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Published: Tuesday, 6/6/2006

Toledo food-processing firm moves, becomes bigger cheese

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Charlie Allison spreads shredded cheese evenly before it is sealed into five-pound bags. Charlie Allison spreads shredded cheese evenly before it is sealed into five-pound bags.
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When the owner of a small west Toledo pizzeria became too old to shred mozzarella for her pies, she asked the late Joe Sofo, Sr., a retailer and food distributor, to take on the assignment.

That request of 30 years ago was the inspiration for A&M Cheese Co., a $45 million-a-year business that yesterday celebrated the opening of a new plant on Waggoner Boulevard in northwest Toledo.

"A&M is the largest cheese-processing plant in the state of Ohio," said Mr. Sofo's son, Tony, the company's chief executive and co-owner.

The 18,000-square-foot plant, which moved its manufacturing line and 55 employees from a much smaller operation on Belmont Avenue, dices and shreds 25 million pounds of cheese each year.

A conveyor belt feeds cheese to chutes that will drop it into bags. A conveyor belt feeds cheese to chutes that will drop it into bags.
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With the move, A&M's capacity doubled to 60 million pounds, although the company anticipates growth of 15 percent a year, Mr. Sofo said.

Known as "converters," such firms account for less than 5 percent of U.S. cheese-production plants, said a person with knowledge of the industry.

Unlike other plants, they make no cheese but process product purchased from others.

The Toledo plant's capacity places it in the elite ranks of converters, said the expert, who spoke on the condition she wasn't identified.

"It's impressive," customer Jack Butorac, Jr., chief executive of Marco's Franchising LLC, Sylvania, said as he watched mounds of shredded cheese move down a conveyer line.

A&M processes the cheese used at the locally based chain's 154 shops nationwide.

"It's taken a lot of trial and error, but they've got it down to a science," Mr. Butorac said.

A key to the firm's success has been its willingness to blend different varieties of cheeses in smaller quantities than most competitors, Mr. Sofo said.

Jim VanderBussche takes completed cartons off the line. Jim VanderBussche takes completed cartons off the line.
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Pizzerias like to mix two or more varieties of cheese to give their product a flavor different from the competition.

A&M will mix batches as small as 300 pounds; some

competitors insist on at least 10,000 pounds. Ninety percent of the cheese processed by the Toledo firm ends up on pizza, Mr. Sofo explained.

A&M has 55 customers. It distributes to small pizza shops, regional chains, and grocers throughout the Midwest and as far west as California directly and through distributors such as family-owned Sofo Foods, Sysco Corp., and Dairy Fresh Corp.

Mr. Sofo declined to discuss how much the company spent to build the new plant. It is adjacent to the building housing Sofo Foods, built in the 1950s as a parts distribution center for Dana Corp.

In addition to cheese and food distribution, the Sofo family operates a retail food store on Monroe Street in Toledo.

Ted Hafner started at A&M at age 19 when the company had three person employees.

"We were in a small room shredding and dicing cheese with a hand grinder," he recalled. Now in his 40s, Mr. Hafner is A&M's general manager.

The company name comes from the first initials of Tony, whose given name is Antonio, and of his brother and co-owner, Mike.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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