Ryan Caputo: Doing Good Through Partnerships
  • Season 3
  • Episode 2

There’s nothing Rynn Caputo can’t do. Today we discuss her journey from quitting her corporate job to starting Caputo Brothers Creamery, and the partnerships built along the way.


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Jessica Hughes
Viscul / Fork & Lens

Rynn Caputo
Caputo Brothers Creamery

Quote from Ryan Caputo
“You go into one store and it’s exciting for an artisan producer like us. And it’s meaningful. You go into one-hundred-eighty-whatever stores, it’s mind-blowing the volume that can go through those stores.”


Jessica Hughes (00:00): Hello. Hello. Welcome back to Fork & Lens. We are very excited for today’s guest. We’ve known Rynn Caputo for about a year or so now, and continuously are inspired by her. That, and the fact that she has her bio and the history of her company nailed down to a science, makes it that much easier for me to introduce her because I’m going to let her do that. David and Rynn Caputo basically decided on their honeymoon to quit their Fortune 500 jobs and attend culinary school in Italy.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure my parents would’ve killed me if I did that. After traveling across all 20 regions of Italy, they knew they were destined to make their culinary passion their life’s work. Upon returning to the States and recognizing the void of cheeses that they had grown to love, the idea for a creamery was born. They have now been featured on Good Morning America and all sorts of other platforms. I will tell you, it is the best mozzarella you will ever eat without going to Italy, I’m sure.

Please help me in welcoming Rynn to the podcast. Welcome to the Fork & Lens podcast, brought to you by VisCul. Ooh, smells delish.

Rynn Caputo (01:28): Caputo Brothers Creamery, we started July 16, 2011, literally out of our home. We had this little creamery that we had built, in Pennsylvania, you can do that. We were going to make about 40 pounds of fresh mozzarella and sell it at the local farmer’s market. We really thought if we could eventually get a stand somewhere and just sell a full 40 pounds of mozzarella a week, that was it. That was the goal. One of us would still work outside the home and we would have this … the word I always used back then was cute.

We want to have this cute little cheese business and use it as a way. We’re going to name it for our boys. Giovanni was three when we started and Matteo was a year and a half. It was always a business that had found us. People always say, “How on earth did you get into the cheese business?” I always say that really it was almost by accident or just out of pure life necessity because it was an ingredient that we desperately loved. We had had these careers in the Fortune 500. I had been a senior manager at Johnson & Johnson.

I’d had a great career in IT during the year 2000 and dot-com boom, I’d gotten to live out in Silicon Valley. Dave was in pharmaceutical sales for Pfizer and he’d had this great job there. On our honeymoon, he literally woke up the second day of our honeymoon and was like, “I got to get this off my chest. I know what I want to do with my life.” I, of course immediately said, “Hopefully it’s to be married to me because it’s like two days and we’re in Tahiti.” He said “No. I think I want to be a chef.”

Really, that was the beginning of this journey that eventually became Caputo Brothers Creamery. I had never had that desire in my life. I liked to cook okay but I didn’t have a real passion for it at that point, but we found this culinary school in Italy. So we. literally, six months after we got married, quit our jobs, put everything in storage, moved to Italy. Our parents were devastated. A lot of tears. I mean, that’s what all newlyweds do, right? They just quit their jobs and move away.

While we were in culinary school, we really learned to love the ingredients that we had access to there. If there’s one thing that Italy has on us is that yeah, of course … especially now we have great markets, even a lot of the mainstream grocery retailers, like a Giant, has these wonderful programs with local purveyors, but in Italy, it’s all right at your fingertips. A town the size of Spring Grove, where we’re located, would have a butcher, a baker, a cheesemaker, a greengrocer. You would shop every day.

When we came back to this country and we were struggling with how to replicate the life we had there, here, cheese was just a gaping hole. It didn’t taste the way it was supposed to. It didn’t cook the way it was supposed to. Back then, we didn’t even know 100% why. I’ll be honest. We started the cheese business and we still didn’t really know what was so special about our cheese. We knew what we had was different. We knew we were making it the way the Italians had taught us, but we didn’t really understand why it was so much different than the American version.

