Sue Kesey is co-founder of Springfield Creamery, and a true pioneer in the organic dairy industry. In 1960, freshly married and recently graduated from Oregon State, Sue and her husband Chuck Kesey opened the doors of a humble creamery in Chuck’s hometown, Springfield, Oregon. What began as a fluid milk bottling operation—bottling and delivering milk in real glass jugs—grew into a thriving organic dairy brand that distributes an array of products throughout the 50 United States, Canada and Asia. Ever heard of Nancy’s Yogurt? You have Sue and Chuck Kesey to thank for it.
Sue is modest about her involvement in the organic industry, although over half a century of devotion to the natural foods sector is certainly nothing to downplay. “We were fortunate the we hit the ground with our products at the very time that everyone was looking for exactly that,” says Sue of the success that Springfield Creamery has enjoyed. However, it wasn’t always easy. For all that they were the first creamery to add probiotics to their yogurt in the United States, and the first organic yogurt produced in Oregon, being a visionary can be difficult. “When we kind of stepped out of fluid milk and launched into doing yogurt, there was not a lot of money available to do that, it was a major step,” shares Sue, continuing “it was definitely challenging.”
The organic industry is indebted to Sue and Chuck (and some of their benefactors like musician Huey Lewis, and the iconic band the Grateful Dead—listen to the full episode for those stories. They’re too good to miss!) for persevering in the face of adversity. Springfield Creamery suffered a devastating setback in 1994 when an electrical short caused a fire in their creamery. Sue says that “there are things that happen in your life that are markers,” and ultimately the fire allowed the Keseys to build a new facility. “With this brand new creamery we had built we were able to step into the next era of cultured milk dairy, which was organics.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Sue Kesey of Springfield Creamery and Nancy’s Yogurt
Air Date: October 2, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and today is a very special day because I get to talk to my friend Sue Kesey, who is cofounder of Springfield Creamery. Welcome, Sue!
SUE KESEY: Thank you, Theresa, I’m pleased to be here.
TM: For our listeners, I’ve known Sue for so long and she’s a dear friend and someone who, you will see, I have just so much adoration for. When Sue and I got going, Sue had already been in the dairy industry for a long time, but I do want to point out that Sue is a pioneer and leader in the natural and organic food space. And Sue’s also was the first organic yogurt to be made in Oregon, and of course Springfield Creamery, which is very well known for Nancy’s—well, I always call it Nancy’s Honey Yogurt, but it’s now just Nancy’s Yogurt, right, Sue?
SK: Yep, that’s right.
TM: Sue has been in this industry—what is it, 50 years now, Sue?
SK: Well, probably 56 years.
TM: Fifty-six years! Whoa!
SK: Yep, yep. A long time!
TM: A long time. And to meet Sue and see her energy and her passion, you’d say, “Wow, 56 years.” I know that you and Chuck got married and dove right into the dairy industry. Can you tell us a little bit what that was like?
SK: Well, yes, we did definitely dive right in shortly after we were married. My husband, Chuck, was a creamery kid; his dad was in the creamery business, and so Chuck grew up in creameries. And he attended Oregon State University in dairy technology, and that’s where we met, at Oregon State. We got married and didn’t know for sure what we were going to do but were pretty much handed this, a gift, by my father-in-law, Chuck’s dad. They needed another processing operation in 1960, the end of 1960, to set up and package milk in glass gallon bottles. His plant didn’t have room for that packaging machinery at that time, and there was a creamery in Springfield that was empty. So we worked together with my father-in-law and set up a plant that just, all we did was run gallon jugs of milk.
As we went along, though, we knew that just packaging fluid milk was not going to be exactly what we were going to hang our hat on for our life. And we kind of were fond of this little creamery and working for ourselves and working with our friends, as we always said—friends and family. And when Chuck attended Oregon State in dairy technology, his major professors were very much involved in looking at the values and benefits of acidophilus. That culture was being used in the veterinary side of the world for baby calves to keep them healthy. And his microbiology major professor said, “You know, Chuck, if you’re going to get into business you should really consider a product that you could put acidophilus in. It’s a beneficial bacteria that people could have.” And that stuck with him—Chuck did a lot of research papers on acidophilus when we were in college.
So toward the end of around 1969, we were really looking for an additional direction to move, and we really wanted to do cultured dairy products. There was just no question. And what was happening in the perfect storm at that time was kind of the counterculture revolution, the movement toward “back to the land,” the movement toward changing the foods you were eating, looking for clean, new, exciting foods that were not processed—you know, not white bread, so to speak. There was the Vietnam War protest going on, there was so much happening in 1969 and ’70.
