Saturday, August 21, 2010

New Label: Old Story

I've discovered that any good story, like a good joke, will involve three specific components. For example, jokes that start out with: "A Priest, a Rabbi and a Minister walk into a bar..." almost never disappoint, and stories that start with "Once Upon A Time" almost always have a distinct beginning, middle and end.

For any good story to be successful, however, one needs a good storyteller. Scott Meister is a born storyteller, although I'm not sure he realizes it. When I visited Meister Cheese in Muscoda last week after hearing about the company's new labels, I asked the routine question every journalist (in this case former journalist) would ask, and said "So why a new label?"

What I got was a brutally honest answer, which was at once both refreshing and intriguing. Scott walked over to a display cooler in the corner, pointed to an old, laser-printed label with a 70s-circa font sporting "Meister Cheese" that looked like it was designed in a disco, and said: "I didn't want to go my whole career without having a label that bridged the gap between my grandfather and my kids."

Turns out the story behind the new Meister Cheese label - which features a very handsome portrait of the company's patriarch, Joseph Meister, making cheese in an old copper vat -- involves three distinct components: a boat, a bar, and a long-lost cousin.

Ahhh ... the mystical trifecta of a good story. Hang onto your hats, kids. Here we go.

According to Scott:

"Most Meisters are characters, and this guy named Jim Meister is no exception. Prior to 54 weeks ago, I had met Jim twice in my life. Once was at my wedding, and the first time was 22 years ago was when my dad had just purchased a new boat. We took it out on the lake, and after awhile, my dad says, 'You know, I've got a cousin who runs a bar somewhere around here - we should look him up.' So we drove around the lake until we found it, and that's the first time I met Jim - he was running a bar on the lake.

Scott continues:

"Fast forward to one year ago - same lake - I'm on a boat with my son, and I say 'You know, I once had a cousin who ran a bar on this lake. So we drive around, can't find it, and I call up an old friend. He says Jim sold the bar years ago, and since then, it has burned down. So I figure, well, that's that. So we stop at another place on the way home and we're sitting at our table eating dinner. Two old guys are sitting next to us - and one gets up to leave. His friend says, 'So long, Jim,' and I look up, and sure enough, this guy's shirt says Meister Log & Lumber - which is the business my cousin Jim's family has run forever."

"I jumped up, introduced myself, and just like that, it was as if 20 years had never passed. We sat down, renewed our friendship and found out that he stopped at our cheese store all the time to buy cheese, but had never said hello because he figured we were too busy to talk."

"We had been working on a new label for awhile at that point, and had wanted a portrait done of Grandpa Joe. But all we had was a photograph. We had a brilliant illustrator - Ross Pollard, grandson of George Pollard - who was going to do the portrait for us, but he wanted to work with a live model. As soon as I saw Jim, I knew we had our live model, because Jim looks just like Grandpa Joe."

Fast forward to today, and cousin Jim, portraying Grandpa Joe Meister, is the new face of Meister Cheese. Look closely at the label, and you'll see wheels of cheese aging on racks in the background. I asked Scott if that part of the label represented the past or the future of Meister Cheese, and for once, I stumped him.

While Grandpa's Cheddar daisies - made by hand - were part of the past, the future of Meister cheese does involve Cheddar tophats - made by hand - currently in development. And, Meister is working on an artisan, cloth-wrapped cheddar that's due to be released this fall. In the years between Grandpa's artisan Cheddars and today's artisan Cheddars, Meister Cheese has made a boat load of high-quality specialty cheeses. But there's a difference between specialty and artisan cheeses, and Scott knows it.

"After a 40-year gap, we're taking up artisan cheeses again," Scott said. "It feels good to reconnect to the past, while making our own mark on the future."

Well said, Mr. Meister, and I'm pretty sure Grandpa Joe would approve.

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