We got our first customer in New York City, about three months after we started the cheese business, we got a phone call for Murray’s Cheese, which is like the gold standard in cheese shops. They asked us to bring them our cheese, and we were floored. We couldn’t believe it. We went up there with the cheese, they agreed to buy it. I still can remember them asking what our delivery schedule was for New York City. I was like, “Every two weeks.” They were like, “Excellent.” I was like, “Yes. I thought so too.”

Yeah. Yeah. It took off. We weren’t capitalized to have that kind of growth, not six months later. We were featured in the New York Times. Our first chef was a Michelin one star chef, who’s telling all of his friends about us and now the people we’re seeing on the Food Network are meeting with us to learn how to use our cheese. It was just mind-blowing. Here we’re coming home like, “How do we do this in this little cute creamery that we built?” We were actually just talking about this last night. Somebody asked us if we would do a dinner.

The first one was just like, pass the hat around and pay what you can. That became two dinners, became five dinners, became a restaurant. Those same people said, “Hey, you have so many connections in Italy. Can you take us on a tour?” One tour became two, became eight. Next year it’ll be 10. It’s its own travel company now. It was just one of those things that because we had this passion for giving Americans this experience that we had had while we were in Italy, we wanted to bring it to them here because we never ever cut corners on that.

We were like, “Yes, it’s harder to make cheese this way and marry it to the American supply chain but we’ll figure that out. Yes, it’s harder to have a restaurant with no menu, because Americans like to pick what they want.” They don’t like to be told you’re going to eat at the whim of the chef and whatever you get, you get. You don’t throw a fit. We stayed true to that. We really said, “If you want to have an Italian experience, Italian flavors, if you want that without the trip to Italy, oh and by the way, we can take you to Italy too.”

That was really where this just drive came from and that’s what made Caputo Brothers Creamery what it is today.

Jessica Hughes (08:05):Yeah. No. It’s insane to think that’s how it started. I can only imagine what my parents would have thought, had six months into our marriage I was like, “We’re packing up and we’re moving across the world.”

Rynn Caputo (08:16): See ya. Yeah.

Jessica Hughes (08:19): See ya. I’m sure, especially my husband’s mom would have been like, “Ah, what about my grandchildren? I wanted some of those.”

Rynn Caputo (08:27): I want some of those. I want some of those.

Jessica Hughes (08:30): Yes.

Rynn Caputo (08:31): Absolutely. I remember them being like, “Can you take a leave of absence? You don’t just give up these great jobs and go.”

Jessica Hughes (08:38): Jobs. Right.

Rynn Caputo (08:40): Honestly, I had no intention of staying the course on the food or hospitality side. I really thought we’re newly married. I can’t not be with my husband for the first six months of our marriage, so I’ll go, this will be a fun experience. I’ll learn to be a better cook, you know? I think it was day two of the program and I was like, “Well, I’m hooked. This is what I’m going to do from now on.” I think just when you … It was like having a secret.

I said this to someone a few weeks ago, it was like, we had been given the secret and we were like, “Oh, wow, well, we got to go tell everybody about this because now that we know, cat’s out of the bag.” I really feel like that’s what has kept us going because I always hesitate to paint a picture, particularly for new entrepreneurs, particularly people getting into the food industry, right? Let’s start a business that’s highly regulated, that is highly perishable.

Jessica Hughes (10:01): Yes.

Rynn Caputo (10:01): And, people don’t put a tremendous value on. Let’s do that. That’s going to be fun. Finding, to your point, partners who believe in what you’re doing, who say, we’re in this with you figuring out that through those partnerships, you can create a sustainable economic environment for dairy farmers that has not existed in a very, very long time. Being able to shorten the supply chain from a farm to a big-box store, like a Giant, those are things that are just so cool. Just really, really cool.

Jessica Hughes (10:44): They are really cool. Tell me a little bit about how you started this partnership model with all the dairy farms and what you’re looking for in those prospective farms as well.

Rynn Caputo (10:59): People ask all the time like, “How did you think to do this or how did you think to do that?” It never occurs to me that I can’t do something. I never had that filter of-

Jessica Hughes (11:09): That’s a great trait.

