Head south of the Twin Cities and if you don't get lost first, you'll find the unassuming township of Hope, Minnesota. It's similar to many other Main Street towns peppering the rural landscape of the Midwest, except this town is home to Hope Creamery. Now, over 100 years old, this landmark creamery provides a staple for refined taste buds all over the Twin Cities - an award-winning butter - and acts as the pillar of this remote farming community in southern Minnesota.
Throughout the 1900's, the creamery stood as a testament to the hard work of Minnesota dairy cooperatives. Hope mirrored many other townships in dairy country, all anchored by the creameries of their community. The second floor of Hope Creamery still has remnants of what was once the town meeting hall. "At the 100-year anniversary, there was a little old man that came up and tugged on my shirt. He said he had met his wife here fifty some years ago," says owner Victor Mrotz. Holiday engagements and 4H productions are just a few of the social events that took place there. Artifacts clutter the landmark building, including antique cream separators, dairy canisters, or the ballroom's old crushed velvet curtains complete with hand-painted advertisements of long ago traveling salesmen.
Hope Co-op Creamery had hit maximum production during the 70's and 80's at 1 million pounds of butter a year. By the end of the century, the co-op was down to only 30,000 pounds. The creamery remained in business, if only to please Gene Kruckeberg, the head butter-maker and GM of the co-op since 1965. But like most creameries throughout the country had done before, the creamery was eventually put up for sale due to the low production.
But one of Hope's natives was reluctant to let their past go away so easily. "Hope was infamous with two bars and a grocery store," remembers Victor from his time growing up in the community. "Now there's two bars and no grocery store. It's gotten better or worse depending on your perspective."
After a chance meeting at one of Hope's two bars, Mrotz purchased the building in 2001 from Hope Cooperative. "[The co-op] decided to liquidate while they still had money in the bank. That's normally unheard of." The co-op was more than satisfied, selling to a local resident, and Victor was more than overwhelmed by his new endeavor. Knowing little about the butter biz, Victor set off with artisan Gene at the wheel to revitalize the historic creamery.
Under new management, Hope still sold most of their butter to local grocers and people who knew about the butter's reputation. "People would drive a long way to get it," explains Victor. "In the butter underworld this was the place to get butter." Around that time, an opportune phone call from Judie Bloor, a chef at Lucia's restaurant, broadened the scope for Victor's new enterprise. She had called to see if Hope Creamery really made their own butter. "I said, yeah, we really make butter, come on down," Victor said. From that point on, Hope butter slowly started working its way around the co-ops and fine dining establishments of the Twin Cities.
Hope Creamery has begun a new emergence, now producing nearly 300,000 pounds of butter a year. Gene remains the butter aficionado, and coworkers are still amazed at the effortless speed with which he hand packs, wraps and boxes up the butter. Everything from the recipe, to the positioning of equipment has remained the same since the 1960's, and it's unlikely those things will change while Victor remains in the driver's seat. His ownership, and Gene's butter making, has put Hope Creamery back on the lips of butter lovers and back in the hearts of Hope, MN residents. Victor even noted aspirations to refurbish the second floor meeting hall and introduce it back into the social engagements of the two-tavern town. "People of Hope are really happy it didn't close," says Victor of his purchase five years ago. But Victor's modest sentiment could never fully address the adoration from restaurant patrons and co-op shoppers who have welcomed this historical spread into their homes over the past few years.