Sunday, December 5, 2021

Argyle Cheese up & running in HF at former Lewis Super

By Cathy DeDe, Chronicle Managing Editor

The Argyle Cheese Farmer is up and running at its new headquarters — the former Lewis Supermarket on Burgoyne Avenue in Hudson Falls.

Partners Marge Randles of Argyle Cheese Farmer and John Dickinson of Ideal Dairy Farms, at the viewing room into the newly completed cheese making plant in Hudson Falls.

Business is “pretty good,” said Marge Randles and John Dickinson on a mini-tour last Wednesday.

Mrs. Randles adds, “It’s never enough, but the holidays were good.”

Mrs. Randles and her husband Dave partnered with Mr. Dickinson and his sixth-generation Ideal Dairy Farms in Kingsbury to buy and transform the building. It’s been a “million and a half-dollar” investment, Mr. Dickinson estimates.

“That’s just the dollars, not counting time and energy,” Mrs. Randles adds.

Cheese, yogurt, pizza, donuts

Argyle Cheese Farmer makes traditional and Greek yogurts, hard cheeses, plain and flavored cheese curds, ice creams and gelatos, plus such baked goods as donuts, cheesecakes, breads, frozen “take and bake” meals, quiches and frozen pizzas using their own cheeses and whey.

Frozen pizzas utilize Argyle Cheese Farmer cheeses in the toppings, and whey from the cheesemaking process in the crust. The frozen cheesecake uses their cheese, too. Other popular bakery items include breads, quiche and donuts.

Mrs. Randles said that the more finished products they can make using their own dairy and meat products, the better it is.

“The bakery is a home run,” she said, adding, Lewis Super’s working bakery was a key enticement in buying the building.

The retail shop also sells: Beef from Ideal Dairy, Battenkill Dairy milks and other products, most from local producers they know from years selling at farmers’ markets, Mrs. Randles said.

She said the store provides needed cash flow. “It’s time now” to increase production to truly support the facility and its staffing.

Ideal Dairy: Outlet for their milk

Mr. Dickinson said one motivator for him is that for many generations, “everyone knew Ideal Dairy.” Their milk was in all the local schools and home-delivered.

Today Ideal Dairy milks 2,800 cows and has 35 full-time employees, but they sell exclusively to co-ops, sending out four tractor-trailers a day of milk, Mr. Dickinson said, but the “Ideal” name has minimal community presence.

“Marge and Dave provided an opportunity to redress that. I wanted a place we could point to where people can get our milk products,” Mr. Dickinson said.

Mrs. Randles says, “This is part of our exit strategy.” Approaching retirement, she said they wanted a partner who could step in and continue the business — though not right away, she and Mr. Dickinson clarify.

Covid pandemic shut off NYC market

The Covid pandemic struck in earnest two weeks after the partners closed on buying the building last Valentine’s Day.

Suddenly New York City was closed to Argyle Cheese’s products. Facing a 35 percent drop in sales, “we switched the cart and the horse,” Mrs. Randles said then.

They delayed building out the production facility and immediately finished the front-of-house shop, opened it for retail sales within a matter of weeks.

Argyle Cheese Farmer’s ‘Little red barn’ is the new facade at what for 70 years was Lewis Supermarket in Hudson Falls.

Now, with retail sales stable, they began moving production from Argyle to the new Hudson Falls location.

“We made our first batch here on December 30,” Mr. Dickinson notes.

For now, they’re making cheese just two days a week while they monitor with Washington County how the processing plant will impact the County’s sewer systems.

They process about 1,500 gallons of milk in those two days, focused so far on hard cheeses and yogurt.

In Argyle, they can only process about 650 gallons of milk weekly, 150 gallons a day, into their many products.

They plan to reuse as much of the byproducts as they can, incorporating the protein-rich whey into baked goods (they say it makes a uniquely tasty pizza crust) and also as feed for the Ideal Dairy cows.

12,000 square feet, 20 employees

In Argyle, their cramped 900-square-foot operation is on two floors and Dave Randles would hit his head on the stairs coming down, Mrs. Randles said.

They’re “loving” the new 12,000-square foot space on a single level, with expanded cooler and packaging room.

Mrs. Randles and Mr. Dickinson credit “her really great team” for keeping the business on track. They’ve gone from about 10 employees, many part-time, to 20 or 21 on staff between the bakery, kitchen, production and retail shop.

Customers in the store can view the cheese-making through several large windows into the factory.

What do they see? “A lot of stainless steel,” Marge and John laugh. Sparkling like they’ve never been used are a small forest of pasteurizing vats, fluid fillers, cheese presses, packaging machinery and what Mrs. Randles calls “the infamous cheese vat,” “the lifeblood” of the facility.

It’s a 560-gallon tub where all the cheese is made. It’s originally from Holland, so old (about 50 years, they estimate) that it doesn’t have a serial number. It was purchased through a broker in Canada half a decade ago, when Marge was already stockpiling machinery for a future move.

She said the pasteurizing system is different than in the original plant in Argyle, and it’s been “a challenge” mastering the automated process to reach and maintain proper temperatures, for safety regulations and for the consistent products that customers expect.

Mrs. Randles said their machinery and process are unique, and result in a creamier product.

It’s a learning curve, too, for Mr. Dickinson, whose family stopped processing its own milk in 1987.

They plan eventually to convert the current cheese house in Argyle to an aging facility for hard cheeses. Mrs. Randles estimates they have about 400 pounds of cheeses aging now.

Randles & Dickinsons 2-family effort

John’s wife Denise did the rustic interior design on the shop. Daughter Crystal Grimaldi is designing educational displays and videos in the viewing room detailing the local dairy industry as well as the histories of Ideal Dairy, Argyle Cheese Farmer, its precursor the Randles Family Dairy Farm, and Lewis Super grocery store.

Mr. Dickinson said he is most “impressed” by Mrs. Randles’s mindset for growth and creativity in creating new products. “She’s a joy to work with,” he says.

She scoffs, but returns the thought. “That goes both ways.”

Their message for the public? “Come buy some cheese and yogurt.

Copyright © 2021 Lone Oak Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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