Where Cheesy Is Cool

Gary A. White, President, P’Chelle International

It was early Thursday morning July, 2012. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon. It was going to be another scorcher, the norm for Kennewick, our home in Eastern Washington, in the middle of summer. Donna (my better half, much better) and I had just finished a satisfying breakfast at the International House of Pancakes (and where do you go for an affordable gourmet breakfast?). We were beginning our journey as Industrial Tourists  to that shrine of Pacific Northwest Industrial Tourism, the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook, Oregon. After traveling for five hours, covering 300 miles of some of the Creator’s finest handiwork, we arrived in Tillamook. Yep, there it was, within an arrow shot of Tillamook Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Tillamook, with a population of approximately 5,000 is snuggly tucked away between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Range. Like many small, rural communities along the Oregon and Washington coasts it looks a little tired, a bit forlorn, but still captures the charm that makes it a fun place to “bounce around”. The coolness, the fog, the ever-present drizzle and the peek-a-boo sunshine were in stark contrast to what we experienced earlier that day.

One thing is certain, this is dairy country. I may be a city boy, but I know what lush, green pastures, big barns (some red, many gray) and herds of some of the finest looking dairy cows that ever chewed cud and gave milk mean. There are more cows in Tillamook County (30,000) than people (25,000). The dairy industry permeates Tillamook, providing a bit of a “dairy brand” as illustrated by signage, murals and transit artwork. Donna and I arrived at our hotel just outside of town, the Shilo Inn Suites Hotel. Their slogan is, “Affordable Excellence”. Ah yes, my kind of hotel. We quickly checked in, unpacked, got back in the car, and, as excited as two kids on Christmas morning, headed up Highway 101 North two miles, in our anticipation it seemed far longer, until, well, there it was, the object of our quest, complete with crowded parking lots and teeming hordes…………………the Tillamook Cheese Factory.

The Tillamook Cheese Factory is owned and operated by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA), a cooperative founded in 1909, owned by approximately 110 dairy farm families. From that date on the company continued to accomplish and grow. In 1918 Tillamook is credited with being the first community to brand its cheese and advertise under a brand name. In 1921 “Tillamook” was officially copyrighted and their first slogan, “Look for Tillamook on the Rind” was initiated. The current factory was built in 1949 and over the years has expanded from its original 175,000 to today’s 307,900 square feet, employing approximately 500 people on three shifts. Every day 28 – 30 tankers deliver milk from Tillamook’s farmer-owned members to be processed into a broad number of cheese, yogurt, ice cream, sour cream and butter products. The company can process about 1.5 million pounds of milk daily. Tillamook ranks No. 45 on the Dairy 100, Dairy Foods  annual ranking of North America’s largest processors of dairy foods and beverages. It reported sales of $477 million in 2011. That is definitely impressive, but to keep the fine folks at Tillamook hungry and humble, No. 5 Kraft had revenues of $4 billion and No. 32 Sargento rang up sales of $1 billion. Yes, they have been quite successful in manufacturing and marketing wonderful dairy products. Much of that success, in my opinion, can be attributed to Industrial Tourism.

When you first turn into the Tillamook Cheese Factory you notice the colorful flags waving along the driveway, “Tillamook Cheese” in bright gold letters on a dark blue stripe boldly standing out on a pristine, white building;  a replica of the two-masted schooner, the Morning Star of Tillamook, launched in 1855 to ship Tillamook products to market, docked on the front lawn. Cars from just about every state in the U.S. and province in Canada occupy the parking lots, bunches of moms and dads and little tikes are walking up and down the sidewalks and friendly staff are handing out free ice cream cones, with just enough ice cream to whet the appetite. It is a festive and inviting atmosphere. It’s fun!

First established as a cheese shop in the 1950s, the Cheese Factory has offered free self-guided tours since 1968, welcoming approximately one million visitors a year. It is considered one of the top tourist destinations in the Pacific Northwest by people from around the world. I met a couple from Frankfurt, Germany. They were on a West Coast trip, Vancouver, Canada to Los Angeles. Friends told them if they were going to be in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, they must stop by the Tillamook Cheese Factory. They did and were not disappointed. A second story observation deck provides a bird’s-eye view, through glass windows, of the stainless steel cheese vats, presses and cut-and-wrap operations on the floor below. The employees, below the windows, interacted with the visitors, waving and posing for pictures…..a great example of “manufacturing as theatre”. The observation deck also features signage and touch-screen kiosks telling the story of the community, the local dairy industry, life on the farm and the Tillamook County Creamery Association. It also hosts an ice cream shop, that appeared forever busy.

