Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Sandy Toney honored to be first female ‘red hat’

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 15 November 2013


While the Red Hat Society is a popular women’s organization, which is known for its members to wear red hats and purple dresses while meeting for tea or other activities, there is another group of red hat wearers that has been comprised solely of male members – until now.



Hats of different colors signify various responsibilities at the World Championship Cheese Contest held every other year in March. The contest’s 40 judges wear white hats as they core, sniff and taste approximately 2,500 entries.

Five select individuals can be spotted wearing red. Known as the “red hats” this handful of judges is comprised of two chief judges and three assistant chief judges. Responsible for overseeing the contest, these judges choose the technical expert judges and administer instructions for grading, cheese types and defects.

For the first time since the contest began in 1957, a woman has been selected to don a red hat in the position of assistant chief judge. Sandy Toney says she was shocked to receive the offer from the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which hosts the competition.

“It’s an honor, it really is,” Toney says. “I never had expected to get this.”

A licensed cheese grader, Toney has spent her life in the food industry. She started waitressing when she was 14 years old. After graduating from high school, she married, had children, and continued to waitress in the evenings. Then one day as her daughter stepped on the school bus, Toney realized she needed to do something more in life.


She went to school and received an associate degree in food science from Moraine Park Technical College and a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Silver Lake College.

Toney started in quality assurance and held a number of positions as she worked her way to her current role as vice president of corporate quality and product development at Masters Gallery Foods in Plymouth, Wisconsin.

She oversees the quality of dairy products going in and out of the company by working with vendors, sales representatives, and research and development personnel to ensure that all products are meeting their specifications.

Masters Gallery Foods services many of the nation’s grocery chains, wholesalers, restaurants and distributors with a full line of cheese related products. It also specializes in the procurement, aging and distribution of bulk cheeses at a national level.

Toney began judging in 2005 when she was asked to judge the Wisconsin State Fair Blue Ribbon Cheese and Butter Contest. Two years later she was called to serve as an expert technical judge for the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and the World Championship Cheese Contest.

When Toney entered the industry 25 years ago, she notes there were not a lot of women to be seen at industry events. That is changing. Now, for example, of the 40 contest judges, five to six of them are women.


Toney is also seeing more women in cheese plants as she travels the state to grade for Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker program. “It used to be women just in quality assurance; now there are women in procurement, cheese making, judging and more,” she says.

She adds there are a lot of opportunities for everyone in the food industry, but hopes that by taking on her new role she can inspire more women to get involved.

“For me, the biggest thing is being able to open the door for more women in the dairy industry,” Toney says.

If that means putting on a red baseball cap and pulling her ponytail through, it is a job she is more than willing to accept. PD

Sandy Toney says she hopes she can help open doors for more women in the dairy industry by serving in her new role as assistant chief judge for the World Championship Cheese Contest. Photo by Karen Lee.


Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman