Yes, We’ve Got Cheese

Woman Entrepreneur takes aged cheese and yogurt manufacturing to another level with assistance from SBA programs and services

In Puerto Rico, more milk is produced than consumed. Almost a decade ago, Wanda Otero took advantage of that excess milk to create the first artisan aged cheese on the island.

The venture began when Wanda, a licensed microbiologist who has been analyzing milk for over 25 years, moved her milk quality assessment lab from Manatí to Hatillo, on the island’s northern coast, to provide advice on quality control of milk to more than 200 dairy farms in Puerto Rico. Her lab advised dairy farmers so that they could comply with the sanitary controls demanded by local regulatory agencies.

“Many of the farmers could not afford the expense of lab services,” says Wanda. “Their debt was beginning to accumulate, so to help them I gave them the option of paying for the lab services with milk instead of cash. The farmers accepted, and began amortizing their debt that way. Some paid it off entirely with milk.”

But then the predicament arose, what to do with all that milk?

“The original idea was to make yogurt,” says Wanda. “I had student interns working at the lab and conducting research on the processes.”

But Wanda was receiving too much milk to simply make yogurt, so she began experimenting at home with various ways of curing cheese. She learned the trade by taking seminars and working tirelessly to improve the quality of her processes every day. She also spent time with expert cheese manufacturers in the United States –Wisconsin and Vermont-- and in Canada.

With a $25,000 out of pocket investment and plenty of passion, in 2008 Wanda began operations under the brand Quesos Vaca Negra (Black Cow Cheese), named for the black cow that is born from crossbreeding Holstein dairy cattle --which is white and black--with purebred beef bulls.

Wanda also took business seminars with the Puerto Rico Small Business Development Center and became a client of the Women’s Business Institute, where she obtained counseling and technical assistance.  Both resources are programs administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration under cooperative agreements with the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico and the University of the Sacred Heart, respectively.

In Puerto Rico, cheese had never been cured, and public acceptance came rather quickly.  Today, Vaca Negra products have been recognized locally and internationally. They have been exhibited at the 2011 Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington and were named by the Huffington Post as the 9th most delicious product on the show out of 16 products selected among more than 180,000.

The company later represented Puerto Rico at the Alimentaria 2012 fair, the International Food and Beverage Show, in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

In 2016, Wanda was selected among 16 other entrepreneurs for the second Emerging Leaders training series the U.S. Small Business Administration delivers in Puerto Rico. Launched on the Mainland nearly a decade ago, Emerging Leaders is an executive-level training series focused on established small companies ready for growth and with potential for job creation. 

The seven-month intensive, executive entrepreneurship education series includes approximately 100 hours of classroom time per participant and provides the opportunity for small business owners to work with experienced mentors, attend workshops and develop connections with their peers, city leaders and financial communities.

“Emerging Leaders helped me focus on my yogurt project,” Wanda says. “And getting that project out was big. The networking in Emerging Leaders is also excellent. The relationships you establish are incredible.”

Prior to beginning the Emerging Leaders series, Wanda had already begun to produce the yogurt that had originated her business idea, and before graduating from the program she had officially launched Vaca Negra’s new product line. Currently, the company produces about 1,600 liters of lactose-free yogurt every week, in various flavors such as vanilla, coconut, papaya, guava, oatmeal and piña colada.

Vaca Negra also produces five different types of aged, lactose-free cheese, for a total of 300 pounds every week or 1,100 pounds a month. Vaca Negra cheese is named for Puerto Rico regions such as the Cabachuelas, in honor of a cave system in Morovis; the Ausubal and Capaez that are neighborhoods or sectors in Hatillo; and Montebello and Monserrate, represented by an old power station in Manatí respectively. All products can be found at 105 different locations throughout the island, such as certain organic markets and main supermarket chains. 

Last year, Wanda received approval for financial assistance under the SBA’s Certified Development Company Loan program. Also known as the 504 program, the CDC loan provides long-term financing for fixed-assets.  With the proceeds, Wanda purchased a building to accommodate both cheese and yogurt operations in one facility, and to purchase equipment to produce the yogurt, which will ultimately help create more jobs in addition to the 10 existing ones.

Wanda also wants to offer advanced courses on cheese aging.  As a matter of fact, Vaca Negra already offers an agritourist experience endorsed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, in which people can visit the factory and make their own cheese.

Company Name: 
Vaca Negra Inc.
Location: 
Hatillo, Puerto Rico
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