And the other thing that happened was that Nancy Cameron came to work for us as our office secretary. And she had been making yogurt at home for a while, and she and Chuck hit it off immediately. And Chuck says, “Well, you know, I want to make yogurt—that’s what we need to do. And I want to put acidophilus in it.” And Nancy said, “Okay, let’s work on this.” And she was, is still, such a creative and positive influence for us. Nancy worked for us for 45 years; she is retired except for the fact that she comes in, oh, an afternoon or so a week and helps out in the office with her replacement. Nancy is just delightful to still be in our mix.
TM: I can’t believe you let her retire before you did!
SK: Ha! Well, everybody decided I was never going to retire, and if they were going to do it, they were going to have to do it on their own, because I was hopeless.
So about early 1970, January, I guess, we had some yogurt that we thought was really pretty good that we’d created. And so there were little co-op stores and new natural food stores opening up all over the place—especially in Eugene, which was kind of a little microcosm of counterculture, et cetera.
TM: I should stop right here and let our listeners know that Springfield is just a little town outside of Eugene, Oregon.
SK: Right across the river; the Willamette River divides us. And so we had an opportunity right here in our area to test-market, so to speak, our yogurt. So we went to this wonderful store, Willamette People’s Co-op, and everybody loved it—“Make more, do more!” So, this is kind of where it started.
We also had connections in the Bay Area, in San Francisco, and that was another, where these new stores were opening and people were looking for product. There were no products to put on these shelves of these stores, and so there it was. And we had another friend who was making runs between Eugene and San Francisco, and he said, “Well I could be taking yogurt to San Francisco and we could distribute it down there. I have a partner down there.” And I said, “Well, who’s that?” He said, “Well it’s a guy named Huey Lewis—he’s trying to be a songwriter and a performer and he does gigs, but he needs another job.” And I said, “Oh, well that sounds good.” So Huey Lewis was our distributer in the Bay Area in the early ’70s, which is very neat. He always tells me that he wrote “Working for a Living,” one of his great songs, while he was driving his truck down to Santa Cruz to deliver yogurt.
So that’s how we got started in the cultured dairy industry. And we actually expanded that market up and down the West Coast and into the Rocky Mountain areas in the ’70s. We made more products, we did cottage cheese, we did kefir.
TM: The most delicious kefir.
SK: And full fat and low fat and non-fat yogurt. So we were operating out of this pretty small plant right in downtown Springfield, and we were getting a little bit too big for that spot. So we found a spot in Eugene, across the river from Springfield, in Eugene out toward the airport.
TM: Listen, listen, before we got to Eugene, though, can you back up just a little bit? Didn’t you just also have a little health food store for a while in Springfield?
SK: We did, we did.
TM: Because I remember the first time I came to visit you, you had…people were playing pool in a health food store.
SK: Yes indeed. It was the Health Food and Pool Store. The reason we started the Health Food and Pool Store, a lot, mostly was because we had people coming into the office and wanting to buy yogurt, and we said, well gee, that isn’t working—let’s put it… We could just do a little store right next door, because we had a space that was actually the employee break room but it was too big for that, so we could arrange that differently. And they said, “Well, what are we going to do about the pool table?” We had this wonderful old Brunswick pool table in the break room. So the Health Food and Pool Store started in, I believe, in August of 1970 and operated for 17 years.
And it probably would have continued to operate if we hadn’t moved our creamery to Eugene. And once kind of we were separated from that, the store really wasn’t quite strong enough to stand on its own without the support of all the employees of the creamery,. who were some of its better customers.
TM: Who were playing pool!
SK: Yep. And so anyway, that was our adventure in retailing, and that was good—we liked the store.
TM: Well, I just love the name Health Food and Pool. Still, and also in between that time, a lot of us older folks do remember the ’60s as quite a time of change for us, of excitement, of everything kind of being turned upside down, and when we stopped teasing our hair and things like that. But it wasn’t always very rosy for you. I know that in the early 1970s you were pretty, still struggling to make ends meet.
SK: Well, that’s exactly right, Theresa. I mean, this was a financially hard time. I mean, we really—we were doing okay, but when we launched, when we kind of stepped out of fluid milk and launched into doing yogurt, there was not a lot of money available to do that. It was a major step.
TM: There weren’t even a lot of stores that even sold that kind of yogurt yet either.
SK: No, it was definitely challenging. Actually, in 1972, we were looking around for, we were going to have to find some benefactor here somewhere to tide us over. And somebody said, “Well, you all know the Grateful Dead. Why don’t you ask them if they’d do a benefit concert for the creamery?”
TM: And how was it you got to know the Grateful Dead? I think some of our listeners out there might like to know.
