AN AVALANCHE the CHEESEpours right into the check kitchen in ~ the Denver headquarters the Leprino Foods, the mozzarella supplier to Pizza Hut, Domino"s and also Papa John"s. First, thin wisps that low-moisture mozzarella, climate a diced alternative, complied with by an "artisanal" version, cut short and wide. Then come flavored cheese made v a mozzarella base, as well as provolone, cheddar and Monterey Jack.

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Cooks bring out a take-and-bake pizza, a new York-style pie and a stuffed crust, new from almost a dozen ovens. Another course attributes frozen food made v Leprino products, consisting of ham-and-cheddar hot Pockets, Stouffer"s lasagna and Smart Ones small ziti. Then come the cheese cubes marketed together snack pairings: pear flavor v nuts or Gorgonzola with pretzels. Team Leprino next brings out dessert: salted-caramel-flavored mozzarella wrapped in hot dough, rolling in cinnamon sugar. ~ an hour, the plastic shot glasses appear for sampling the company"s lactose and whey powders, which finish up in protein bars, Yoplait yogurt, Pillsbury Toaster Strudel and baby formula consumed by millions of babies annually.

Two floors over this dairy deluge, in a dark-wood-paneled office through white marble floors, Corinthian columns and gold accents, sit James Leprino, the Willy Wonka that cheese. "It"s tough for me to believe I agreed to this," the 79-year-old billionaire says. "I really prefer to save my privacy."

Camera shy: If girlfriend Google James Leprino’s picture, you will do it get fellow billionaire man Malone. This... <+> 1978 company portrait is the only known picture of Leprino Foods’ founder (right). He speak with previous president Wes Allen (left).

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Indeed that does, to a almost unprecedented degree, offered the way he restrict his industry. Leprino has somehow eluded photographers because that decades: A Google find picks up photos of fellow Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz and also cosmetics succession Ronald Lauder. Over there isn"t a solitary image of Leprino on his company"s website. However after almost 60 years to run the company and more than a te on" perform of billionaires, Leprino, worth an approximated $3 billion, is lastly willing to be interviewed about how his family"s grocery in Denver"s little Italy came to be the world"s peak producer that pizza cheese--the slightly derisive term competitors use to explain its mozzarella. In all, Leprino foodstuffs sells more than a exchange rate pounds that cheese a year, come the song of $3 billion in revenue.

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The little-known Leprino (he decreased to be photographed for this article) rates as among America"s all-time monopolists. He lets others worry around fresh mozzarella balls and also pizza the taste favor they to be made in the old country. His laser focus on large pizza chains has permitted him to manage as lot as 85% of the sector for pizza cheese and somehow sell simultaneously come a set of customers—Pizza Hut, Domino"s, Papa John"s and little Caesars —that shot to reduced each others" throat in every means that doesn"t involve where they buy your milk products. Dominating the market has its advantages: He"s able come invest in modern technology that no run-of-the-mill dairy products farmer ever could, resulting in more than 50 patents —and an estimated 7% network margin, which dwarfs the dairy-industry average.

Leprino foods items is the world"s biggest mozzarella agency with sales of more than $3 billion annually.

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As the diamonds the his clock bezel shimmer on his wrist, Leprino takes out his beat-up black leather wallet, removes the rubber tape holding the shut and reveals a card featuring the four agency watchwords: quality, service, price, ethics. "I"ve obtained everybody maintaining one in your pocket," Leprino says. "The agency was growing so rapid they were absent this important message."

Quality is listed very first intentionally. It"s easy to mock his product (Frankencheese, anyone?), however Leprino foods is one of the couple of dairy giants that have actually never had a recall. Every Monday in ~ 11:30 a.m., Leprino walks under to the test kitchen along with two dozen of his many trusted executives for the weekly Monday Melts meeting like the one ns attended. The executives check samples of the cheese developed for part 300 client in 40 countries and also check every complaint obtained the main before. "Your employees have gained to know you"re no a phony," that says. "They"ve acquired to think in you.

"I support what"s going on, but I don"t shot to lead it," he adds. "My project is to organize them responsible for doing what they claimed they"re going to do."

