The Margaret River Dairy Company has risen from the ashes of a devastating $5 million fire in a spectacular comeback set to massively boost local production and jobs.
With the Bussell Hwy retail outlet already trading and the production line now cranking, the company has just secured accreditation to supply Coles and Woolworths nationally – an unprecedented coup for the operation.
The breakthrough comes after a tough 18 months for Margaret River Dairy – 40 staff had lost their jobs when the blazed ripped through the main factory which produced yoghurt, ricotta, fetta and wax cheeses.
A second factory at the rear of the Metricup operation was able to continue brie and camembert production.
An investigation ruled out suspected arson, finding fallen trees had caused a power surge which arced across a ceiling panel, setting it alight.
“Words can’t describe what the feeling was like when that fire went through and that went right down the line,” general manager Denis Hann said this week.
“We were getting endless phone calls and emails expressing how sorry our customers and traders were.”
Despite the risky commercial hiatus, Mr Hann said the company was determined to stay in the region and rebuild.
After putting the project to tender in WA, the company was forced to look further afield to find building and engineering firms able to take on the complex scope of works. The successful Queensland and New Zealand tenderers employed local companies and trades where possible to carry out construction.
All the lost positions have now been reinstated - although some previous employees have found other work – and a huge jump in production capacity points to even greater local job opportunities.
“We have gone from being able to produce 45 tonne of yoghurt to 75 tonne, and our wax cheese capacity is now up from five to seven tonne,” Mr Hann said.
“We’ve always had our export accreditation and the independents (supermarkets) have always supported us, but now we have enough capacity to supply all our lines to Woolworths and Coles nationally – it’s just huge.”
Cheesehand Jenny Richards, from Margaret River, had been able to keep her position in the rear plant but said she and other employees had endured uncertainty at the time of the fire.
“The employment for this area is fantastic,” Ms Richards said. “There’s a sort of family feeling working here.”
The reopening provides relief, too, for local dairy farmers, with all Margaret River Dairy Company milk supplied farm-direct from Brownes.
After several weeks of production trials, fresh signs now adorn the Margaret River Cheese Company gateway, ushering in a new era for the operation.
And for those who can’t get enough of the local area’s trademark cow motif, the best is yet to come.
In what will undoubtedly become a new local landmark, Vasse blacksmith Graeme Skender is busy manufacturing two huge iron entrance gates with enough bovine artwork to keep the Bussell Hwy tourist buses – and an estimated 600,000 annual visitors - pouring in.
Margaret River Dairy Company Timeline
1966 –Perth-based Fonti Farm Cheese pioneers a range of ricotta and farmhouse style cheeses mainly for the Italian community
1990 – Fonti Farm Cheese moves to just north of Cowaramup to capitalise on fresher dairy supply
1994 - Fonti Farm acquires the nearby boutique factory Margaret River Cheese Company, merging operations.
2000 – Manassen Foods Australia Pty Ltd buys the Margaret River Cheese Company/Fonti Farm operation, forming the Margaret River Dairy Company, with a four-fold production increase
2011 - Manassen Foods Group acquired by one of China’s largest food companies, Bright Foods Group Holdings Pty Ltd.
December 28, 2012 – Main factory burns to the ground in an electrical fire. 40 jobs lost.
July 2014 – Rebuilt factory and retail outlets back in operation