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Cheese business has spread far and wide

From a small start at the Villanova Cheese Shop, Betts is now a $1 million family affair.

John Fissinger 3d, eldest son in the third generation, and his mother, Sue, weigh the cheese spread before shipping. She took over her mother’s business, founded in the 1970s, in 1980.
John Fissinger 3d, eldest son in the third generation, and his mother, Sue, weigh the cheese spread before shipping. She took over her mother’s business, founded in the 1970s, in 1980.Read more

When Betts McCoy whipped up her first flavored cheese spread at her Villanova Cheese Shop in the early '70s, few noticed or made much of its being all-natural.

Since then, an expanded line of those spreads has become the core business supporting the family's second and third generations.

And the all-natural content and fine, fresh taste of Betts cream-cheese spreads may just be the first thing that customers take note of when they find it in gourmet shops and in chains such as Genuardi's (Betts' first big customer 10 years ago), Trader Joe's (a six-year customer) and, come June, Giant Foods with 149 stores throughout the region.

Based in Pottstown, Betts' production has risen steadily as purchase orders for the spreads' chief ingredient, farm-fresh cream cheese, have gone from 500 to 10,000 pounds a month and sales have climbed to nearly $1 million annually.

No one knows better the tale of the little cheese spread that grew than Betts McCoy's daughter Sue, who grew up working weekends, holidays and summer vacations from the ninth grade on - along with her older sister Beth - at the shop their mother took over in 1969 and quickly developed as one of the area's best sources of fine cheeses.

Betts McCoy became an expert and educator on the subject of cheese. Sue, now 53, picked up that passion.

"The original herb-flavored spread was my mother's concoction, made in the early '70s when French Boursin was getting so expensive - something like $1.69. Now, of course, the five-ounce Boursin is nearly $10."

Betts spreads (seven ounces) are priced about $5.

"We called our version Betts Brew back then. But when we went public 10 years ago, we had to put ingredients on the label so we changed it to Herbs 'n Spices."

"The horseradish spread - we called it Crazy Horse in the store - became Cheddar Horseradish. Now it's our most popular spread. And the blue-cheese spread we used to call 'our secret' is now Blue Cheese 'n Herbs."

While it's not a seasonal business, Sue says, Betts Crab & Artichoke spread sells better in the summer, and the Cheddar Sherry business picks up through the winter holidays.

Early on, loyal customers helped spread word of her mother's homemade spreads.

"One year, a regular customer took some of our spreads to a friend's place in Kennebunkport, Maine," Sue recalled.

Soon after, a shop there called asking to stock the spreads, but shipping fresh product had yet to be planned. Instead, Sue says, "we packed up individual ingredients and shipped them north along with the directions for mixing."

When Sue McCoy met John Fissinger and started talking about cheese, the young man who would become her husband and business partner didn't quite catch the drift.

"I thought she worked at a hoagie shop," John said.

"She talked about cheese, and I was thinking Swiss, mozzarella and provolone."

By that time, Sue also was coaching field hockey and lacrosse and teaching athletics at Pennsylvania State University, her alma mater. (Betts, too, had taught athletics at area schools before going into the cheese business.)

When her mother retired in 1980, Sue took over, married and started a third generation now primed to take the business even further. John, a contractor, came onboard full-time, and the couple built Villanova Cheese into three Main Line shops - in Villanova, Paoli and Malvern - with a strong mail-order business, shipping cheese-centric gift packages.

While the Betts wholesale business grew, the cheeseshop business declined, largely because fancy cheese departments became staples in most supermarkets. One-stop shopping became the norm.

"I always enjoyed the stores. I love the retail business and dealing with people," said Sue, who closed the last outpost of Villanova Cheese, the Malvern shop, three years ago.

Now she carries on her late mother's legacy and sells the spreads she popularized to stores in 32 states.

The Fissingers' eldest son, John 3d, 24, joined his parents full time at the Betts warehouse in Pottstown after graduating from St. Mary's College with a degree in economics in 2006.

Middle son Matthew, who is completing international and business studies in Tokyo, graduates this year with visions of expanding Betts' sales into Japan ("a huge market for cheese") and Asia. (Thomas, the youngest, enters Temple University in the fall.)

"When we started selling wholesale, we hand-scooped every cup," Sue said.

It was eight years of struggling and gradual growth before the family could get by on the wholesale business alone.

"Every three years or so we have had to get new, bigger and better equipment to keep up with demand.

"Until recently, John did everything himself. It's just in these past few months that we got outside design help for slick new packaging and promotions."

All the better to pitch new accounts, now that the company is poised to increase its production up to sevenfold.

"Actually, it's like coming full circle," said Sue, noting that it was Cherchies, the Malvern mustard-soup-seasoning-and-snack food manufacturer, that provided the graphics contact.

"My mother was probably Cherchie's first customer more than 30 years ago, when she brought the original champagne mustard into the cheese shop," Sue recalled, grateful for the returned favor.

Now that the wholesale business is thriving, does Sue miss the shops, the variety of cheeses, and the people?

Sure. So much so that she keeps her hand in - and her eye on - the market by working one day a week in the cheese department at Wegman's supermarket.