milk, Shannon explains. “There was no waste back in the days when my grandparents made it. They would take soured milk and turn it into cheese.”

The company’s product, Andrulis Farmers Cheese, has basically been the same recipe since that time.

“Our cheese is made from an old Lithuanian recipe,” Shannon says. “It’s considered a semi-soft, mild cheese. Basically, it’s a compressed form of cottage cheese. It’s also very low in lactose. It’s also an all-natural product and is an artisan product, because it’s made by hand. It’s also kosher (rabbis visit the plant frequently). While we do offer flavored cheese, plain is our original and our best seller.”

The bags are ready for refrigeration.

The bags are ready for refrigeration.

Very little of the process has changed.

“We are more mechanized now but the recipe and process is pretty much the same as when my grandparents started it. It’s a tradition that was passed down to my parents, then to me and now my son is involved in the company. Most of the equipment we use was installed in the 1970s.”

Shannon says the milk is purchased from the Michigan Milk Producers Association, however it always comes from the same local farm. She says she knows the milk from the farm is consistent and the farmers have high standards.

The cheese is distributed throughout the country, the biggest market being in Chicago. It is featured in many small delis and large grocery stores. “Chicago is a big market for us due to its diverse ethnic neighborhoods.” Other large markets are Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The product has recently moved into the South as well with a large distributor in Atlanta.

Shannon says 20% of sales are generated through direct online sales.

Currently, Michigan Farm Cheese Dairy makes between 76,000 to 100,000 pounds of cheese a year. Orders are made on demand, which can sometimes be a challenge for keeping steady employees.  At one time, the factory ran seven days a week. Today, it’s usually every other week. But, the company’s seven employees (including Shannon and her son, Nico) are dedicated and show up when called.

“I’ve got a really good crew here,” Shannon says.

Edna Mitchell, who recently turned 80, has been with the company for 26 years. The others call her the “Queen Cheese.”

“She is my backbone here,” Shannon says. “She worked for my dad and was here when I was a kid. I ask her a lot of questions.”

Edna says she lives about 4 miles away from the plant. “This is a wonderful place to work,” she says. “They spoil me rotten.

“We love our job,” says Lisa Ellis, who works at the plant alongside her daughter, Jessie Muralt. Lisa says she’s been with the company since 2003. Jessie has worked there since 2004 off and on, spending some of those years away at college.

Rounding out the team are Dan Shereda and Mary Dewys.

Shannon says future plans include expanding sales and distribution. She says she would like to modernize the 10,000 square foot plant sometime in the future.

Andrulis Farmers Cheese can be purchased at most local grocery stores. Shannon is also present at the Ludington Farmers’ Market on Friday afternoons.

Michigan Farm Cheese Dairy, Inc. www.andrulischeese.com. 231-462-3301.

 

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