Savencia’s Sebastien Lehembre

For Sebastien Lehembre, senior marketing manager at Savencia Cheese USA, cheese didn’t start out as his purpose, but became a passion and a career by happenstance.

“Some people have a clear trajectory but, in my case, it was unexpected in a way, while such a part of my culture,” Lehembre says.

A subsidiary of Savencia Fromage & Dairy, Savencia Cheese USA’s story began in the 1970s, when French cheesemaker Jean-Noel Bongrain brought his skills to the U.S. The company’s high-end cheese brands include Alouette, Chavrie, Supreme, Dorothy’s and Smithfield, and imports such as Esquirrou, St. Andre, St. Agur, Etorki, Papillon, Chaumes and St Albray.

Here, Cheese Connoisseur delves into Lehembre’s history and journey into cheese.

CC: Tell me about your background.

S.L.: I was born in Paris and raised in Saint-Tropez in the French Riviera. My parents owned a fishing trip and tour company, and that was my youth. I grew up sailing and fishing. I worked for the family business throughout my mid-20s when I wasn’t studying in Dundee, Scotland. I received my undergraduate degree in marketing and then a Master’s in management from Abertay University. When school was out, I was always on the boat. A difficult childhood, you see.

In 2005, life took me to Charlottesville, VA. From a trip that was supposed to last two weeks, well, I never left. The immigration process was long and tedious, and at the time, I couldn’t leave the country or work, which gave me a lot of “me” time. During the mid-2000s, the housing market was booming. I bought a house, and basically redid it completely. As a result, the house was sold before it hit the market. I truly enjoyed the craft behind it and manual labor. There is a beginning and an end and you see the result of your hard work. At that point, I was legally allowed to work in the U.S., so I got my contractor’s license and started my own remodeling company, redoing kitchens and bathrooms. After a couple of years, the business was doing extremely well, but I wanted to do something else, something related to my degrees. (This was a good move in hindsight, as the housing market crashed a few months after in 2008!) I started looking for jobs outside Virginia, and that’s when I found cheese, or, rather, cheese found me.

CC: Where did your cheese career begin?

S.L.: At the time, it was called Groupe Bongrain and was renamed Savencia Fromage & Dairy. One of the U.S. subsidiaries was Schratter Foods, Inc. and Emma (Emmanuelle Hofer Louis), director of marketing at the time for ANCO Fine Cheese, hired me in December 2007. The company was looking for a product manager for their French cheeses, someone who had a marketing degree, spoke French, liked cheese and food, and that was me. The rest is history!

I was product manager for many years then, in 2012, Emma joined Alouette Cheese (another Savencia subsidiary in the U.S.), and I took her place as head of marketing for about two years. At that time, I supervised all the marketing functions and learned a ton about specialty cheese from France, Spain, Italy, The Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the U.S. I then had a world perspective.

CC: You left the cheese industry briefly during this time.

S.L.: After a couple of years, I briefly left the dairy industry for a stint in the wheat industry at Jacquet Brossard-Groupe Limagrain, where I was marketing and retail sales director. It was a job requiring more of a growth mindset. While the brand was extremely well established in France, it was totally new to the U.S. I crafted everything from the brand story and packaging to their sales proposition and leveraged many great broker relationships I cultivated back at ANCO to get their best items like waffles, bread and crepes, into over 2,000 stores.

At that time, I was still working the same trade shows as I was while at ANCO, including IDDBA (International Dairy Deli Bakery Association) and the Fancy Food Show, where you always bump into former co-workers. The cheese industry is very small and tightknit, and I ran into Emma, who was vice president of marketing at Alouette Cheese at the time. She was looking for the right person to lead the marketing of Savencia Fromage & Dairy’s iconic French imports, like St Andre, St Agur or St Albray, to name a few.

CC: So, you returned to the company, but it had changed.

S.L.: Indeed! I returned to Alouette Cheese in September 2015. We’ve since rebranded as Savencia Cheese USA, and I’ve been working in different marketing roles ever since. I started as senior brand manager and, in October 2020, became senior marketing manager. I cover a lot of areas, some marketing related and some less so. I say that I have a hybrid job: I focus on the soft-ripened cheese category (Brie & Camembert types) with brands like Supreme, Dorothy, St Andre and Ile de France and the blue cheese category, mainly St Agur and Papillon. I handle all of the importation of our cheeses, including Esquirrou, the World Champion cheese of 2018 and Etorki, Chaumes and St Albray. I also manage events and experiential—everything from trade shows to cheese competitions like ACS (American Cheese Society), the World Championship Cheese Contest, and World Cheese Awards. We sponsor the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers led by Roland Barthelemy quite often, and participate in events with the French consulate and embassy. We partnered with Daniel Boulud of restaurant Daniel in New York on an annual dinner dedicated to specialty cheese named Celebration du Fromage. Sadly, we had to cancel last year’s event due to COVID, but are eager to celebrate again at Daniel this year in October.

CC: What did you experience when the pandemic hit?

