Sonoma Creamery diversifies into snack market

Sonoma Creamery, which introduced Hot Pepper Jack cheese to the world four decades ago, has released its first natural cheese snack product.|

Sonoma Creamery, which introduced Hot Pepper Jack cheese to the world four decades ago, has released its first natural cheese snack product.

Nearly three years ago, a new group of owners bought the 83-year-old company and expanded the staff. This spring Sonoma Creamery unveiled its new product, Mr. Cheese O’s, a crunchy, gluten-free snack made with various cheeses, organic quinoa and no artificial ingredients.

President/CEO John Crean said he hopes the natural snack will be a game changer for the company.

“There’s so much interest in this type of food now,” he said. “This is no longer a niche thing. People want it.”

Founded in 1931, Sonoma Creamery counts itself among three early North Bay cheese companies still in operation today. The three, including Marin French Cheese Company outside Petaluma and Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma, have been joined by more than two-dozen other producers that in the past 15 years have put Sonoma and Marin counties on the map for artisan cheeses.

Sonoma Creamery takes credit for creating the original Sonoma Jack and Hot Pepper Jack cheeses. The latter was developed in the 1970s.

In 2005, the company was purchased by a subsidiary of Korean food giant Pulmuone. Then in late 2011, Crean led a group of about a dozen investors to buy Sonoma Creamery.

Crean previously was a co-founder of Winery Exchange, a Novato-based company that created private brands and bottled wine for major retailers. He remains an investor in that company, but set out to purchase a food enterprise with a good brand and a strong following in the marketplace. That search led him to Sonoma Creamery.

Since taking over, Crean and the other new owners have grown the staff from six to 25 full- and part-time workers. The company, based on Eighth Street East in Sonoma, doesn’t release financial details but distributes its cheeses throughout the U.S., and does a good business in Asia, said Crean.

“The Asian market is very brand conscious,” he said, adding that products with the name “Sonoma” have come to be deemed premium.

Among the local stores carrying Mr. Cheese O’s are G&G Supermarkets, Oliver’s Markets, Sonoma Market, Fircrest Market and Big John’s Market.

G&G CEO Teejay Lowe predicted customers will love the snack food.

“They really hit it out of the ballpark,” he said.

G&G is selling the 1-ounce package of Mr. Cheese O’s for $2.29. The product comes in four flavors.

G&G has worked with Sonoma Creamery for more than 40 years, Lowe said. He has seen how favorably customers responded when the company introduced new products, such as jack cheeses flavored with habañero or other peppers.

“They’re not just cheese makers,” Lowe said. “They’re cheese innovators.”

Along with the new snack offering, Sonoma Creamery plans to add an organic line of cheeses.

With so many local artisan cheeses available, Crean said he’s hoping the new products will prompt consumers to “give us another look.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or

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