When done with the tour (approximately one hour – depending on how fast you walk, how many signs you read and videos you watch, how many pictures you take and how many ice cream cones you eat) you can then meander downstairs to enjoy the wonders and delights of the gift shops (I counted two) selling the usual gift shop stuff, but especially a wide assortment of Tillamook branded food products and novelties. There is a free tasting of Tillamook cheeses…..stand in line, get your toothpick and go for it! A large ice cream parlor is located between the two gift shops, very strategically planned, I might add (they got me, but I’m not complaining). The Creamery Cafe provides a wide selection of American standards; hamburgers, hot dogs, etc. in a typical American diner setting. If you have not totally filled up on cheese, ice cream, hamburgers, etc. and need a little dessert to top it off, there is, next to the restaurant, a gourmet fudge counter. Everything was well laid out, good traffic flow and friendly and helpful staff. I was impressed with the attendance, commenting to a cashier that, “it’s pretty busy today”. Her response, “Aw, this is nothing. You should be here on the weekends”. Hmmm, maybe not. All in all, it was a delightful and fun experience, but, most important from an Industrial Tourism perspective, it is a very important brand building experience. I was aware of the Tillamook brand, but now I am passionate about it. More important, so is Donna!

Brand building aside, think about the dollars and cents of this operation and its impact on the community. I spent approximately $50.00 on souvenirs and food (Donna won’t tell me what she spent, but I noticed the car trunk had far less space). Looking at what other people were buying I am guessing this amount is close to average. So, $50.00 times 1 million visitors a year is impressive. The economic contribution to the community is also impressive. With hotel, gas, food, etc. (not counting what we spent at the Tillamook Cheese Factory) we invested approximately $250.00 over a 24 hour time period. Take that $250.00 (I will again assume it is close to average) times the 1 million visitors to the Tillamook Cheese Factory and, consequently the city of Tillamook, and we are talking about a serious economic contribution. While in town, we also visited the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum and the Tillamook Air Museum (which, I might add, has some cool World War II vintage airplanes and, of course, a gift shop and cafe). Both were well worth the time and little expense.

The company is a master at marketing. Their website, signage and brochures all have a nice homey feel, with a little touch of “cheese humor”. Their social media presence is impressive, 303,679 fans on Facebook, 14,131 on Twitter as of this writing and the “Loaf Life Blog”. Their master stroke may be the “Loaf Love Tour”. It makes one want to find their love beads, tie-dyed shirt, bell bottomed jeans and long hair (although I would settle for hair, period). The Tour features a fleet of five customized Volkswagen “Baby Loaf” buses, reshaped as cheese loaves and painted cheddar orange, sampling cheese at grocery stores and community events throughout the United States. Over its two-year existence, the Tour has visited 575 cities, served 8,580 cheese loaves and covered over 69,000 miles. Inside the Cheese Factory there is a “Baby Loaf” replica that kids can sit in and have their picture taken. This is a very popular attraction for doting parents. I wanted to take Donna’s picture, but she wouldn’t cooperate.

The Tillamook Cheese Factory is an excellent example of Industrial Tourism.  This company has leveraged it to grow their brand, their profits and the economic well-being of their community. Food and beverages provide wonderful Industrial Tourism  opportunities. Most communities do not have a Tillamook Cheese Factory located within their city limits, but they might have a smaller, established food processor that can act as an anchor to attract other complimentary food processors (think shopping center) to create an Industrial Theme Park.  Tillamook made cheesy cool. Other communities can make __________ cool. You fill in the blank, not only in this Post, but also in your mind. Then take the steps necessary to make it happen. You are only limited by the boundaries of your imagination.

The Tillamook Cheese Factory

  • Hours: 8am – 6pm, Labor Day through mid-June…..8am – 8pm mid-June through Labor Day (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas)
  • Admission: Free
  • Address: 4185 Highway 101 North, Tillamook, Oregon 97141
  • Telephone: 503-842-4481
  • Website: www.Tillamook.com





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This article was written by: Gary A. White

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