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Growing demand for curds keeps Kaufhold's Kurds busy

What began as an item on the menu of John Kaufhold's former local restaurant has spread to eateries, taverns, supermarkets and other hospitality places and events, not only around this two-state region but across the nation.

If Kaufhold's product was a different appetizer or side dish, it might be said the demand for it has mushroomed or even blossomed. But the veteran Ellsworth businessman isn't dealing in those capped vegetables or onions that bloom like a table centerpiece. He's focusing on his community's claim to fame, the cheese curd, a commodity he's stretching to new legions of fans.

"We had people standing in line waiting for them," he said Wednesday, remembering a February hospitality show at the Minneapolis Convention Center, also attended by the Ellsworth Co-op Creamery.

Like the creamery, Kaufhold's Kurds is licensed as a dairy plant, he said. A 21-by-20 foot freezer was recently added onto the plant, located behind the Kollbaum Chiropractic office on the village's northwest side. The hand-built freezer joins an original measuring 10-by-20 feet.

"That one seems so small now," Micki Kaufhold said, indicative of business volume her husband calculated has grown from 75,000 pounds of curds in the enterprise's first year, 11 years ago, to 500,000 pounds this year.

It was in the nearby structure now housing the chiropractic office that Kaufhold developed his breaded cheese curd recipe, he said. He stopped operating The Berg Restaurant there in the mid-1990s to establish his curd manufacturing and distribution facility.

"The first couple of years weren't easy," he recalled, mentioning he still faces stiff competition from industry giants including McCain Foods, a billion-dollar outfit that's one of the largest French fry distributors anywhere.

His raw curds have always come from the local creamery, without which he admits his venture wouldn't have been successful. He regularly promotes the creamery's curds along with the breaded version he makes, believing such efforts are to the mutual benefit of both.

Considered to be the best white cheese curds in the U.S., Kaufhold said they've helped him land some big customers for his product. Valleyfair, an amusement park in Shakopee, Minn., gets 30,000 pounds. The Taste of Minnesota, a Fourth of July festival in St. Paul, takes 5,000 pounds. They're available in 22 Frying Pans in the Dakotas and there are quite a few accounts in Las Vegas. The product can be found in places ranging from Washington State to Glendale, Ariz., out West and in Florida for baseball's spring training on the opposite side of the country.

"We're the official cheese curd for the Minnesota Wild," he said of the professional hockey team, noting the curd has gained the same designation from the Minnesota Swarm and both zoos in the Twin Cities.

In fact, Wild players are so fond of the curds that they took 30 pounds with them on their season's first road trip to California, Mrs. Kaufhold said.

"They didn't want to get jinxed," she said, explaining they think of the curds almost like lucky charms that can bring them victories.

In Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the business has brokers helping with sales, there's around 600 accounts, Kaufhold said. The curds are offered in Baldwin, Hudson, Prescott, Red Wing, River Falls and Spring Valley as well as Ellsworth in the immediate vicinity. They're featured at most ski resorts and casinos, plus dining spots like Bierstube and Champp's. He and his spouse, who was once with Cracker Barrel restaurants, directly recruit customers, too.

"We've done cuttings," he said about an occasional chance to serve up the curds themselves to patrons of a supermarket, for example.

He convinced the somewhat skeptical owner of a fish market to carry the curds, he said of one customer. The market then sold 240 one-pound bags in a week-and-a-half. Afterward, the owner wanted to stock the raw variety from the creamery besides the breaded kind.

Next month, they're going into the first of what's expected to eventually be 60 Cub Foods stores, he said. A company in New York City located next to the Waldorf Astoria has expressed interest and he's also arranging to supply a chain of Holiday Station Stores. Forty Von Hansen's Meats locations and a similar number of Kemps outlets are on the list.

Kaufhold said he feels his curds have become increasingly popular because they're all-natural, without the preservatives many competitors' products contain. Fresh ingredients including fresh eggs are used; the curds can be oven broiled or deep fried.

"They're made fresh every day in tubs in small batches, by hand," he said.

The manufacturing is done on the local premises, which is inspected twice annually by the Food and Drug Administration and the state, he said. A crew of eight workers including himself and his mate handles the processes, from breading to packaging. Supplies come from Sysco, which in turn distributes the curds, as do Indianhead Foods, Tri-Mart and U.S. Foods. His brother, Scott, assists with deliveries.

A Cities company is responsible for the package design, Kaufhold said, showing the business name and artwork on the front, nutrition information on the back, and of a clear material so consumers can see what's inside. His wife, who's experienced in marketing, said holders for display in stores are being created. Cardboard easels and table tents are other promotional items.

The curds are shipped in 24 one-pound bags to a case, Kaufhold said. They have a six-month shelf life and can be frozen. A jalapeno red pepper flavor is currently being introduced.

Summer is the busiest time for Kaufhold's Kurds, averaging up to 70,000 pounds a month from June to September, he said. Winter is typically slower, though 35,000 pounds has been realized in December. He's striving to keep the operation simple, a family-run effort, yet foresees increasing the crew to 12 next summer.

"We're only at one-third of our potential," he said, envisioning annual production of 1.5 million pounds in the future.