By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

It is the one place in Crescent City where being called cheesy is a compliment. Rumiano Cheese, which celebrates its 80th birthday this June, is a success story in Del Norte County that is difficult to match.

If it wasnt for the hard work by the dairymen and from our employees we wouldnt be able to make it work, said Richard Baird Rumiano, co-owner of the company.

The Crescent City factory on Ninth and E streets, that Baird Rumiano is in charge of, generates about $15 million per year, he said. Its 35 employees produce around 250,000 pounds of butter per year and 40,000 pounds of cheese per day.

It has recently opened a retail outlet at that location, allowing local residents an opportunity to taste what is already considered a delicacy by many experts; Rumianos won second place in the United States Cheese Championship in 1999.

The company has not always been so prosperous, though. There have been a few peaks and valleys throughout its history.

Baird Rumianos grandfather and two great-uncles, all immigrants from Italy, had meager aspirations when they set out.

They didnt have any money at all, Baird Rumiano said. My great-uncle had two cows in Italy and he wanted to start a dairy with them.

After settling in San Francisco, the brothers worked in mines and as machinists until they eventually married into some money. It was then they were able to launch the company in 1921.

They eventually had more milk than they knew what to do with, Baird Rumiano said. So, they bought an agricultural college in the 1930s and began producing cheese in Vina, California.

The original cheese venture fell flat, as the brothers brought in Ed Gosner, a professional from Switzerland, for the purpose of producing Swiss cheese.

They couldnt make it for squat, Baird Rumiano said. They had a lot of work ahead of them.

The brothers were far more successful when World War II broke out. The company expanded to six manufacturing plants while producing American cheese for U.S. Army K-rations.

The company headquarters was then situated in Willows, Calif., where it remains to this day. It is also the location where the cutting and packaging is performed.

Things were tight after the war and they closed up five of the factories, he said. The only plant they kept was Crescent City because of the great milk here.

When the original brothers began retiring around 1950, shares of the company were gifted throughout the family. When Baird Rumianos father was in charge, he kept his son away from the business.

My dad wouldnt let me work for him. Baird Rumiano said. I was a maid, a bartender, I worked in a pineapple processing plant in Hawaii, and then began running a ski shop in Heavenly Valley.

Baird Rumiano, now 51, received his business and economics degrees from St. Marys College in Moraga, Calif.

In 1973, Baird Rumiano was finally asked to step in when the Crescent City manager began experiencing health problems. Then in 1978, when Baird Rumianos father passed away, he and his brother John decided to buy the company.

There were seven or eight stockholders at the time, around 1980, and we bought them all out, he said. Tri Counties Bank, which was fairly small back then, loaned us $1.6 million to buy out the other family members.

The first years interest on that loan was $70,000, back when interest rates hovered in the 20-percent margin.

We were starving to death - literally, he said.

But in the 21 years since that time, hard work, extensive sanitation methods and modernization has paid off. The employees produce 10 times more cheese today than in 1980, with less effort.

Computerized machinery now moves, heats, stirs and packages the 40-pound blocks of cheese.

Ernesto Romero, who emigrated from Sinaloa, Mexico in 1980, spent only a week looking for work before the company hired him.

Today is his 21st anniversary with Rumiano. Before it was hard work but now its pretty simple. Weve changed a lot. Before we had to shovel everything, he said.

In the old days they did have to shovel everything, Baird Rumiano concurred. But they are so inclined to do it now its almost impossible to get them to stop shoveling.

Experiencing healthy profits and contented employees has inspired the company to expand its Crescent City plant, but they have run into the same problem many other local businesses are experiencing.

Wed love to expand - were selling everything we make right now, said Baird Rumiano. We could possibly increase 30 to 50 percent but theres no infrastructure for the water and sewer. I try to stay away from political issues, but I think we need a little less study and a little more action.

Its difficult to imagine Baird Rumiano ever relaxing, as he rushes around intensely monitoring some of the high-tech gadgetry hes installed in recent years while discussing business with his two sons, Tony and Joby. But when he does find time to relax, he said he likes to do it in style.

Travel. We both love to travel, he said. Jane, his wife of 28 years, also enjoys tennis and taught the sport as a high school coach for more than 15 years. Baird Rumiano said he also finds golf and motor sports a relaxing diversion.

Although he holds both business and economics degrees, Baird Rumiano credits most of his business savvy to actual experience.

I had no training at all when I stepped in. The only schooling Ive got is from the school of hard knocks, he said.