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The challenges of cheese

Germantown company Gehl Foods makes enjoying snacks a lot easier, tastier

Cheryl Pechstein (back) shows Danielle Switalski how to install insulation in the assembly process for a cheese dispenser at Gehl Dairy on Feb. 28.

Cheryl Pechstein (back) shows Danielle Switalski how to install insulation in the assembly process for a cheese dispenser at Gehl Dairy on Feb. 28. Photo By C.T. Kruger

March 3, 2013

"If only you could walk a mile in my shoes." We've all read it, thought it, and most likely said it, but how many of us have actually tried it?

Every day, each of us wakes up and tackles the day. Some of us head to an office and are inundated with phone call after phone call. Others don a uniform and ready themselves to help those in need.

Though it would be impossible for me to walk a mile in everyone's shoes, I am bringing the adage to life. From sweeping floors to farming, I am taking myself out of my comfort zone and being put to work like never before at businesses around Germantown and Menomonee Falls.

 

All it takes is the push of a button and the golden goodness of cheese sauce flows steadily onto pretzels, chips, hot dogs - you name it. It's so simple, and so flavorful, but who makes it? How is it made? And why, just why, is it so dang delicious?

I never knew the depth of what went into making cheese sauce when I shoveled pretzel bites dipped into my mouth at the movie theater. The only thing I knew for sure before last week was that nacho cheese sauce tastes good, always.

It didn't take long before I realized there's a reason for that when I went to work at Gehl Foods in Germantown, where the cheese sauce is made locally from scratch.

Gehl's builds cheese dispensers, makes cheese sauce, coffee drinks, pudding and nutritional shakes from scratch at a plant in the village. They gave me an inside look at how they make their products - while putting me to work to help build and test them.

Yes, I said, test them. My day culminated with taste-testing nacho cheese and a slew of other products. It was, to say the least, amazing.

Introduction to power tools

It all started in the warehouse, where cheese dispensers are assembled by hand. Not having used power tools before in my life, this became quite the learning experience. Naturally, I let out a powerful, manly Tim Taylor grunt the second the power screwdriver made a noise. Fortunately, unlike in "Home Improvement," no one got hurt when I used it.

I was taught by Cheryl Pechstein, who has worked for Gehl's for more than a decade. It was a blessing she was patient. Using a power tool to screw pieces together really is not as easy as she made it look. But, whenever I got frustrated, she would calmly say, "It's all about repetition, you'll get it."

I assembled every piece of a dispenser that day. In the time it took me to do one, Cheryl could have completed five. Everything from the heater and insulation to ensuring the wires connect properly and the dispenser works the way it should, is done locally at Gehl's. I do believe I have a career in power tools at some point in my life, all thanks to Cheryl.

Before the cheese sauce even reaches a dispenser, it goes through rigorous inspections in the quality assurance department. I was able to inspect a batch of cheese sauce from the base ingredients to final form testing. Safety is the number one priority at the plant. Each product takes more tests than a high school senior.

Much of the day working at Gehl Foods was not spent making the products - they have machines for that - it was about ensuring the safety of every product that leaves the factory walls. In fact, there is an advanced system in place that bars any product from leaving unless it is approved for safety, and quality.

Each batch of cheese is tested from the PH levels in the starch at the beginning of making a batch to the very end of a product when it is sealed in a foil bag. The sauce from one batch is tested at different stages. I was able to step into the shoes of a tester, first checking the starch to make sure it was at the proper levels before being used to create a product. I also tested the PH levels of the cheese in two different stages of making it - once in the middle of the process and then, the final product.

Taste testing is a perk

At the end of it, I got to take a hearty spoonful of cheese sauce to make sure the taste was right. I think all companies should give their employees a spoonful of nacho cheese to award them for a job well done. It made my day better anyway.

Gehl's saved the best for last when they took me to the R&D lab, where new product flavoring is conducted. Did you know there is a whole spectrum of strawberry flavors? This flavor spectrum is used as a guide in the lab, led by Research and Development Manager John Groth. Flavoring is not as simple as strawberry vs. blueberry and it takes a very keen sense of detail to emerge with a specific flavor.

Lastly, they let me taste coffee drinks preserved in two different containers, including French vanilla, mocha and creamy low fat coffee. We had to see if the containers changed the flavor of the drinks, while checking for color and consistency of the product. The same flavors did taste differently depending on the container, though to me, they all tasted great either way.

Gehl's opened my eyes to many things I never thought twice about. Next time I go to a movie I will know a lovely woman named Cheryl built the dispenser, and great detail and care went into making the cheese sauce I love so much.

WHY THIS JOB IS TOUGH

work with numbers, such as PH levels, when testing product

strict rules must be followed to produce a safe and quality food

attention to detail

WHY THIS JOB IS FUN

you can use power tools

taste testing cheese

kind employees

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