Buy a McDonald’s burger in Durban or Dubai, or dozens of cities around the world, and it’s likely you’ll be eating cheese made in Eltham.
The factory tucked away in the South Taranaki town is cheese HQ for giant quick service restaurant companies McDonalds, Burger King and Subway.
“If we put every slice of cheese we make here in a year on a burger, there would be three billion burgers in front of you,” processed cheese plant manager Jeremy Birss says.
The Eltham plant can produce up to 90,000 tonnes of processed and repackaged cheese each year. Around 80 per cent of this is exported to 60 countries. Making processed cheese is a careful blend of cooking and science.
Three men responsible for overseeing the production of around 90,000 tonnes of cheese each year from Eltham’s Fonterra plant are Nathan McDonald, plant manager natural block and shred; Brendon Birss, Eltham operations manager; and Jeremy Birss, plant manager processed cheese.
Some is individually wrapped for sale in supermarkets, and the remainder is sold as bulk slice-on-slice ready to go on those burgers. The plant also supplies frozen, grated mozzarella to Pizza Hut and Dominos, and makes that lusciously melty cheese in the middle of Sizzler sausages and many bakery products. Blocks of natural cheese are packaged on another part of the production line, and these end up as far away as Jamaica.
Fast food customers sometimes need a lot of extra cheese, extra quickly – that’s why it’s referred to as fast moving consumer goods, he says.
Although production is preplanned, the team that runs the factory has to be flexible to meet surges in demand, such as when a customer has a special promotion, such as $2 burgers.
“Burger King sold 187,000 Whoppers the day after the Joseph Parker fight. Obviously we plan in advance, but it can be quite fluid in trying to adjust to meet that demand.”
Unlike traditional cheese making, where seasonal variations can affect the final product, with processed cheese it’s reliability and standardisation that are key, says operations manager Brendon Birss.
“It’s about repeatability – the ability to be making the same cheese, every day, every night, week after week. We’re not linked to the milk flows, we manufacture all year around, 50 or 51 weeks a year.”
The product is carefully formulated to meet customers’ exacting standards for flavour, colour, mouth-feel and melting ability,.
The three fast food customers each have different requirements and recipes. Subway’s cheese is sliced into triangles not squares.
“We make it to customer specifications, we’ve tailored our recipes to meet those specifications. If you think about McDonalds regardless of whether you eat cheese in New Zealand, New York, or Sri Lanka, it will have the same flavour, to meet that Golden Arches standard, it’s the same experience all around the world.”
As well as the careful formulation by Fonterra’s product development team in Palmerston North, and high tech equipment used to make the cheese, staff knowledge of the process and the products helps keep the standard high.
There are 500 people on site, and they live all around Taranaki, commuting to work from Waitara, New Plymouth, Opunake, Patea and Douglas.
“We’ve got some highly skilled staff. If everyone left today, we’d be struggling, we’ve got some people that have operated our plant for a long time, he says.
“Forty per cent of the the people on staff have been here over 10 years, they keep coming back. They know it’s our cheese that goes onto their burgers and pizzas, there’s a real pride in that.”
By: Catherine Groenestein