Nauvoo cheese plant sold, closed Friday

Journal Pilot

By Joy Swearingen, Managing Editor

Nauvoo lost its largest employer Friday with the sale and closing of the ConAgra Dairy Foods which made Nauvoo Blue Cheese.

"It was our largest employer, 65 employees, many of them from right around Nauvoo," said Nauvoo Mayor Tom Wilson.

The cheese plant was purchased by Saputo Inc., of Canada.

Wilson learned of the sale at about the same time as the employees.

"I got an email at noon Friday, telling me that they would be closing and giving every employee 60 days severance pay," Wilson said. "The company will be removing all the equipment inside and closing the building."

According to Bob McKeon, a spokesman for ConAgra, sold the domestic blue cheese business in order to concentrate on other domestic cheese and imported deli-style cheese. "Our domestic blue cheese business is small and was only located at the Nauvoo facility." He said ConAgra wanted to focus on higher margin and higher volume products.

In his statement, McKeon said Saputo has determined it will no longer operate the facility and permanently halted operations on Friday. Employees would receive severance pay, benefits continuation and transition assistance in lieu of notice.

Pauline Vass was a separator/pasturizer operator and had worked at the plant for 27 years, second longest of any of the employees. Her husband Roger, a 25-year employee, worked in bulk packaging. Mike Burger had been there for 32 years.

"A week ago, Friday, there was a note posted on the bulletin board that we would not make cheese after Tuesday (May 20). We would be shut down because inventory was too high, and there would be a mandatory meeting Friday at noon," Pauline said.

Vass said some of the younger employees were asking her what the meeting would be about, and she said she thought the plant would be shut down for a couple of weeks to catch up with inventory.

"I told them not to worry. We got to the meeting and guys from the ConAgra Corporate office told us the business was sold to Saputo Cheese. They were selling the business, the brand names, and no longer needed the plant, so we were out of a job."

She said the employees were not given "severence pay," but just what ConAgra is required to do.

"By law, they are required to give us 60 days notice, or 60 days pay when a plant is closed. The guy that started two weeks ago got the same deal as I. We can go to a two-day seminar in Keokuk on how to look for another job."

"I'm lost," she added. "Everybody down here felt like they were family. Where do we go now? I'll look for another job. Where? I'm not sure. What? I'm not sure."

Production of cheese has been part of the Nauvoo heritage, and is part of the annual historical pageant that concludes with the wedding of the wine and cheese, the two key products marketed from Nauvoo.

Wine making came first, and after prohibition hurt the wine industry, residents discovered wine cellars provided a good place to age blue cheese.

The factory was opened in 1937. The company produced Nauvoo Blue Cheese and Nauvoo Gorgonzola, Cave Treasure brand cheese and packaged cheese for other companies, including Ken's Food and cheese for McDonald's salads.

"It is important to note," McKeon said, "that this is not a reflection on performance of employees. Decisions like this when they affect employees are always difficult to make."