He wasn"t always so hands-off. When acknowledging his "genius," countless industry executives paint Leprino, in his younger days, together an "aggressive" leader that wasn"t above visiting separation, personal, instance franchise owner to pitch his technologically progressed cheese. However very few will enter detail, and fewer tho will attach their surname to your comments. One pizza businessman puts the this means about the man who own 100% of this mozzarella giant: "Jim Leprino is a very powerful man."

Mike Leprino Sr. Stands in the initial Leprino family shop offering Italian specialties.

Leprino foods

LEPRINO"S OFFICE BEARS testaments to his roots, consisting of a black-and-white photo of his mother on she wedding day at period 16 and a copper relief that James and also his father rolling new mozzarella balls. Leprino Foods" genesis lies in the mountains of southerly Italy, which Mike Leprino Sr. Left in 1914, at period 16. Accustomed come high altitude, he resolved in Denver; without lot of an education and learning or the ability to read and write English, he started farming. More than three years later, in 1950, he ultimately opened a grocery store to market the create he grew. Italian specialties followed, including fresh ricotta, mozzarella balls and also ravioli make by James" sister Angie.

Meanwhile, James, the youngest of five children, noticed his classmates spending totally free time at community pizza joints. After graduating high institution in 1956, he started working with his dad full-time and shared a revelation: "Pizzerias in this part of the country were buying 5,000 pounds that cheese a week," that recalls. "I thought, This is a great market to go after, so ns did." In 1958, after bigger chain grocery store stores had required the Leprino market to close, the Leprino foods items cheese empire started through $615.

The time couldn"t have been better. That very same year, the very first Pizza Hut opened, in Wichita, Kansas. A year later, Mike and Marian Ilitch opened up the very first Little Caesars, outside Detroit. One more year go by, and also Domino"s began delivering pizza, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Frozen pizzas, introduced after soldiers returned home from WWII desire slices, were additionally gaining popularity. After 2 years in business, Leprino foodstuffs was moving 200 pounds the block mozzarella a main to neighborhood Italian restaurants.

Leprino realized he necessary to discover the scientific research behind make cheese on a massive scale. However with a young daughter at home and another baby on the way, that didn"t have time because that college. Instead, he rental Lester Kielsmeier, who had run a cheese factory in Wisconsin just to find out the it was sold throughout his stint in the Air pressure during people War II, due to the fact that his dad thought he"d been killed in action. "When Lester came, i went downtown to the junkyard and I bought a pair bigger cheese vats to do it look favor we were yes, really in the business," Leprino says.

Leprino"s an initial coup come in 1968, as soon as Pizza Hut was in search of a supplier that could aid it cut prices while standardizing portions. After ~ hearing that shredding 5-pound cheese block in the franchises was time-consuming and inconsistent, Leprino foods started offering frozen, presliced blocks. Because that the very first time, pizza-makers can simply layer a couple of slices onto each pie.

While Kielsmeier made the cheese, Leprino fixated on efficiency. He easily realized he to be dumping fifty percent his raw ingredients into the river in the form of whey, the calcium-rich fluid left end after curds room strained. Inspired by the 1964 World"s fair in new York, Leprino traveled to Japan to meet with scientists using milk proteins obtained from whey to help the Japanese populace grow taller. An ext than a half-century later, Leprino foodstuffs remains the largest U.S. Exporter the lactose, a by-product the sweet whey, and retains a big market share in Japan.

On the cheese side, Leprino hustled to fulfill Pizza Hut, which went public in 1972 with around 1,000 shop and, in ~ its peak in the 1990s, accounted because that 90% of Leprino"s sales. Pizza Hut franchises would periodically wait too lengthy to thaw the presliced mozzarella and reported the their cheese would crumble, for this reason Leprino foods items responded with its first major breakthrough: a preventive mist. The scientists there quickly realized the this technique allowed lock to add flavors such together salted caramel and jalapeño. They might even do a reduced fat "cheddar" by utilizing a mozzarella base and then misting top top cheddar flavor and also orange food coloring. Leprino Foods" manufacturing rose sixteenfold, come 2 million pounds that cheese a week.

Mike Leprino Sr. Stands in former of the original truck he provided to provide fresh mozzarella to local... <+> Denver customers.