Rynn Caputo (11:12): … like, “Oh, I can’t do that.” The joke around here is Rynn always says, “We’ll figure it out. That’s what we do.” I’m like a leap and then catch up. My husband and I make a good balance in that regard because he is the complete opposite. He’s like full list, written lists of pros, cons, lots of discussion. We’ll put off the decision. His famous line is kick the can down the road until Rynn forces me to make a decision on something. We balance each other well in that regard.

The cheese business was one of those like, hey, I woke up one morning and I was like, “This is what we’re going to do. We’re going to move to Pennsylvania. We’re going to start a cheese business. It’s going to be great.” It never occurred to me that it might be hard to find milk, right? I built the entire cheese business, the creamery, we had a name, we had logos and it was like, “Now I just have to go find milk. How hard could that be?” We chose the center of dairy country.

Turns out it’s actually pretty hard because the regulations on milk are so crazy. You can’t actually just go buy milk.

Jessica Hughes (12:27): No.

Rynn Caputo (12:27): It doesn’t work that way. To make good cheese, you need high quality milk so we needed to have all of these standards of how much butterfat, what do we want our protein to be? How clean do we want the milk to be? What type of programs do we want them to be involved in? There was all of that and finding farmers who nine years ago would buy into that, which was a challenge. Then on this side, it was like, “Well, who actually is willing to give us access to that milk?”

Really, the most amazing thing happened, and that was Apple Valley Creamery, who had not been going that long. They were a farmer who thought, “Well, gee, I’m going to get more value out of my milk by putting it in a glass bottle and going back to being milk then.” Which 10 years ago everybody thought they were crazy. Now, I mean, they’re booming. Absolutely booming.

Jessica Hughes (13:31): Right. It’s like the gold standard now.

Rynn Caputo (13:32): Absolutely. We went to them and we were like, “Hey, you have this great quality milk and because you’re processing some of your milk, we can actually buy milk from you in a way we can’t buy it from just a regular farm.” I can still picture myself walking in to meet with the owner. I had put together an entire prospectus and all of the … a little business plan, if you will, and slides and everything. I walk in and I’m all confident. I remember him leaning back in his chair and saying to whoever was watching the shop, “Go ahead and clear my calendar for the rest of the day. I think this one’s going to be here a while.”

I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to work with a farmer. The great thing about that partnership with Apple Valley is they were young and we were young as businesses and we grew up together and we really helped each other. We were able to balance their milk. We were able to get them access to a lot of the wholesale customers that maybe they wouldn’t have originally. We helped them figure out how to make a better quality product that then got them more sales they gave us a proving ground really.

This creamery we had built at the house we thought would last five years before we would outgrow it, we out grew it in months. A few months into the business, they said, “Move here, make here, right here on site.” That really became the definition of how to work with a farm. Once we created our own plant, then we were able to get them off the milk truck. We were able to buy all the extra milk that they had and bring on another farm.

Because we had had all those years with Apple Valley of figuring out what good quality milk was and how to work with a dairy farmer and to speak their language, it really created a model that now we can go to a farmer and say, “This is what we’re looking for. If you can create this sustainable agriculture environment, we can supply a sustainable economic environment for you.” Really just disrupting the dairy industry, which is run as a monopoly through the federal government price setting and the milk marketing board.

All of these really antiquated economic systems that just clearly don’t work as we continue to lose dairy farms. I think right now, most farmers in our region are seeing somewhere between nine and $11 a hundredweight, which, I mean, they can’t live on.

Jessica Hughes (16:33): It’s like cents, yeah.

Rynn Caputo (16:35): Yeah. We said, “Okay. Forget all of that. We don’t like those models. We’re actually going to run this as a business and we’re going to teach you how to run your farm as a business and we’re going to work together.” It’s really been … It doesn’t mean it’s always been easy, but it’s at least a clear way that we can communicate to a farmer, “Here’s what we need,” and they can actually create that on the farm and make sure that we have a quality milk supply.

Jessica Hughes (17:05): Yeah. It’s interesting because the regulations are so limiting and the fact that you’re not only giving yourself the freedom, but you’re giving these dairy farmers the freedom at the same exact time, so it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Rynn Caputo (17:25): Yeah.

Jessica Hughes (17:25): You’ve been helping farms make this transition, but you’ve also saved farms in the process. How do you figure out this farm is worth partnering with and is financially struggling so much that it’s up to us to save it versus someone down the street?

