The owners at Clover Stornetta Farms think they know how a local dairy company can build a national brand: Turn Clo's North Coast milk into cheese.
The Bay Area's largest independent milk processor is staking its future on creating more dairy food products and placing them in new markets. The first effort is a new line of cheeses made solely with milk from Clover's member dairies, nearly all of them linked to the storied grasslands of Sonoma and Marin counties.
"My hope is that we will become as much a cheese company as we are a milk company," said President/CEO Marcus Benedetti, 37, whose grandfather founded the Petaluma-based Clover.
Benedetti's father, 64-year-old board chairman Dan Benedetti, fondly attributed such a grand goal to "the horizon of young people." Nonetheless, he suggested that Clover's new products are good enough to compete with cheese giant Kraft and even to take away some market share.
"We certainly need it and they can afford to lose it, the way I look at it," said Dan Benedetti.
The new products represent the most ambitious initiative of the company's third generation of leaders, which includes not only Marcus Benedetti but his sister Joanie Benedetti Claussen, the director of marketing, and cousin Mkulima "M" Britt, the chief financial officer.
Marcus Benedetti deadpanned that Clover "didn't bet the farm" on the success of the new cheeses. But he said the company must keep building revenues in order to remain healthy and family-owned.
"We have to grow," he said. "If you don't grow, you eventually slowly wither."
The company, whose billboards have made Clo the Cow Sonoma County's most-recognized business mascot, reported $135 million in sales last year. It has 223 workers and is known for local milk, a long-standing presence at county fairs and other events, and strong ties to independent supermarkets.
"They're the archetypal food manufacturer in Sonoma County," said Tom Scott, general manager of Cotati-based Oliver's Markets.
Scott and others suggested the outcome of the company's efforts will affect the greater agricultural community. Success in cheese, said Scott, will allow Clover to keep paying "the premium that Sonoma County dairymen need to ranch on this part of the world."
The North Bay's dairy industry is California's oldest, producing the region's second-largest agricultural crop after grapes.
But dairies here are buffeted by the same forces that have caused conventional milk farmers to lose money for four out of the last five years, said Michael Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen in Modesto. In that time, one out of five California dairies has closed, and more North Bay farmers have switched to organic production or sought other ways to distinguish their milk from a mere commodity product.
Some of the remaining 100 Sonoma and Marin dairies have turned to making cheese or selling milk to local cheese makers. With roughly 30 artisan cheese companies, including those using goat and sheep milk, the North Bay has gained a reputation for producing quality cheese, a "New World counterpart to Lombardy and Normandy," as the New York Times put it a dozen years ago.
In a way similar to the dairy farmers, Clover's owners found themselves looking for new opportunities and turning to cheese.
Clover Stornetta was founded in 1977 by World War II hero Gene Benedetti and six partners. Two years ago the extended Benedetti family members acquired the remaining outstanding stock and became the company's sole owners, Marcus Benedetti said.