Leprino foodstuffs

Just as his time ahead that America"s pizza boom proved lucky, so did his ar in the center of the country. In the 1970s, Wisconsin and new York were producing most that the country"s milk, yet California"s nascent dairy product industry often priced milk lower. Leprino had actually the foresight to engage in part arbitrage, locking California dairy farmers right into multi-decade contract at prices that were often above-market locally yet below-market nationally. End the following two decades, Leprino Foods additionally signed sweetheart faces co-ops that eventually came to be the Dairy farmers of America, securing a lasting milk supply v the country"s largest dairy co-op; the agency also purchased and also renovated few of the older dairy products plants, cutting off the alternatives for competitors who want to procedure milk. Together Jerry Graf, a former cheese buyer for Pizza Hut, notes, "Jim was always one action ahead the the game."

LEPRINO"S most IMPORTANT innovation, ultimately, was marrying science and also sales—a mix that met the needs of the four biggest U.S. Pizza chains throughout a duration when castle were farming exponentially, launching one of the best turf wars in the history of American food.

The first key was something dubbed "Quality Locked Cheese"--shredded and also individually frozen portions--which Leprino introduced in 1986. Leprino"s competitors, still greatly run by Italian-Americans with strong immigrant roots, sniffed. "They didn"t believe that was what should go on optimal of your grandmother"s pizza recipe," claims Ed Zimmerman, a 30-year pizza-industry veteran. But the franchise-friendly process quickly became the industry standard, both because that consistency and also scalability. With a patent in place, Leprino made himself indispensable. Graf left Pizza Hut, which was still growing, for Domino"s and brought Leprino"s business with him, together that chain surged indigenous 200 outlets in 1978 to 5,000 in 1989. Meanwhile, small Caesars, with an ext than 3,000 stores, was cultivation 25% a year v its deal of "Two an excellent pizzas, one low price." and also by 1991, Leprino had come to be the to exclude, supplier because that Papa John"s, which launched in 1985.

Leprino to be able to thrive with them all by putting them in silos, granting each firm its own specs and also then troubleshooting as necessary. "We law every customer choose our only customer," says Mike Durkin, a former Pepsi executive that came on 6 years back to run day-to-day operations together president that Leprino Foods. "We don"t discuss Papa John"s organization with Domino"s—or everyone else"s." Domino"s agreed come an exclusive relationship in 1996--the contract was just one page. "It was an ext of a handshake than it to be anything else," recalls Michael Soignet, a former vice chairman of supply chain at Domino"s.

When Pizza Hut began using a hotter conveyor oven, Leprino Foods changed the formula so the cheese wouldn"t burn at greater temperatures. As delivery-focused Domino"s expanded, Leprino"s head cheese maker, Lester Kielsmeier, manipulated the product so that it maintained its fresh-out-of-the-oven look and taste longer. As soon as Papa John"s insisted it wanted cheese without fillers —eschewing a new Leprino product that included some— the large cheese didn"t take it it well. "His reflected sense of me is his patents, his business," Papa John"s billionaire founder man Schnatter claims of Jim Leprino. "That really method a lot come him. Once I stated I didn"t favor it, he took it personally." Within two months, Leprino switched Papa John"s back to the previous blend. "Jim came at me and also said,"It"s going to price you three an ext cents a pound." "

Price has long been Leprino"s greatest advantage, and a big one since cheese accounts for about 40% the a pizza"s cost. Leprino"s range begat far better prices, which begat an ext scale. And that scale additionally led come cost-saving breakthroughs the Leprino"s fragmented rivals could neither capture up v technologically no one fight in patent court. "They space a biotech agency that is wrapped inside a food business," Zimmerman says.

For example, in the 1990s, Kielsmeier realized that just as the cheese adjusted when ingredients were sprayed on in ~ the end, specific additives used at an early stage in the process could affect how cheese melts — indigenous how large and just how brown the bubbles acquire to how countless are top top the top of the pie. On the manufacturing side, Kielsmeier cut down the cheese"s aging period from 14 days to just 4 hours, which multiply the company"s manufacturing capabilities if cutting prices significantly.

