Owner & Cheesemaker
Roelli's Cheese Haus
Chris Roelli, a fourth-generation certified Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, could be a poster child for the artisan and specialty cheesemaking movement in the state. In 2006, he brought back to life the Shullsburg-area cheese factory that his family had owned and operated from the early 1900s until 1991, when conditions in the commodity cheddar market drove many small Wisconsin cheese plants out of business. But Chris didn't just reopen the plant; he renovated it, re-configured it for small-batch production, and re-envisioned Roelli Cheese's future as a producer of exceptional artisanal cheesesl
His first signature product, an English-style cheddar with mild blue veining called Dunbarton Blue, was an instant hit. Then came the richly hued, American-style cheddar-blue dubbed Red Rock and, most recently, Little Mountain, an Alpine-style washed rind cheese that honors his family's Swiss heritage. All three have won numerous top awards, including Best of Show for Little Mountain in the 2016 American Cheese Society Judging & Competition.
In addition to working hard to establish Roelli Cheese as one of the nation's pre-eminent artisan cheese companies, Chris finds time to participate in and serve the industry. A member of WSCI since 2014, he currently serves as president of its Board of Directors (2016-2018 term).
How would characterize your vision for the "new" Roelli Cheese when you set out to reopen the family's plant?
Our goal was set from day one to not become a large-scale producer. We wanted to maintain control, work with the highest quality milk and make small quantities of really good cheese. Even though we've been on a tremendous growth curve over the past decade, that's what we're still doing. We're staying true to our original vision where we're taking one farmer's milk and making that into a single batch of cheese. We use the highest quality raw materials that we can source and that starts with the milk.
How surprised were you when Dunbarton Blue was such an instant home run?
Well, you can never be sure how a new product will be received. I felt confident that it was a really good cheese, but it turned out to be lightning in a bottle. We literally grew our business on that particular cheese. It took off so fast that we were immediately in a situation where we were reinvesting back into a business that was new to begin with just to keep up with demand. It took about six years to catch up before I was able to start developing other products, which also have been very well received. Ultimately, the trial by fire that we survived in bringing Dunbarton Blue to market, along with the advanced training I later received through the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program, really benefitted all of our other cheeses.
Besides weathering the Dunbarton storm early on, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in reopening the family plant as your own entrepreneurial endeavor?
The biggest one was that I was so green, especially in the sales and marketing side of things. My focus had always been on making cheese. I was pretty good at that but I didn't know any of those other aspects of the business. There was a lot to learn and so many stars had to align for it to really take off. We made some mistakes and learned from them, and we made some good decisions and learned from those as well.
What advice would you offer to other entrepreneurs hoping to establish themselves in the specialty cheese industry?
My top advice would be to never waiver from your commitment to quality just to get a product to market faster. If you rush and put a sub-par product out there you can kill your brand in a hurry. On a related note, don't promise something you can't deliver. We all want to say yes to the customer but, again, you have to protect your brand. There are probably half a dozen larger companies within a half an hour of me who can make more in a week than it would take me six months or a year to make. As a small cheesemaker, you have to realize you can't compete with that. You just have to find your own niche and do what you do best.
How has membership in WSCI helped you as you've built Roelli Cheese into a pre-eminent artisan cheese company?
The educational side of WSCI is really valuable. Our meetings always include guest speakers with expertise on topics that are important and relevant to all of us. But for me, the biggest benefit is networking. WSCI members are a like-minded group of not only producers but suppliers, as well. We all share the same goal of helping smaller specialty cheesemakers grow their businesses and get their products to market. There are a lot of organizations in this business, and they all play important roles, but WSCI's focus on smaller companies sets it apart.