SK: Well, this all goes back to our last name is Kesey. My husband’s brother is Ken Kesey, the author. And Ken, of course, knew the Grateful Dead from his time in the Bay Area, and they were friends. So that was kind of the connection. And so Chuck and Ken’s brother-in-law, actually, went down to San Rafael and talked to them and said, “Well, what would you think about coming to Eugene and doing a concert?” And they said, “Well, that sounds good to us—we’ll do that.” And it was almost as simple as that, in reality, for the agreement.
And then we had to figure out how to promote a concert, because we really had not ever done that part. We did that, and in August of 1972 there was this wonderful event that happened, and there were, I don’t even know how many people they decided were really there, and it’s now considered one of the classic concerts that the Grateful Dead did. And it was filmed and actually is available on, I think, maybe even on YouTube called Sunshine Daydream. But as it turned out, there was money came from that concert that actually did tide us over the hump we were at and we just kept moving forward.
And we were fortunate that we hit the ground with our products at the very time when everybody was looking for exactly that. I don’t think that we could have timed that any better. The demand was there; we were making a product that was exactly what this group, this new wave of consumers, was looking for. We were very fortunate, and we all grew into the natural foods industry together. It grew, we grew with it. We rode that wave all the way through until now. I always go back and look at those early days and think about how magical that was, that our timing was perfect, so to speak. Chuck’s timing was perfect because he’s always kind of the one that has his finger on the pulse of what is needed, what people are looking for.
TM: The one thing I know about Chuck is he is such a chemist, and how fascinated he is with probiotics. And in 1969, no one even had probiotic in their vocabulary.
SK: No, no, they didn’t. And that word was really not even a word. But we did put acidophilus culture in our yogurt from the very beginning and probably, I’m sure, were the first people to ever do that. And we have continued that, of course, to this day and we have added, as we went along, additional probiotics.
TM: I have to ask you this—my early memories of coming into the Health Food and Pool Store afterwards, after you moved, that it was closing time and it was five o’clock, and here walked in Chuck, and he opens up the cooler door, pulls out a quart of yogurt, sticks a spoon in it, and tastes it and goes, “Yup, this is done.” And am I wrong that he did that, like, every night?
SK: Yeah, for many, many years. And, I mean, that is still what we do. Each incubator is its own little pod of cultured products and it is on…you are timed—it’s a timing thing. You know about when you inoculate and when it should be ready, and we do taste all the yogurt. Chuck doesn’t do all of them anymore, but he still does quite a few. So we still have a team and we still are checking each incubator for quality every day.
TM: Well, you know the other thing that I really wanted to ask you, and I feel foolish doing this because I’ve been eating your yogurt for so long you would think that I would know if there’s any difference. Besides adding probiotics, though, isn’t it pretty much the same yogurt that you were making in 1969?
SK: It is. We have not, in essence, have not changed our recipe. We only made one yogurt at that time, which was Nancy’s Honey Yogurt. It was the full-fat yogurt sweetened with honey. We still make that product today—it is the original. The only thing we really change is the fat content. We’ve made low fat, we’ve made non-fat, we’ve made some with vanilla. We do…the other signature things we made were we cook all our own fruit, because back in 1969–’70 we couldn’t buy fruit for yogurt that didn’t have sugars and stabilizers and colors and so forth. And we said, well, we’re just going to buy regular fruit and process it ourselves—make our own fruit.
So we did that, and we made little fruit on the top—we were the first people to ever do a two-package yogurt, where we have a fruit cup attached to the yogurt. And we made thousands and thousands of those over the years. And we still do quite a few of them still today—it’s kind of evolved, but we still do them. And it’s kind of one of the unique things we did over the years that nobody else is doing. I think we were probably ahead of our time. But the reason we did a separate fruit cup is that we didn’t want to put a stabilizer in the fruit, which you have to do if you’re going mix your fruit and milk together. So we just separated it, and that was our solution to being able to offer fruit and yogurt. Now we do it both ways—we do use some stabilizers in some of our products for fruit, but stabilizers now are much, much, much friendlier than they were in 1970.
TM: You know, Sue, you were very innovative to do that, and what a delicious product.
SK: Yes, people just love stirring their own fruit into the yogurt—they love doing that.
TM: It’s a whole different taste, it’s just so delicious. But, you know, I’ve always been so impressed about how wonderful your employees are when you walk in there. You feel like this is family, not just the family members who work there but just everyone. I bet you have very low turnover and that you’ve had people who worked for decades—am I right?
SK: Yes, you’re right about that. And the shocking thing is that we have had 11 people retire, and the majority of them had worked well over 30 years.
TM: This is in 56 years?!
