Jonathan Hnosko has been the UNL Dairy Plant Manager since 2008. A transplanted Washington State Cougar from Whidbey Island, Wash., Hnosko is a self-professed foodie in addition to his obsession with ice cream and cheese perfection. Hnosko oversees the production of nearly 17,000 pounds of ice cream per year and 13,000 pounds of cheese. We caught up with Hnosko to hear his story and a little more about the Dairy Plant itself.
Q: How did you get your start in food science?
JH: Well, personally getting involved with cheese and ice cream, my story starts growing up. I was always interested in nutrition labels, what was in food, why they were there, so food science was kind of a natural path for me to take.
I worked at another university creamery and really liked that, so the opportunity to run a university creamery here in Nebraska was, for me, the chance of a lifetime. It’s been an awesome experience to be able to do that.
Q: What’s the best part about running the UNL Dairy Plant?
JH: There are two main things about my job that I really like. One, I get a chance to work really close with the food itself. Cheesemaking in particular is different than a lot of other food manufacturing in that it’s a very hands-on process.
The other thing in a university setting is that I get a chance to work with a lot of students.It’s the reason we’re here — to educate them. I learn a lot from students personally, and I get a chance to work with many international students who are either here for a short period of time during their visit, or they just come from another country as students here at the university. So I get to learn a lot about the world as well.
Q: What makes Dairy Store cheese and ice cream different from what I get in the grocery store?
JH: It’s a good question and one we get a lot. The main thing that makes us different is that you can come to the UNL Dairy Store here on East Campus, walk right down the hallway, look through the observation windows and see the food that you’re purchasing actually being made on site. It’s a unique experience for our customers as well as my students and the employees here making the process happen.
Our cheesemaking is not an automated process so it’s very labor-intensive, and we have to monitor that process very closely.
For ice cream, it’s more along the lines of what you would see out in the industry, but it’s a much more condensed process, and it’s also a very quick turnaround. Customer feedback for flavor ideas, from the time they become ideas to the time we actually work them out and make them, is a really quick turnaround compared to a much longer process in the industry. There’s a lot of creativity and it’s a very creative environment to work in.
Q; Speaking of flavor ideas, how did you come up with the 58 different flavors of ice cream currently made in the Dairy Plant and sold at the Dairy Store?
JH: First off, customer feedback is really important. If you like a flavor, or you have a unique idea for a twist on a particular flavor we offer already, those suggestions are extremely valuable to us.
The Dairy Store employees and the Dairy Plant employees are fairly involved and familiar with the process of how we come up with new flavors, and so when they either find out about a new ingredient, or they find out about things we have on hand and find new ways to put them together, that really generates a lot of ideas.
On top of that, we’re always trying to find out new ways to use our equipment. So when I first came here, using something like Brownie Fudge Swirl as an example, where you can have brownie bits or something like that in the ice cream and also add a swirl to it, we were just taking a look at the equipment that we had, and we found a way that we could do this, and we gave it a shot and it worked really well.
Q: Let’s get down to it. What are your favorite ice creams and cheeses?
JH: For cheese, I really like cheddars, so my New York Cheddar has to be my favorite of the ones that we make.
As far as ice cream flavors, that’s always a tricky question because it really depends what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m going to go with chocolate, German Chocolate is definitely my favorite. If we’re going to go to the fruit side of things, I really like Scarlet and Cream and Lemon Custard. Lemon Custard also because it’s a unique flavor and it’s not available year-round like our Scarlet and Cream flagship is. So when it comes out, it’s not uncommon to see me working with a scoop of Lemon Custard in hand.
Q: How long does it take to make cheese from start to finish?
JH: Making cheese is a fairly involved process. When we make cheese in a week, we make it twice. So we receive milk on Monday, and at about 3:30 a.m. is when the whole process starts on a Tuesday morning. It wraps up around 5 or 5:30 p.m., and then we have Wednesday to package that cheese and clean up. Thursday, we start the process all over again with making cheese and Friday again is packaging cheese and cleaning up.
Editor’s note: You can see a slideshow of the cheesemaking process on our website, http://www.dairystore.unl.edu.
Q: The Dairy Store’s 100-year anniversary is coming up. What does that mean to you?
JH: As far as university creameries go, there are 20-plus out there, and a lot of them have been around for a while, but 100 years is pretty distinct tradition. I’ve had the chance to meet some of my predecessors and talk to them, and it’s a unique feeling knowing that you’re standing on the shoulders of so many people that came before you.
There’s a lot of hard work that’s been done, and that’s great motivation for all the hard work that we’re continuing to do and will hopefully continue the tradition here at UNL.
Q: So what can we expect from the Dairy Plant in the future?
JH: We’re always working on new ice cream flavors, and we’re actually trying to develop some new dairy products in general, but we’re always working on new flavors ideas. White Chocolate Lavender was a new flavor we got to put together that was a fun summer flavor, and we also have a few other flavors that are “in the chute,” and we’ll surprise you guys with those.
As far as cheese, we like to continue to expand the different flavors we have off our Husker cheese in particular. I’d say just keep an eye out for some eclectic flavors we’ll be coming out with later this year.
More details at: http://go.unl.edu/0xt