Fourth Generation Cheese Maker Develops Creamy Ithaki Feta
Secret ingredients and recipes are the heart and soul of food. But those recipes, like the fast food fried chicken chain that claims it has “Eleven secret herbs and spices” in its signature chicken, are closely guarded and for good reason.
Fourth generation cheese maker Chuck Krause, majority owner and operator of Tucumcari Mountain Cheese Factory, Inc., says in his more than 45 years as a cheese maker he has learned that once you find the “sweet spot” of your recipe it is best to keep that to yourself. “I call my feta cheese recipe a ‘state secret’ as I have evolved with flavors, cultures and learning little things that make our feta different, and better,” the gregarious Chuck says. “Something I add to the milk is different than anybody else and the result is a creamy flavor that is unmatched. Our feta is even creamier than the Wisconsin guys and that says a lot,” he notes.
The Ithaki feta that Chuck makes at his Tucumcari, NM, plant is currently used in this month’s Classic Greek salad.
Chuck grew up in Wisconsin making cheese with his father and grandfather in the small community of Morgan, about 30 miles north of Green Bay. From 1938 to 1988, his family, led originally by Chuck’s great grandfather, made Cracker Barrel Cheese for Kraft Foods, one of the nation’s largest cheese makers.
“In 1988 my father was dying of cancer and he decided to sell our operation to another outfit. I worked for a while with the firm that bought us out and then ultimately moved to California to run a mozzarella plant in the Los Angeles area. The company I was working with talked me into going out to Tulare, CA, in the Central Valley to run a business and I did that until 1994,” Chuck says.
Itching to get back into ownership versus working for someone else, Chuck started a search for a place to settle. At the time, there were a number of communities in eastern New Mexico that appealed to him and he found an old Coca Cola plant in Tucumcari, bought it and began buying used equipment from people he knew in Wisconsin. By April 1, 1995, Tucumcari Mountain Cheese was operational.
At first, Chuck focused on making cheddar and cheddar varieties, but soon learned he could not compete with the big players for those cheeses. He turned to a friend in southern New Mexico who wanted feta so Chuck started making it. Soon thereafter he found another customer in Houston who had moved to Houston from New York. Through his relationship with the Houston customer, Chuck landed several feta customers.
“I have a most expensive education in making feta,” Chuck says. “We had not made feta until we started in Tucumcari and the truth is I listened to and learned from my customers who knew what they wanted in their cheese. Our first years making feta was hard, but now 21 years after we started making this delicious product, we are running our plant 7 days a week and are in the middle of a $4.5 million expansion. We are adding brand new equipment from Germany and will have a modern facility that will carry us forward for years to come,” Chuck says proudly.
At 63 years old, Chuck doesn’t want to see what happened to his father’s former cheese plant in Wisconsin befall his operation. That facility is now long closed. “Cheese making is my passion and I’m not going to be satisfied until we get our expansion done and working. I have a young crew and they all have kids and I want this business to be a sustaining operation for our community. We have a good future here and I look forward to driving by when I am 80 and 90 and see the place still running and making a contribution,” he said.