S.L.: It was a very disruptive year. A lot of deli counters in retail shut down because retailers didn’t want employees too close to customers; they wanted them healthy and filling shelves with necessities—remember the toilet paper frenzy of 2020? The deli counter was an afterthought. Specialty cheese in the U.S. is not (yet!) a necessity like it is in France. With COVID, consumers wanted to get in and out of the stores as fast as they could, so we saw a drop in sales, especially with imports that are cut in-store. I saw this change in consumer behavior as an opportunity; how could we bring comfort to people isolated at home during this crazy time?

CC: What was the result of this?

S.L.: That’s when Cheese Lover Shop — cheeselovershop.com — was born. I always wanted to develop an e-shop but other priorities took over this project, and in a way COVID pushed us to accelerate. We all saw e-commerce sky-rocking, and Amazon was cited in the press all the time for record-breaking sales.

After getting the green light from my CEO Dominique Huth, who has been a strong supporter of this project from the get-go, we launched this site in only six weeks, so it all went very fast. We spent a good part of the summer making sure all functionalities were working well and pushed sales for the first time during the 2020 holiday season. In the six months since the launch, we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response. I see and respond to all feedback, and I love hearing from delighted customers, both new and returning.

Along the way, we’ve added partners outside of Savencia, such as Beehive’s three cheddars, because their cheeses are complementary to ours. We’re constantly adding items into the mix. The most recent additions include jams, crackers and charcuterie, saucisson and jambon de Bayonne from D’Artagnan. We’re quickly becoming a one-stop shop for all cheese board needs.

We also recently started to support World Central Kitchen, a non-profit organization that uses the power of food to heal communities and strengthen economies in times of crisis and beyond. Its approach focuses on disaster relief and establishing long-term food resilience through comprehensive training programs. As a player in the global food industry, the Cheese Lover Shop has always been inspired by the communal power of food. For us, that means giving back to others in the food community and aiding in the development of lasting, impactful change. In order to accelerate industry-wide progress, the Cheese Lover Shop is proud to support World Central Kitchen by donating $1 for every order over $70. We are dedicated to fighting hunger across the U.S. and the world—and through this support, becoming a part of the solution.

CC: What makes the cheese industry unique?

S.L.: Cheese is the result of a terroir and people. Each cheese has a specific story whether new or old, we always have something new to learn. In a way, this is a craft in which we can express ourselves and share the experience with others. Cheese is a complete food, with calcium, protein and fat making it a very good source of nutrients. There are so many options, starting from the milk (cow, goat, sheep or buffalo mainly), the texture (hard and soft) or types (white bloomy rind, washed rind, blue, etc…) the possibilities are endless.

Also, when you talk to people outside the industry, “I work in cheese” is the perfect ice breaker. Who doesn’t love cheese? People are fascinated, thankfully, as I could talk about it all day. And I’m not alone; my industry colleagues and I are all passionate about what we do, the products we carry, the stories behind cheese. And that’s truly unique.

Finally, the evolution of the cheese industry in the U.S. since the early ‘80s has been drastic, and I’m not sure the rest of the world grasps just how much progress we’ve made. European countries used to be on top, and today, I am a believer that we’re as good if not better. The ascension of the cheese industry here reminds me of the wine industry back in the ‘70s. Who’s laughing now?

CC: Talk about Savencia’s Dorothy’s brand and how that was created.

S.L.: I remember back in 2016, our plant in Lena, IL, was struggling. But our faith in, and dedication to, the community motivated us to search high and low for a way to turn things around. I was talking with our president CEO, Dominique Huth, about learning the story of the plant and what was behind it. To move forward, you need to know where you’re coming from, he likes to say. We talked to employees who have been working at the plant for most of their career, and this is how we discovered Dorothy’s incredible story.

She was the granddaughter of European immigrants who moved to the Midwest in the late 1800s. In the ‘30s, Dorothy worked on the farm with her grandparents making Brie and Camembert when no one knew what Camembert was. She was the first woman to attend Iowa State University in the early ‘50s; no woman had been in the school’s dairy program till then. Dorothy met her husband Jim Demeter, a Greek exchange student, in the mid-50s at the university. He came to the U.S. a few years prior, as it was a safe haven during the Second World War. They both worked on Dorothy’s family farm, adding domestic feta because her Greek husband missed it. They were also amongst the first to create baby Swiss. When we heard Dorothy’s story, we realized one of her sons and her nephew still worked at the Kolb-Lena plant. There also were a handful of people who remember working with Dorothy as cheese­makers years earlier. When we finally met her, she was in her late 80s, and we talked about using her name and story. She was a very humble person, so her main request was to give some funding back to the Iowa State University dairy department. Sweetly, she also admitted she would not be able to help with sales, which we assured her we would handle and do her proud! She passed away about a year-and-half later. We are still very close to her children, and I often reach out to get new details about their incredible family history.

CC: But the story doesn’t end there.