SK: It’s been an amazing evolution, you know? To see—there’s only two people still working who also worked at the old creamery in Springfield. So we evolved all that out and it’s pretty interesting. It’s kind of amazing when you think about it—it’s amazing to me. But we’ve got new people coming in, great new people. We have a wonderful crew. And the most exciting thing for me is that we’ve continued on with involving our family, with our son and our daughter being integral, and now there’s two grandsons that are integral. And it’s very exciting, it gives me great pleasure. And it is the reason that I come to work every day, because I love working with my family. I think if our family had not joined us in the creamery, Chuck and I probably would’ve made different decisions 10 or 15 years ago about what we were going to do. We probably wouldn’t still be working at our age.
TM: Well, you know, I don’t want to leave this conversation without at least talking about after you moved, wow, you had a devastating fire.
SK: We did, yeah.
TM: While you were talking about your community and your friends, I think this is when they really came to the rescue, didn’t they?
SK: That’s exactly right, Theresa. You know, there are things that happened in your life that are markers, and the one marker with this fire was definitely a marker. It happened in 1994. It was an electrical short, evidently, that started this fire in the storage area for the creamery that was actually on the second floor. We were, obviously, out of business there for a period of time. So the new creamery was rebuilt…we actually built around us while we were processing—it was kind of challenging also. And it was just about a year that we were back in—we had offices that were not a trailer out in the parking lot—you know, that we were back together.
It was definitely an eye-opening experience and a humbling experience where people just…you know, many of the stores just put signs on the shelves with the picture—we’d sent people a picture of the fire, what it looked like—and they said, “Creamery will be back soon, and we’re waiting and we’ll just leave it there.” We even had, people left the shelves empty in some places. And when we reintroduced our product that had been missing for almost a year, they just stepped right back up again and got themselves right back to where they were. And that was amazing.
And you know, at that time, Theresa, is when the organic movement in dairy was starting also. So it was—with this brand new creamery we had built, we were ready to take, we were able to then kind of step into the next era of dairy, cultured-milk dairy, which was organic.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sue Kesey, cofounder with her husband, Chuck, of the Springfield Creamery, known for Nancy’s Yogurt. We were just starting to talk about, in the ’90s, in the beginning of organic dairy. And, Sue, I’m correct, you were the first organic in Oregon, weren’t you?
SK: I believe so, Theresa, I’m sure we were. I’m sure we were the first people, and that would’ve been in 1995, I guess. And so we’re at…what are we at now…22 years and moving on.
TM: What really always struck me about how wonderful the yogurt is, is that you were very picky about where you got your milk and what the cows were. Were you just always like, “No, it had to be Jersey milk”?
SK: Well, we were pleased to get Jersey milk because that gave us also wonderful milk for whole milk yogurt, but it also gave us, when we used that milk and made non-fat or low-fat of it—you know, you separate your milk and pull the cream off—and then it gave us wonderful cream to go into our other products, our sour cream and cream cheese. So there was a lot of positive things there for the quality of the product that you’re going to make. And we found that these great Jersey cows and Guernsey cows really did produce high-quality milk that was wonderful to find.
TM: And also, you always have wanted to have relationships with your producers, your farmers, haven’t you, Sue? Like you know many of your, where your milk comes from, and you know those farmers.
SK: And it’s been great, indeed, getting to know them, the organic farmers, and following their passion for producing and operating organic farms. They are so dedicated and so pleased with the results they get. So many of these dairy farmers had been farming for a long time, and they were conventional dairy farms and decided that they were going to make a change to organic, and went through the process of doing that and becoming certified as organic farms, and found that as they did that, they had healthier cows and healthier baby calves and happier cows. And it was eye-opening for them, and I think that that’s kind of been what has been found across the board for people that have converted to organic production, that it’s just working better.
TM: I think what I read was that you had loyal customers who moved east and were begging for the product, and so that’s why you finally—you were a West Coast yogurt for so long, and now you’re actually a national yogurt.
SK: That’s right. And it was really that—it was as our customers moved around the country, as people do, and especially maybe second-generation customers moving to new jobs and new places, that said, “Gee, what am I going do? I can’t find Nancy’s Yogurt here.” And so we reached out and have an established distribution across the country, and it works well. We do have that ability to tell people, “Well, you might have to drive a little farther, but I think this store down the road there has our product.” So it’s great.
TM: Well, as I look at Springfield Creamery today and I see the kind of values that you have around family and community and workers and living, I think about those ’60s days and all the things that we wanted to do better and different. And I want to just thank you because I think you are a super model for all the things we wanted to do better, and you’re actually doing it, and it’s such a pleasure to be talking with you.
SK: Well, thank you very much, Theresa. I’ve enjoyed this, and it’s always wonderful to talk with you.
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