Rynn Caputo (17:48): All of the farms are financially struggling. There would not be a way to say this one’s struggling more than that one. They’re all in a really … Even the biggest farms. I would say … I mean, there’s … If I put a Facebook post up today and said, “We’ll take as many farms as want to bring this milk.” We would literally have a hundred farms that are ready to supply us milk tomorrow. There’s no shortage of people who have reached out to us and been like, “We’re good. We’re ready.”

We always follow the same protocol, which is, we have a document that says, “This is what we’re looking for and if you’re willing to do this, you’re going to get $28 a hundredweight, and we’ll walk you in to that price.” Quite frankly, the farmers separate themselves where the ones that take it seriously come to us and they don’t let it go there. They have tenacity. They’re out there making the changes to the farms that they need to. I would say we have quite a few farms still in the pipeline. Some have gone under while they’ve been waiting for us to get to them in order but you do what you can.

We would love to do more. We just went through a major plant expansion that we can bring more milk in. For the first time ever we’re not hauling our own milk. That’s actually being hauled here for us, and that’s exciting.

Jessica Hughes (19:36): Nice.

Rynn Caputo (19:36): We have the ability at this point to really start working on how do we take this model and make another one of these and use this micro creamery or nano creamery model and replicate that. Instead of hauling milk all over the place, instead of going around and pick it up at 10/20 farms, whatever, you actually put one of these in the middle of three farms that then the milk is right there. I think that that’s a model that could definitely be part of the future of what we’re trying to do here.

Jessica Hughes (20:22): That’s interesting, almost bringing the creamery to them versus them bringing the milk all to you.

Rynn Caputo (20:28): Right. Yeah.

Jessica Hughes (20:29): Which also gives them an education and the ability to diversify how they’re making money to a certain extent as well, because it opens up the opportunity for more jobs and education and all these different things.

Rynn Caputo (20:42): Right. One of the things that I would say is a common denominator in dairy families, is they are so passionate about dairy farming. They love it. It’s why they do it even though it’s not financially viable at the moment, but they love the lifestyle. They love the animals. They love the culture around it. You have in a lot of ways, these children of these dairy farmers who desperately want to stay in the industry, but don’t really see a path forward. One of the things I’m most proud of, one of our dairy farming families, we actually hired their youngest daughter.

She’s now one of our full-time cheesemakers and she’s phenomenal. Being able to take someone who knows so much about the milk already, who has this passion for it and finding a way to get them a career in value added is really just paying dividends 20/30 years from now, if we can continue to bring in these farm families and continue to teach these kids who are passionate, that we stay in agriculture. Great. Let’s teach them how to be cheesemakers. Then they go on to be cheesemakers, or families who have kids who want to stay in it.

Again, so much of what we focus on with sustainable agriculture is the land and the health of the animal and the feed. Those things are extremely important, but none of that is actually sustainable if we don’t have an economic environment around them to keep it going because then as soon as the market turns, it’s gone. That’s really part of bringing the water buffalo in, is that as soon as I have water buffalo milk mixed in with my cow’s milk, it gives me a value-add to my customer base.

That they can then turn around and have it be a value-add to their customer base. Well, if we can do that, then putting a few water buffalo on each farm creates more value and diversity on the farm.

Jessica Hughes (23:05): It does.

Rynn Caputo (23:06): It’s just really, again, going back to trying to look at the big picture of what’s going on here and saying, “Okay. Clearly the way it’s been working, isn’t working. How do we change that? How do we make an impact that isn’t just as simple as throwing money at the problem, or throwing a regulation at the problem?” It’s like a systemic change, right? We keep hearing so much about that, but that’s really what we’re trying to do. Maybe I didn’t know that’s what we were doing nine years ago when we started this, but if I look at it now, that’s essentially what we’re trying to do.

It’s be good neighbors because we’re in the middle of dairy country, create value for them, create this sustainable economic environment. Hopefully when we get through all the craziness of what’s going on now we can look back on this time and be like, “Great. Well, that was so we could focus on the cheese business in a way that we probably hadn’t for a few years and get us to even the next level.”

