The People’s Creamery
July 25th, 2018 by Ethan E. Rocke

At 42,000 square feet, the new Tillamook Creamery is more than 50 percent larger than Tillamook’s previous visitor experience.

With its storied history and long legacy of producing premium dairy products, the Tillamook County Creamery Association is one of Oregon’s most beloved institutions.

Shannon Lourenzo loves cows.

For the farmer-owner and board chairman of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, his roughly 600 dairy cows are like extended family.

Ask Shannon about his cows, and his mood livens. He’ll tell you how they all have unique personalities and endearing quirks that make the stress of dairy farming worthwhile. He’ll tell you about Holstein cows (black and white fur) and Jersey cows (brown fur) and how Jerseys, which are generally smaller than Holsteins and produce less milk, have a higher yield of butter fat and protein—the components used to make cheese and other dairy products.

“I was born and raised in the dairy business, and I love it,” Shannon says with a subtle drawl. “To do this, you really have to love it. It’s a seven-day-a-week job, and I mean it when I say I can’t wait to wake up every morning and do it all again.”

While the tedium of business management commands much of his time, Shannon wakes every morning before dawn to feed his cows. He prefers to handle his own veterinary work and is always making time for his true passion: cows.

You could say cows are sacred in Tillamook County.

Shannon and his family are one of almost 90 farming families who comprise the Tillamook County Creamery Association. Their motto, “Dairy done right,” is a sort of gospel they live by. The TCCA’s farmer-owners are stewards of a 109-year-old legacy of producing premium dairy products.

“As a co-op, we’re here to serve our members, which are the suppliers of the milk,” says TCCA President and CEO Patrick Criteser. “The owners of our company are farming families who think in generational terms rather than quarterly or annual projections.

“We’re always thinking about the whole big picture, and it motivates us to think about stewardship. We uphold that value of stewardship, which we define as doing the right thing for all stakeholders for the long term.”

Since its inception, TCCA has maintained its core values and traditions. The co-op has used the same cheddar-cheese recipe since 1894 when renowned cheesemaker Peter McIntosh brought his recipe to Tillamook County. He eventually earned the nickname “Cheese King of the Coast.”

Over the years, Tillamook dairy products have won close to 700 awards, including a win for World’s Best Medium Cheddar Cheese at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest.

Loved by Oregonians all over the state, the Tillamook brand is a revered institution intricately woven into Oregon’s cultural DNA.

“We’re a Tillamook-only household,” says 15-year-old Matthew Manske of Albany, Oregon. “Tillamook cheese is what my great-grandparents and grandparents always had. It’s what my parents love. It’s a family tradition that’s been passed on through the generations.”

TCCA officially formed in 1909 when several small creameries came together to ensure all cheese made in the region met the same standard of quality. But the Tillamook legacy dates to 1851 when the Tillamook Valley’s first settlers saw opportunity in the area’s wet, coastal climate. With lush, green grass as far as the eye could see, Tillamook was ideal for raising dairy cows, and dairy farming quickly became a prevalent trade.

Tillamook County is on the Oregon Coast, just south of the state’s northernmost county. In the 1850s, getting products to market in Portland and other more populous areas presented a major logistical challenge. In addition to having no means of refrigeration to preserve milk, navigating the rough wagon trails through the mountains and dense forest took far too long.

Farmers turned to cheese making as a matter of necessity and delivered their products to Portland by river on a schooner called the Morning Star. Today, the schooner features prominently on the cooperative’s logo, and Tillamook’s products carry the Morning Star to markets all over the world.

“In my visits to Asia, I got to see Tillamook cheese not only in Beijing, but I saw it in Japan,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said June 19, addressing a crowd gathered for the new Tillamook Creamery’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. “I’m hoping on my next trip to Vietnam that I will see it there as well.”

Against the backdrop of a clear, blue sky, with a Jersey cow’s massive portrait staring out wide-eyed above the creamery entrance, Brown praised the Tillamook Creamery and cooperative for being “proudly and uniquely Oregon.”

Designed by Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig and built by Portland-based Precision Construction, the new 42,000-square-foot creamery is more than 50 percent larger than the previous facility, which attracted more than 1.3 million visitors each year. Now that the new creamery is open, that number appears to be growing.

“The response to this new visitor experience has been overwhelming,” Patrick says. “Opening those doors at 8 a.m. the first day and seeing the line all the way out to the parking lot was so thrilling, but also a little panic-inducing. And we have not seen it let up.”

Patrick says since its official opening June 20, the new creamery has been jam-packed with between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors daily.

Adjacent to the company’s flagship manufacturing facility and headquarters, the new creamery features a larger indoor dining area and outdoor covered patio, a new menu created in partnership with Portland chef Sarah Schafer of Irving Street Kitchen, an expanded ice cream counter featuring every flavor of Tillamook Ice Cream, a coffee and yogurt bar, an enhanced viewing experience of Tillamook’s cheese production and packaging operations, a small theater that features videos about how Tillamook products are made, and an in-depth farm exhibit where visitors can learn about cows, dairy technology and farm life.

“This new visitor experience is one of the most exciting things that’s happened for us in years,” says Shannon. “Consumers want to know what’s in their food and where it comes from, and to have the opportunity to tell our story and share what makes us so unique and special—that’s what I’m most excited about. When people come and experience the creamery, they walk away Tillamook fans.”

Matthew Manske and his father, Kevin, say they’re a testament to the creamery’s fan-making effects. Summer visits to the old Tillamook Cheese Factory were a family tradition when Kevin was growing up—one he was sure to pass on to his kids.

“We had a beach house in Rockaway Beach, and we always stopped at the cheese factory along the way,” Kevin says.

Kevin has made the same summer trips with his kids, so Matthew has his own share of cherished Tillamook experiences.

“We always go for Tillamook because it’s a special brand that we have so many memories with, and because it truly is great cheese,” Matthew says.

As a sixth-generation Oregonian, Patrick says the brand is in his blood too. He has many cherished memories from visiting the factory, but his favorite happened in the summer of 2012.

Excited by an opportunity to join the company, Patrick visited the factory with his family to ponder being part of the organization.

“There were a couple of guys out front, standing near their Harley Davidson motorcycles, with their leather jackets and big beards,” Patrick says, recalling the scene with a chuckle. “One of them was holding up a block of cheese with a big smile, and the other was taking his picture. Looking around at all the families with young kids and grandparents who were bringing their kids and younger couples and Harley Davidson guys, I was just thinking how this company and the brand sort of transcend all of these different demographics in such an exciting way. And it just feels like such a happy place to be for everyone.”

Shannon shares Patrick’s affinity for the co-op and the deep sense of pride that comes with membership.

“For small farmers in the dairy business, it’s hard to compete against modern-day agriculture,” Shannon says. “Where we’re unique is we have this brand that enables us to continue to be small farms and thrive going forward.

“To have a co-op that is truly here for us that can provide so many programs and services that help the farmer-owners—it’s really special. There’s just no place like it. Every time I walk into a supermarket and see our products everywhere, I feel so much pride.”

The new Tillamook Creamery is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. until Labor Day and 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Labor Day through mid-June. Go to Tillamook.com for more information. And check out this video to learn more about the Tillamook story.