S.L.: We then suggested doing an endowed scholarship with Iowa State University, and Savencia Cheese USA started this two years ago. It is dedicated to students who want to be in the dairy industry. We are also close with the Lena community, where our plant is based. We procured funding to the Lena-Winslow local high school to provide a new lab for their students a couple of years ago, and we meet with the local development team to further support the community and create jobs.

CC: Who do you consider a mentor?

S.L.: I have a few who came along the way. One has been Emma, since she is the one who indoctrinated me into the world of cheese, and our careers have evolved one next to the other. I have a profound respect for her as a person, her knowledge and our shared passion. Another I have a true admiration for is Dominique Huth, our current CEO. I remember Dominque’s first day at the office was the day we celebrated the 80th birthday of our iconic French brand Ile de France; I’d planned a dinner cruise for our most loyal customers around the New York Harbor, retracing the path of the Ile de France cruise liner, the first of its kind fitted with refrigeration allowing the importation of Brie for the first time to the U.S. back in 1936. I am not sure what his first impression was, but what a unique way to start in the USA and for me to make a first impression—let’s party! I’ve learned so much from him, his great vision, and unique ability to bring people together and move conversations forward.

Not surprisingly for people around me, I’d also name world-renowned fromager Roland Barthelemy; he and I have been friends ever since we went scouting in France for new cheese to launch under our Haute Fromagerie initiative—that’s our selection of specialty cheeses dedicated to high-end retail cheese shops—back in 2016. I remember being in Times Square when we launched Haute Fromagerie, and Roland was amazed to see himself on the big screens! A very emotional moment. We developed a strong relationship and friendship.

Part of my function is to sponsor some of the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers induction. Its mission is to bring people together, and it’s a great way to meet and get to know people from the specialty cheese industry. I was inducted into the Guilde in 2018, which was held in Pittsburgh during the ACS Conference. It was a surprise to me at the time because to my knowledge, we were there as sponsor to induct Dorothy Demeter. Her family came to receive her nomination since Dorothy wasn’t able to travel anymore, but then I was inducted too! I was in shock; it was such an honor.

More recently, I’ve been working with Rodolphe Lemeunier, one of the best cheese aging craftsmen, who opened my mind on cheese creation. We’ve been partnering together to find new experiences, new ways to elevate cheese. This is how we created the latest Dorothy’s flavors: Dorothy’s Diggin’ Truffles and Holy Smoke. We did some fun stuff, and we’ll do more in the near future, when we finally are allowed to travel again.

CC: What do you love best about cheese?

S.L.: Everything! With cheese you share a moment, you create an experience. And there’s always something new to learn, for me and others, and educating consumers is something I enjoy a lot.

CC: What do you want people to know about cheese?

S.L.: I’d start with the history of why cheese was created in the first place: to preserve milk in a time before refrigeration. Quite simply, the best way to keep milk was to make cheese! Also, why is there both soft and hard cheese? Hard cheese is made in the mountains during the summer when cows are grazing to provide food during harsh winters when there’s no more milk. In prairies and more temperate climates where cows graze outside and provide milk all year ‘round, farmers need to rotate milk much faster, so soft cheeses that don’t last as long work well. Behind every single cheese is a story. Even Roquefort was an accident with penicillium roquefortii, when it was left in a natural cave and blue mold formed. Also, people tend to be misled that cheese is unhealthy, when actually it contains protein and calcium, not just fat. Consuming a little of everything in proper portions is good for you!

CC: What is your favorite cheese?

S.L.: It depends on the time of day and mood of the week! With cheese it’s about variety and diversification, so to pick one is difficult. Also, as a Frenchman, I like my cheeseboard. It needs to have different types like cow, sheep and goat milk varieties as well as hard and soft cheeses of different colors with bloomy and washed rind included. I do enjoy blue cheese such as Roquefort (Papillon) or the Blues from my friend David Gremmel’s Rogue Creamery. I like the sharpness and versatility to make sauce or use it on pizza. I may be a bit biased, but Dorothy’s Comeback Cow is a favorite of mine… and others! It won the Specialty Food Association’s SOFI award for best new product, received the bronze medal at ACS two years in a row as well as a gold medal at the U.S. Cheese contest in the Soft Ripened cheese category. I do love a washed rind cheese like Epoisse Berthaut, and I have some great affinity with Vermont Creamery’s cheeses, especially Bijou.

CC: What future do you picture for the industry moving forward?

S.L.: I’m not sure we’ve yet seen all the ramifications of COVID. The struggle across the U.S., not just for the cheese industry but also for the farmers, is real. It’s not easy. Cheesemakers, especially those who bet purely on foodservice, may have to revisit their road to market. I hope all will rebound from this fast. A move towards sustainability and vegan are other trends we’ve seen rising over the past couple of years. People are looking for a solution to preserve the planet and be more responsible, so we need to double-down on communicating about all the positive factors around cheese and cheesemaking. There is a place to co-exist, and my role is to put the facts in front of consumers to remove misconceptions about dairy and the specialty cheese industry.

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