Working In a Cheese Factory

Back in college, I remember getting a call from my best friend, Anthony.

It was about to be summer of my Junior year studying Finance.

I was living in a house with seven other dudes. The end of one of the most fun years of my life.

The previous summer, I was building custom cabinetry for this guy Jerry in a hot garage. He taught me everything I needed to know as I had never done anything like that before.

I made tons of mistakes and ruined plenty of projects from over sanding.

The summer before that, was spent cutting grass for the Bloomingdale Park District. $8/hr for carrying a gas powered weed wacker all day. The only plus here was it got me in great shape topped off with a nice tan.

But this summer was going to be different and my biggest challenge yet.

Anthony told me has an in for a high paying job for the both of us and asked me to come live with him in Green Bay for the summer. As soon as he told me how much money I’d be making ($14 per hour), I was in. I didn’t care what the job was or the fact that I would be a Bears fan living amongst cheese heads.

“What is the job?” I asked him.

Anthony replied, “Were going to be making cheese.”

Figuratively and literally. Instantly I was shocked, but then I thought that would be the greatest thing ever.

I love cheese! This would be a whole new challenge.

Anthony ended driving us both up to Green Bay from our parents house outside of Chicago. We grew up one street over from each other.

When I got there, he showed me around the apartment and my sleeping quarters (aka the living room couch). Worked for me.

This was when I discovered that there was one alteration to the original plan. Anthony and I would not be working on the same shift. Bummer. Probably the best because we do have a track record for being mischievous together.

We’d also be working at different locations. And since I didn’t have a car up there with me, he was gracious enough to let me borrow his scooter to drive.

We toured the factory and watched the processes, and I was fascinated by what I saw. A piece of cake. We filled out the paperwork and got our start date.

“You got this?” Anthony asked me.

He was referring to the route to get to the factory. Keep in mind that this is 2004, before I could just open up my phone and look at Google Maps.

“Sure.”

Day number one…

I got assigned the early shift. Meaning a 30-minute scooter ride in the pitch black through country roads at 3am. The first day started with me panicked and getting lost. Eventually I found my way.

Now, you may find interesting how the cheese making process works…

It starts by heating up milk in a giant vat the size of a small swimming pool. Once the milk reaches a certain temperature, you add in the whey and the milk begins to curd. Ever see the rubbery “cheese curds” for sale in stores in Wisconsin?

Yeah, just like that. Except they are warm and soft when you first make them.

As the milk coagulates into the curd, it separates from the whey and the cheese leaves the vat on a conveyer belt down to a giant rolling table.

That is where my job came into play. I would sit there with about twenty cylinders that are about a foot high and open on each end. They have holes all through them.

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So what happens is that as the curd comes down the conveyor, it was my job to guide it into the cylinders almost to the top then slide them out of the way and bring the fresh ones into position to be filled.

I learned the hard way that you cannot mess this up. Or you will have a giant mound of curd on your table and many people calling you an idiot.

As the cheese sits in the cylinders, the whey drains out of the holes into the table, and the table has slanted gutters so the whey runoff collects in a bucket. The cheese companies sell the whey for various things like farming and animal feed.

Once the vat is empty of the curd, you are sitting there have a table with cylinders full of a warm giant cottage cheese leaking whey everywhere.

The next step again I would horribly mess up and get called out for.

We needed to flip the cylinders to allow the curd to drain more and settle into the cylinder mold. It’s like having a damp sand inside a mold.

You have to tuck your hand under the bottom to support the curd from falling out, and then flip it without it spilling everywhere since the top and bottom are both open.

The weight of the cheese packs itself down, and it gets stronger and begins to form a wheel after a few flips.

This is just the beginning. Once the cheese is formed, and the whey has completely drained, you have a pretty firm wheel the size of a stack of dinner plates.

You cart this to a room that feels like entering a pool house. It’s like twenty of these long two-foot wide lap pools full of a yellowish salt water brine. I’d drop the wheels in there and let them bob up and down as they soak.

After the soak is complete, they are pulled out and transported to the coolers to age.

If you don’t know how blue cheese is made, I suggest you stop reading now as this may ruin it for you.

There were 30, 60, and 90-day coolers where the wheels would be sent.

They sit in open air racks. Tons of them and just age in the cooler. Since the cheese is not completely solid from the curd being pressed together, there are little gaps in the cheese which are where the pockets of mold form in the blue cheese.

And a nice layer of smelly goodness on the outside of the cheese.

The 30-day coolers I could handle. But, the 90-day coolers smelled like a gym locker of a teenage boy who never showers.

The guys said you get used to it over time, but I couldn’t get out of the coolers fast enough once the cheese hit the racks.

After the cheese finished aging, it would get packaged in a foil and ready for shipment. I don’t remember if they dipped these in a wax as I remained more on the “get soaked from head to toe in whey” side of things.

It was laborious back breaking work. Huge vats and hundreds of wheels of cheese being produced daily.

The days were long, and I worked there for three days before I started to develop a serious back pain. It probably didn’t help that I was sleeping on a couch either.

I understood what it felt like to feel useless after work. I just want to shower and not do anything.

All while Anthony got the fun job of making mozzarella on normal hours. 😉

After several days of being covered head to toe in whey and almost having the scooter break down on me in the middle of nowhere, I decided I could not do this anymore.

As much as I like the idea of making cheese, I clearly was not cut out for this work. It was one of those jobs to pay the bills.

I had the utmost respect for the people that worked here. How can they do this for ten and twenty years? It gave me a whole new appreciation for their work and how they enjoyed themselves. There is no job too low for someone. For many of them, this was their art.

While learning the craft of cheesemaking was not my art, I appreciate what this experience taught me. Even going as far to making cheese at home.

But, I knew I was wasting my talents. Wasting my gift.

I noticed how unpleasant I was to be around when I hated what I was doing. I even decided to leave to head back to Chicago.

Anthony and I laugh about this experience today. I am incredibly grateful that he got me to do this. I often reflect on this experience. That was one thing that is part of my journey that got me to where I am today.

What we must understand is that if something is not our gift, we do the world a disservice for just staying the course. If I stayed the course, I’d stuck or feeling trapped living an uninspired life. One that spills over into all the people around me.

When we understand our gifts and are able to do what we love, you are giving the greatest gift to the world. You are inspired, and your bucket is full and spills over like the whey from the cheese.

Everyone can feel it.

Staying the course for a paycheck is not worth it. Maybe in the short run to solve your problems. Over time, the “what if” will suck the life right out of you which is probably the cause of many mid and quarter life crisis.

This is something that I learned and continued to relearn the hard way. I find it amazing that so many successful people give this advice that you need to have your heart fully into something to feel fully alive.

I’ve noticed how doing the things I hate in business brings down everyone around me. One gift I have and what I truly feel has made my businesses successful is the realization that I am not good at a lot of stuff.

So it forces me to find great people and delegate the things that suck the life out of me, but bring joy to others doing it.

When I hone in on the things I love and avoid working in my business, I feel unstoppable. Tingling from head to toe.

By lifting ourselves up, we lift up everyone around us.

This is something you can start now. Even if it is a little bit per day. If you are in a job or business you hate, what will it take for you to love it? How can you breathe life into what you are doing?

Maybe it is staying up a little later to work on something that brings your joy or allows you to express yourself. Or meeting some new people who are bleeding inspiration.

Whatever it is, the world needs it. We need you to shine. We need that energy that everyone knows you have deep within you. It is infectious.

By robbing the world from our gifts, the whole world suffers.

When we hone in on our gifts, we not only lift ourselves up but everyone whom we encounter.

That is how we change the world.