"I would certainly tell people,"Lester is the man that made me rich,"" Leprino says. Notably, though, Leprino never offered Kielsmeier any type of equity. While Leprino acquired rich, Kielsmeier — who involved work every day appropriate until his death at 95 in 2012 — would need to content himself v being really well paid.

FOR JAMES LEPRINO, the perks of being a billionaire are fairly muted. Yes, the company owns three personal planes— a Gulfstream G450, a Bombardier jet and a small 1980 commuter plane —and his residence in Denver"s affluent Indian Hills suburb has actually 11 bedrooms, to go v an 8,000-square-foot vacation house in Scottsdale, Arizona. However he"s much more likely to choose up a hammer than call a repairman: Leprino, who has actually been recognized to operate a forklift at the factory, has also personally bulldozed trees approximately his Colorado home. A devout Catholic, the goes come church every Sunday and donates to charity anonymously. And also the immigrant"s son has actually no intention come retire, ever. "My success is a fairy tale," the says.

Leprino"s succession plan is simple: He"ll break-up ownership in between his 2 daughters, Terry, 57, and Gina, 55, who have been on the board for years however won"t take day-to-day roles. "I don"t desire them to be life a this firm life resentfully," Leprino says. And for now he"ll proceed to ensure that Leprino cheese is on as numerous American pizzas together possible—as well together Asian and European persons (Leprino has actually a joint undertaking with the U.K."s Glanbia Cheese).

America"s fifth-largest pizza chain, the take-and-bake Papa Murphy"s, continues to be in his sights. Cofounder Robert Graham claims Leprino visited him at least three time to shot to acquire the company to sign on, offering the an innovation above every else. "It didn"t do well because that our pizza, which is cook in a house oven," Graham says. "Because that the moisture content, you can see the sauce under the cheese. The evaporated." yet Leprino executives continue to press.

And while tiny Caesars provides other vendors--industry insiders say Leprino isn"t to exclude, with tiny Caesars, in part because the chain"s blend uses Muenster cheese, too—Leprino chairman Mike Durkin predicts that little Caesars will eventually succumb. "Would we want more? most likely the prize is yes, and also it"ll come at some point," the says.

Meanwhile, Leprino will certainly pursue new markets. Leprino has invested $600 million in a manufacturing facility in Greeley, Colorado, that specializes in "ribbon cheese"—bulky 2.5-pound blocks that room popular amongst frozen-pizza companies. It"s also created an in-house "innovation studio," designed to ride the coattails that food trends. One creation, Bacio ("kiss" in Italian), is catering to artisanal-pizza-makers by supplying mozzarella v a kiss that buffalo milk. It"s Leprino Foods" many expensive cheese—and that is fastest-growing.

Leprino is additionally rolling the end the company"s first direct-to-consumer product, a whey protein powder referred to as Ascent, which will have a dedicated wing in ~ the Greeley facility. If Leprino tho produces whey protein together a by-product of do cheese for its clients, climb is filtered right from life milk come protect key proteins and vitamins the help assist muscle recovery. Leprino really hopes that will be an edge in the $6.6 billion-and-growing U.S. Protein market.

There is many of background to remind Ascent"s team of their roots. Ascent"s space sits atop the initial cheese factory"s loading dock and warehouse.

"I remember the very first day that we had actually this set up," says Mike Arnold, who is overseeing Ascent"s launch. "Jim Leprino walked in here and was like,"Ah, this reminds me that the old days."" A new, broken market, primed to it is in dominated.

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Chloe Sorvino leader coverage the food and agriculture at Her 7 years of reporting at has carried her to In-N-Out Burger’s an enig test kitchen,

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Chloe Sorvino leads coverage that food and farming at Her seven years of report at has lugged her to In-N-Out Burger’s secret test kitchen, drought-ridden ranches in California’s main Valley, burnt-out national woodlands logged through a lumber billionaire, a century-old slaughterhouse in Omaha, and even a cacao croissant manufacturing facility designed prefer a middle ages castle in north France. She manages a team the 50+ experienced contributors, in addition to the 30 Under 30 Food and Drink list and also the Ag tech Summits. Her publication on the fight for the future the meat is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster’s Atria books in 2022.