By Harley Buchholz
Recognized as an expert on cheese quality, both in her job and among cheese makers, Sandy Toney admits to not really knowing much about cheese before starting work 25 years ago in the quality assurance department at Masters Gallery Foods, Inc. Today, she's the company's leading expert on cheese quality and her expertise as a cheese judge is well known among the world's best cheese makers. She's been designated an assistant chief judge, one of the "red hats," for the World Championship Cheese Contest.
Hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and held every other year, the World Championships utilize 40 judges to smell and taste the approximately 2,500 entries from around the world. Only five had been designated to wear the red hats symbolizing the contest's overseers.
"I am the sixth," Toney says proudly, and the first woman to be awarded the red hat. Two of the red hats are chief judges, the rest are assistants. They get to choose the technical expert judges and administer instructions for the cheese types, grading and defects. Five or six other women are among the 40 regular cheese judges at the world contest.
"There's the A Team, the B Team and the Red Hats," Toney explains. "The A Team wears the white hats. They judge. The B Team sets up (for the contest.) They're the blue hats."
Toney is the first woman to gain the exclusive red hat since the contest began in 1957.
"I was pretty honored to be chosen," she says.
Masters Gallery recognized her expertise last fall by naming her vice president of corporate quality and product development and a corporate officer. The company is located in Plymouth, a community which at one time claimed the title of Cheese Capital of the World. It is one of the largest cheese suppliers in the U.S., handling over 400 million pounds of cheese annually.
A native of the area, Toney came to the corporate world later in life.
"One day as my daughter was getting on the school bus I said, 'I've got to do something with my life.'"
She was interested in food and nutrition so she enrolled in the Food Science program at Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, gained an associate's degree and found her first professional job at Masters Gallery. Cheese quality was her niche. After beginning in the quality assurance department, she "then progressed to grading and I started contest type grading."
In 2005, she was asked to judge the Wisconsin State Fair Blue Ribbon Cheese and Butter Contest and in 2007 she became a judge for the U.S. and World Championship Cheese contests. Along the way she continued her education, gaining a business administration degree from Silver Lake College at Manitowoc.
During the past year, Toney's quality team led Masters to receive three Best of Class awards from the World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest in the Sharp Cheddar, Aged Cheddar and Reduced Fat categories. Masters also received Best of Class in the Open Class Shredded category at the 2013 U.S. Cheese Championship for a Shredded Italian Blend. Over the last five years, the company's entries have won 20 cheese contest awards.
"There really is an art to making good cheese," says Jeff Gentine, executive vice president and a co-owner of Masters Gallery Foods. "For instance, not all cheddar is designed to age out; some just gets old." One of 12 licensed graders at Masters Gallery, Toney explains that cheddar cheese is graded every three months until it reaches the desired "medium," "sharp" or "extra sharp" flavor profiles.
She draws high praise from Gentine.
"She has great personality and spunk, probably the same traits that endeared her to my dad (the late Leonard "Butch" Gentine, who founded the company). Sandy met my dad while she was a waitress at a favorite local restaurant. She was going to school for food science and he was opening a new plant. He just knew she'd be a great addition to his team."
Toney had started waitressing when she was 14 and was still at it on that life-changing day when her daughter got on that school bus and she decided to go back to school.