Jessica Hughes (24:10):

You’ve used partnerships to get you to the next level in terms of farms, but you’ve also been able to partner with other brands in order to get your name even further noticed, like Tröegs brewing company, for one, that I know of. I’m sure that there are plenty of others, but how have you come into play with those collaborative experiences with these different brands? Also, what has been the return on investment in those collaborations as well?

Rynn Caputo (24:39): Paramount, I would say. Let’s use the Tröegs example because that’s the one you mentioned. When Giant came to us … And Giant came to us. I mean, I think that’s what always just blows me away with that partnership with Giant, is they literally showed up on our doorstep and were like, “We want to buy your cheese.” In the food world, that just doesn’t happen.

Jessica Hughes (25:05): It doesn’t.

Rynn Caputo (25:08): One of my favorite things that someone said to me from … a Giant employee said to me about that partnership when I was just overwhelmed after we launched our first mozzarella bar in Lancaster. I said to them, “This is so crazy to me that I’m meeting the executive team or the president of the company. I feel like that’s who Pepsi or Coke or Frito-Lay, I feel like that’s who they’re supposed to be meeting with this.” This employee said something to me that I think I’ll remember the rest of my life.

She said, “No, you know what? Any, anyone at that level can meet with Pepsi or Coke or Frito-Lay but right now only Giant can meet with Caputo Brothers Creamery and that’s what makes this relationship so important.” Of course, I immediately bawled my eyes out because that’s what I do. I felt this amazing connection to what we were doing and what they genuinely wanted to do to help with the dairy crisis. When they came to me and said, “Hey, we want a beer cheese.” I can’t tell you how much further outside our lane beer cheese could have been at that moment and I enjoy-

Jessica Hughes (26:30): I mean, you went to culinary school in Italy.

Rynn Caputo (26:33): Yeah. I was like, “Beer cheese. Okay. No. We don’t do that.” They were like, “Well, could you do a beer cheddar?” I was like, “No, absolutely not. It’s not our thing.” Then they came back and they said, “What if it was with Tröegs?” We have personally been huge Tröegs fans for a long time. We had done some different events collaborating with the Tröegners and we loved what they were doing. We loved what they were about. Of course that piqued our interest a little bit and we were like, “Well, I mean, maybe.”

Then they said, “Listen, here’s what the volume would look like.” I think, honestly, that was the first time it ever occurred to me the muscle that a retailer like them has to flex, right? You go into one store and it’s exciting for an artisan producer like us, and it’s meaningful. You go into 180 whatever stores, it’s mind blowing the volume that can go through those stores. When I started running the numbers and thinking about at the moment we were trying to save a farm and I quick ran the numbers and I was like, “That’s their milk just for that cheese, just for this one customer. I could save them tomorrow.” Which we did a week later.

I think that’s really where that partnership with Tröegs and Giant … and the cool thing about it is I always say that if you think of the farmer as the sole proprietor, us as a small business, Tröegs as a medium business, Giant as a mega business, we really crossed all those economic boundaries for all of us to come together and create something that is completely different. Didn’t exist in the marketplace, really in our region, super local that all of us are literally 35/40 minutes away from each other here. The success of Troegenator Beer Cheese, we thought was going to be great.

We honestly had no idea how great it was going to be. Immediately they were like, “Let’s do Perpetual.” We said, “Well, now if we’re going to go down this lane, let’s get crazy and let’s dry hop the cheese.” We ended up making double the amount of Perpetual that we thought we were going to in the middle of coronavirus. Now, with Mad Elf on the horizon, it’s going to be huge. Speaking of partnerships, so now that you have a spice company, I think maybe what we need to talk about is we haven’t been able to find the perfect source for the rub that we need, which is-

Jessica Hughes (29:30): [crosstalk 00:29:30].

Rynn Caputo (29:30): … cocoa powder, cinnamon and espresso. We were thinking maybe this could be another local. Yeah.

Jessica Hughes (29:43): It could be. It could be. Yeah. The funny thing is, we have cardamom coffee that we blend and we use a local coffee roaster to source the coffee beans for that, so we could even include even more local in there.

Rynn Caputo (30:01): Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. That’s going to be just the coolest cheese. It’s got Mad Elf on the … It’s like a Gouda style cheese, like Troegenator, a little softer because the Mad Elf is just higher in alcohol and everything, but it’s … So the Mad Elf is inside. Then you’ve got this chocolate cinnamon espresso rind with it and it’s going to go crazy. That’ll hit the stores in October.

