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Prospective owner has game-changing plans for Thornloe Cheese

Triple "A" Cheese CEO leaning on government support to revive Temiskaming cheese processor
Triple "A" Cheese-supplied conceptual of the new digs for Thornloe Cheese

Triple “A” Cheese president-CEO Stefano Camaiani said he was surprised to see media reports last fall about the sudden closing of the Thornloe Cheese factory.

In reading about the strong and loyal following the Temiskaming region dairy processor enjoyed, the iconic brand, and its place as a regionally identified Highway 11 landmark business, Camaiani placed a call to his former employer, Gay Lea Foods, to query about its availability.

“I love seeing the passion of it. That’s what made me want to do this,” said Camaiani. “I think it’s amazing that everybody rallied behind the cheese company.”

This week, Thornloe Cheese owner Gay Lea Foods announced it had signed a non-binding letter of intent to sell the shuttered Thornloe Cheese factory and storefront to Triple “A” Cheese of Mississauga, one of Canada’s largest feta cheesemakers.

While it’s an exciting development for many in the region, and the latest white knight in a string of many saviours of the northeastern Ontario cheese factory outlet, the tentative agreement is contingent on Triple “A” securing financing to build a new plant in a different location. 

If a deal can be consummated by 2025, Triple “A” would acquire the plant assets, its critical milk supply quota, the brand name and the cheese recipes.

“I really hope we can make this all happen,” said Camaiani, who wants to expand the business to ensure its longevity for many generations to come.

The doors unexpectedly were locked by Gay Lea Foods on the popular and award-winning cheese factory last October. Gay Lea attributed the closure to the antiquated state of the factory and its overall performance that reversed a corporate decision to upgrade the facility.

The condition of the former plant had deteriorated to a point that it wasn’t salvageable. 

Mike Langdon, Gay Lea’s vice-president of corporate and co-operative affairs, said equipment was decades old, had been patched up many times, and pinholes were starting to appear in the machinery. A $10-million investment wasn’t palatable for Gay Lea given it's such a small plant with marginal profits.

“We both believe a new plant is needed to survive, and that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” said Langdon.

If successful in closing a deal, Camaiani promises to keep investing for many years to come.

Camaiani has some familiarity with Gay Lea Foods.

He worked at Salerno Dairy in Hamilton, a family-owned Italian cheesemaker, which was acquired by Gay Lea in early 2014. 

Camaiani stayed on for four years before resigning and making a successful bid to acquire Triple “A”  cheese at the end of 2018, growing that company from 20 employees inside a 20,000-square-foot plant to 100 employees in a 100,000-square-foot facility near Pearson Airport.

A self-described University of Wisconsin-educated “cheesehead,” who had been working on the processing side since his teens, Camaiani credits Gay Lea for making a personal investment in him, teaching him the other aspects of the business and the operation, beyond the cheesemaking process. 

With an eye on expansion, efficiency and daily improvement, Camaiani said he’ll bring the Triple “A” mindset and approach to Thornloe, promising constant reinvestment in the facility and the introduction of new product lines.

“We’re always looking to evolve and do better. We constantly make investments every year in our place to make it bigger and better. That’s the same thing we want to do at Thornloe.” 

And no worries, the Thornloe Cheese name will live on. Camaiani said Thornloe is a great brand that’s well respected in the market. Its product will continue to be sold under that brand.

”We’re just coming up here and making it bigger, better and stronger.”

If Triple “A” can secure financing for construction, a new plant would tentatively open in 2027 or 2028. Initially, the plant would require more than 100 people, double the milk processing workforce of the former operation. Camaiani didn’t rule out boosting that to more than 200.

For the Mississauga-based cheesemaker, Thornloe would be its first asset outside of the GTA.

In an interview, Camaiani spoke enthusiastically about an investment in excess of $30 million to build a “state-of-the’art” 50,000 to 70,000-square-foot cheesemaking factory in a new location, about a 10-minute drive from the existing Highway 11 plant and storefront, which would be converted into a cold storage warehouse.

How big the plant footprint would be depends on the size of the property they can acquire. A highly visible spot on the highway is preferred.

Camaiani couldn’t provide specific numbers as they are still in the beginning stage of breaking out the costs for equipment, the building and other things.

Conceptually, he envisions a modern cheese factory that’s an upscale tourist destination, drawing in visitors from across the region to a meet-and-greet space for wine-and-cheese gatherings, with party rooms, and an educational component offering plant tours for visitors and schoolchildren to view the whole processing cycle.

A fresh food store, coffee shop and deli restaurant would embrace the farm-to-table concept, making full use of what regional growers and producers can offer.

“We want to cater to everybody.”

In wanting to be hands-on in the community, Camaiani talked about finding a home in the area and committed to using as much local construction labour as possible.

As to what a financing package might look like by way of lenders, private equity and public funding, Camaiani was vague but he emphasized the need for government funders to get behind this venture.

Banks are less likely to backstop businesses making zero sales, he said. He’s hoping the strong regional backing can sway government funders to help fund plant construction.

“We’re starting from scratch. It’s not going to be easy and that’s why we need the support,” said Camaiani. 

“We wanna make an investment in Northern Ontario but we need the help to do that. But obviously it has to be win-win for everybody.”

Government funding programs do exist to support dairy processors, he said, as Triple “A” has accessed them before. But to tap into those programs, Camaiani has to eventually seal the deal on ownership.

While they’re meeting with funders to firm up support, Camaiani said they’re also on the hunt for additional milk quota to feed an expansion well beyond its current 10 million litres. 

“We would definitely love to double, quadruple that. As much milk as we could get, the better it is for us.” 

It’s tricky, he said, due to tight supply management rules, which could involve acquiring or leasing quota from someone who has it, and paying a premium for extra milk.

“Whatever we have to do. The plant is only as good as its milk output”

He made assurances that Thornloe’s milk quota will not leave the region. “We want it here and we want more.”

Camaiani said his level of confidence to piece together a plan is very high.

“Gay Lea Foods and Triple “A” Cheese are 1,000 per cent committed to making it happen. We’re putting in a lot of effort and trying our best.  

“I strongly believe we can do it. We wouldn’t be investing the time and energy that we are if we weren’t optimistic. There’s a lot of work to do and a variety of outcomes. We’re really going to hustle to try and make it happen.”