By Ben Lawson
When they first met at a campground in Dandridge, Randall Mitchell and Dr. Steve Koplow didn’t realize they would soon embark on a life changing journey that would see them competing against some of the biggest names in the food industry.
That journey began when Koplow sampled some of Mitchell’s homemade beer cheese. Mitchell, who created the recipe himself, had been making the cheese since his four-year stint in the Navy, but it was Koplow who suggested marketing it after being coerced into trying some.
“I thought I would just try it to shut him up,” Koplow said. “Then I turn around and see my kids rimming the bowl.”
After market testing convinced them they had a winning product, the friends set out to form a company. Once the cheese passed extensive product testing with the USDA, FDA, and the University of Tennessee, Smoky Mountain Cheese LLC was born. Starting out proved to be a trying time, with Mitchell handling the business hurdles while Koplow provided financial backing.
As newcomers to the food business, they focused on marketing their product in a unique and memorable way. Mitchell suggested using a bull in the logo and Koplow worked with several artists to find the perfect look, ultimately taking inspiration from the old “Joe Camel” cigarette ads. With the logo design came the name, “No Bull Beer Cheese Spread with Attitude.” Product in hand, they set out to join the market, itself a difficult venture as they had no contacts on the inside.
“We keep digging and crawling,” Mitchell said. “Because we’re a nobody in the food industry.”
The hard work paid off. In September 2010, their cheese spread was in 13 Food City stores. Today, it can be purchased in 1,500 stores in 11 states. Their goal is to be in 48 states within two years, a feat Mitchell indicated would be achieved by next spring.
“I knew that once a major chain took us on, it would take off,” he said.
They credit their success in part to an excellent working relationship that has Koplow working the legal side while Mitchell produces and sells the cheese.
“We complement each other,” Koplow said. “We both do things well.”
Having a product that sells hasn’t hurt either. They use real cheese out of Wisconsin and real beer, although the alcohol is cooked out during production. They spent time ensuring the cheese would pass all of the strict safety regulations placed on dairy products.
The company continues to grow. They beat out major national contenders to win a national contract with retailing giant SUPERVALU and will soon be in select Kroger stores. At their first location, they were producing between 500 and 600 tubs of cheese a day. After moving to their new Seymour facility in January, they can crank out 60,000 a day with only a handful of employees. And they have no intention to slow down now.
“We’re either going to go big, or we’re not doing it,” Koplow said.
They hope that once their cheese becomes a household name, it will draw national attention to the area. In the meantime, they look forward to whatever lies ahead.
“With God, anything is possible,” Mitchell said.
For more information, check out their Web site at www.smokymountaincheesellc.com.
Cheese Brings Big Business to Seymour
By Ben Lawson