Jessica Hughes (30:33): That’s great. Have you gone out looking for any of these other partnerships or have they always come to you?

Rynn Caputo (30:40): So far they’ve come to us.

Jessica Hughes (30:42): Okay.

Rynn Caputo (30:42): We haven’t … I mean, we always laugh when people come to us and they’re like, “Hey, we really want to put a marketing campaign together for you, an advertising campaign.” That would terrify me if we … Like we are in the flyer at Giant this week the number of people who’ve just driven up and shown up and want to buy cheese and we’re like, “Okay. The retail shop’s closed. Let’s figure out-

Jessica Hughes (31:09): Sorry.

Rynn Caputo (31:10): … how to get you some cheese.” Yeah. It’s always just amazing to us when that comes, the impact that like Good Morning America has, and we’re always just trying to catch up to it. Hopefully, what this time is giving us right now is instead of just constantly being on this hamster wheel where we’re just trying to catch up and the businesses leading us, we’re actually getting a moment right now to get in front of a lot of that. Part of making the decision, of course, was hard.

Rynn Caputo (31:43): So many people love the restaurant and really, I think we were just very disappointed when we decided not to open it back up, but at some point you have to say, “Where can we do the most good? Where can we have the greatest impact?” Right now that’s in dairy and the cheese, so.

Jessica Hughes (32:02): Yeah. Well, and I think that’s what’s so special about Caputo, is the fact that you really do focus in on that. You’re obviously passionate about it when you talk about it. From an outsider looking in it’s almost like the restaurant was this thing that brought people together, but at the same time, that’s something that you can continue to do through your product.

Rynn Caputo (32:26): Absolutely.

Jessica Hughes (32:27): The dairy farms are something completely different. You’re saving people’s livelihoods there, you’re saving people’s futures and I think that’s something to really highlight and be proud of because not a lot of people can say that they’re doing that for other people.

Rynn Caputo (32:43): Well, thank you. Yeah. We-

Jessica Hughes (32:44): You’re welcome.

Rynn Caputo (32:46): We don’t like to say … And for a long time I couldn’t let the words saving dairy farms come out of my mouth until one of our dairy farmers were like, “Yes. Say it. That’s what you should say.” I really think that, again, part of my training through corporate America was lean thinking or Six Sigma or whatever you want to call it. Taking a problem and trying to break it apart and fix it. I think that’s what I really feel like I’m trying to do. We call ourselves the dairy disruptors and we force ourselves, like when we just started hauling milk, the model that’s out there traditionally for how milk hauling is paid for and how it’s set up.

We were immediately falling into that because it’s what’s known. That’s what the hauler understands. We were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Nope.” We’re always forcing ourselves to say, “Look, there’s a reason that model is falling apart. Take the pieces apart. What actually makes sense? Oh, that makes sense? Will it work? Yes. Okay. Let’s do that.” I think more what I feel like is a fixer. I feel like something is horribly broken and I can’t do it by myself and so we need these partnerships, these amazing partnerships.

The great thing about it is not just the partnerships that we’ve had, but like Giant then saw this as a success story and turned around and reached out to 13 other creameries that they started bringing in. I mean, that’s what we need to do. That’s part of disrupting and fixing and-

Jessica Hughes (34:31): Helping one another.

Rynn Caputo (34:32): Exactly. Yep.

Jessica Hughes (34:34): Yeah. No. Well, thank you so much, Rynn. I really do appreciate it.

Rynn Caputo (34:37): No. Thank you. Thank you. Let’s touch base at some point about that spice.

Jessica Hughes (34:42): We will. We will. If you’d like to learn more about Rynn and what she’s doing, please check out caputobrotherscreamery.com. You can even check out her live mozzarella pulling classes that they started as they went into COVID. If you’d like to learn more about anything that we talked about, I’m sure that you can find it on her website. Otherwise, every caprese salad is better shared, so please do share today’s episode with your team, your colleagues, and your friends.

If you enjoyed today’s message, please subscribe to get weekly access to new recipes for creative and marketing success. You can also check us out at forkandlens.co or viscal.co. Until the next time, thank you so much.