Sharing a Taste of Home

One company’s way of supporting Vermont business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

lane_press_group1215Each November, a group of Lane Press employees gathers to choose which Vermont cheddar the company will send to customers. Among this year’s tasters were, seated, in front, William L. Gentes, vice president, COO, and CFO; behind him, from left: Robert T. Leonard, sales associate; Nancy M. Villemaire, executive assistant; Elizabeth Harris, vice president, human resources; Beth Marie Renaud, marketing manager; and Dana Sweeney, manager, billing and estimating.

The walls in the reception area of the Lane Press headquarters in South Burlington display racks of magazines produced by the company — over 400 titles for clients across the United States. As the company’s website says, “We print magazines. Not annual reports — not journals — not direct mail. We print magazines.”

Readers of Vermont Life and Adirondack Life can attest to the quality of the company’s work, which runs the gamut of titles from a number of university alumni magazines to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, to The Police Chief, the magazine of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

mast-cheese1215The tasting takes about 90 minutes. In addition to the cheeses is a selection of fruit and chocolate, sweets, a bottle each of red and white wine, coffee, water, and crackers to cleanse the palates.
Photo: Lane press, Beth Renaud

But as far-flung as the 111-year-old company’s customers are, the leadership has always cherished its Vermont roots. To this end, each year, a small group of employees, augmented occasionally with selected customers — and on one occasion, according to William Gentes, vice president, COO, and CFO, “the owner’s dog” — gathers for a cheese-tasting competition.

The owner is Philip Drumheller, who has been with the company since 1987 and president since 1991, when he took over from his brother, Dan, who was named president in 1983.

Since its founding in 1904 by newspaperman Frank Lane, Lane Press has been a family business. Frank’s son, Benjamin Battles Lane, served as president and general manager from 1928 to 1959, when Oscar Drumheller, Philip and Dan’s father, took over as president and owner.

“We’ve been giving cheese to customers for 40-plus years, though we started to get serious about 25 years ago” says Drumheller. “Serious,” he adds, “in that we won’t consider a cheese unless it’s a cheddar, made in Vermont, and made from Vermont milk.”

“We limit the cheeses to cheddar,” says Beth Renaud, Lane’s marketing and communications manager and one of the tasters. “Then we like to support small farms as much as possible. The trick on the other end is that we need the vendor to have the inventory and systems to pull off the order. We’re ordering roughly 400 boxes of cheese, so they need to have the infrastructure and inventory to fulfill the order and be able to box and ship the order.”

Once the cheese is selected, Lane commissions a Vermont artist (Linda Jones) to design a gift card to accompany the cheese. The image on the card is also used to illustrate a co-branded, proprietary label (featuring the cheese-maker and Lane Press) that goes on each one-pound block of cheese. Shipping happens sometime in mid-December.

“This year we had seven cheeses we were sampling,” says sales associate Rob Leonard, who facilitates the tastings. The vendors were Grafton, Shelburne Farms, Vermont Farmstead, and Crowley. Vermont Farmstead sent one cheese, and the others each sent two.

The tasting takes about 90 minutes, says Leonard. “This year we had nine tasters, so we had a tie-breaker, which we needed. Tasters come from different areas here at the plant,” he continues, adding, “Philip is always the main one.”

This year’s list included Drumheller; his wife, Mary Beth Drumheller; Wayne Peterson, senior vice president; Gentes; Kris Wernhoff, controller; Renaud; Dana Sweeney, estimating manager; Nancy Villemaire, executive assistant; and Leonard.

Judging is a double-elimination procedure. “Our CFO, Bill Gentes, sets up brackets like they do for March Madness,” says Leonard. “We go through the rounds, eliminate one at a time, until it gets to the last two, which this year happened to be Shelburne Farms and Grafton.”

It’s a “Draft Kings kind of thing,” says Gentes with a grin.

Along with the numbered cheese samples on the conference room table is a selection of fruit, chocolate, other sweets, a bottle each of red and white wine, coffee, water, and crackers.

This year, top honors went to a two-year aged cheddar from Grafton Village Cheese. “Usually, they request “sharp” cheddar for the blind tasting contest,” says Wendy Brewer, Grafton Village’s sales manager. “We refer to our cheeses as ‘aged,’ not in terms of sharpness. Grafton is a specialty handcrafted, raw-milk cheddar made in smaller batches the slow, old-fashioned cheddar way, from milk from small Vermont family farms.”

Coming in a close second was a Shelburne Farms two-year cheddar. “Grafton won by one vote,” says Rory Stamp, the cheese sales manager at Shelburne Farms, which took top honors last year.

“We’re pretty obsessive over here,” Stamp says with a laugh, when asked how the decision is made regarding which cheeses to submit. “We sent this year our six-month and our two-year cheddars, but particular batches and the whole aging program are based on scientific data and sensory analysis.

“Throughout, we fill out these score sheets on things like appearance and texture, flavor and aroma, and ‘typicity,’ an indicator of how much that particular cheese tastes like Shelburne Farms cheddar — our profile. And lastly, we measure something intangible called the ‘deliciousness factor’ — just something unusual or distinctive about a piece of cheese that gives us a desire to return to it.

“So when we’re making cheese, we have particular targets for things like pH and moisture, and how close we are to those determines the age-worthiness of the cheese. Probably the most fun part of my job is we’re constantly tasting our cheese to make sure it’s up to ‘sniff.’”

Underlying everything is the desire to support Vermont businesses, says Drumheller. “Our give-away at all of the trade shows we attend throughout the year is custom jugs of Vermont maple syrup. At holiday time, we give each one of our 200 employees a gift box from Dakin Farm. We’ve had customer gifts produced at Simon Pierce, and we hold events at Basin Harbor. Those are just a few of the things we do to help other Vermont businesses thrive.” •