Cheese buyers scrambling after St. Albert factory fire

A cheese distributor in Sudbury says his business is feeling the impact of a cheese factory fire near Ottawa.

Sudbury businesses willing to wait on St. Albert return, but turn to other suppliers for curds, cheese blocks

Since the fire earlier this week at St. Albert cheese factory near Ottawa, it's reported the company will start producing curds again in the next few weeks. Block cheese will take longer to make a comeback, however. (Hilary Duff/CBC)

A cheese distributor in Sudbury says his business is feeling the impact of a cheese factory fire near Ottawa.

A blaze destroyed the historic St. Albert Cheese Co-op factory last weekend

Eric Shepherd, who distributes cheese for the company to a large number of Sudbury grocery stores, as well as to a number of butcher shops and delicatessens, said some of his buyers are panicking and buying up his full remaining stock.

"My inventory is pretty bare ... they've been grabbing more every day," he said.

Shepherd noted it's not just Sudbury businesses that are losing out.

"All through northern Ontario we distribute St. Albert's cheese — [for] the poutines and the curds and the blocks — so it affects everyone along the route," he said.

"Right now it impacts a big part of the business. They're going to start producing the curds and they feel that, within a week or two, everything should be operational, to a certain extent, and then they're going to go look further into the [production of] mild and block cheese."

‘A little worried’

Shepherd says he is expecting to receive reduced shipments of cheese curds over the next few weeks, but remains hopeful everything will be back to normal by the time poutine plates hit picnic tables at summertime chip wagons.

That hope was echoed by the owner of Leslie's Charbroil and Grill, a popular venue for poutine in Sudbury.

Leslie Langen said her business goes through about $1,000 worth of St. Albert’s cheese curds each week, so she was shocked to hear about the fire.

"We were a little devastated, a little worried," she said. "We said 'oh my God, we need to find another supplier.' We really love St. Albert Cheese, we find it's the best and we like to use the best. You just never know what can happen."

For its part, the St. Albert general manager said the factory’s curds will be available once more. The firm already has plans to rebuild the landmark cheese factory.

A spokesperson with another popular cheese producer, Thornloe Cheese in northestern Ontario, said its operation can help make up for any shortfall in cheese supply.

"It will all depend greatly on how fast the St. Albert plant organizes itself to keep supplying the market that they have," Yves Gauthier said.

"We hope that the people already know that we can supply them with a great product and, for sure, if they can't find it where they were used to finding it before, that they will know enough to contact us or contact our distributors to get our product."

Gauthier added Thornloe has approached St. Albert to make some of their cheeses if they can't find anybody closer to their area to do that for them.

"So that may be an avenue that they decide to take us up on."

The fact Thornloe’s competitor had a fire was "not a good thing," Gauthier noted.

"We are a competitor — always head-to-head in terms of market share — but we do work together quite a bit when it comes to issues like getting milk and pricing issues, so we have worked together and we are a close ally that way."

Curds ‘made fresh weekly’

Knowing there are other options available in terms of cheese supply is important to store owners like Paul Bradley, who owns B&D Meats in Sudbury.

"Well everything is still pretty well stocked as far as block cheeses go, but our cheese curds are the ones that are going to take the brunt of it, seeing as they're made fresh weekly," he said.

"Currently we have no cheese curds in our stores. They have a quality product and we're still very interested in staying with them but there's other suppliers."

Bradley said he's still a little unsure of how and when they will be getting more shipments of the cheese. He says, at peak season, he can go through anywhere from 50 to 60 pounds of cheddar cheese and 30 to 40 pounds of cheese curds every week

As for what the shrinking supply of cheese curds could mean for poutine in northern Ontario, Langen had this to say:

"I guess it will just diversify the cheese put on poutine right now. Maybe some people will go back to shredded cheese or there are other cheese places we could look at. But we just want St. Albert because we like it the best. So I guess a taste test will have to prove where to go from here if we can't find St. Albert's cheese."