Chris Roelli, Roelli's Cheese Haus
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.
Martha Davis Kipcak, Mighty Fine Food – Martha's Pimento Cheese
Martha Davis Kipcak
Mighty Fine Food – Martha's Pimento Cheese
Martha Davis Kipcak relocated from Texas to Wisconsin in 1998. A passionate Southern chef who eventually launched her own catering service, she crafted a new life in the North centered in part around activism, community building and promoting support for sustainable, just, local food systems. In the process, she discovered our state's burgeoning artisan cheese industry and realized that, while a fantastic array of great cheeses was being made, her favorite Southern staple – pimento cheese – was not among them. Seeing an opportunity, she took the leap in 2012 to launch her own artisan food endeavor, Mighty Fine Food, home of award-winning Martha's Pimento Cheese.
How did you become interested in creating your own specialty cheese product?
After being at the table for several years with very smart people from many aspects of food, health, agriculture, ecology, tradition, etc., I noticed that the sector usually missing in these conversations was commerce. It dawned on me that for all of the activism and education I had about the food system, I knew very little about what's behind the grocery shelf. So I thought, 'I'm a cook, maybe I should consider a product to bring to the marketplace.' I mulled on that for about three years before I had my 'aha moment.' I had eaten pimento cheese all my life; it's as beloved in the South as peanut butter is here and its base is cheddar cheese. Here I was in Wisconsin, with world-class cheddar all around, and pimento cheese was nonexistent here. One of the principals of just, sustainable, local food systems is to put together resources that are around you in a way that makes sense. It made sense for me to honor my Southern food traditions using local Wisconsin resources.
Having a product idea is one thing, but producing and distributing it is quite another. How did you get started?
I met Kathy Brown at WSCI, as well as people at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and other organizations that support cheesemakers well before I launched. Everyone was so welcoming, supportive and helpful in leading me to contacts and resources. And the stars aligned because I knew that Bob Wills, a Master Cheesemaker who has helped many start-up cheese businesses get their footing, was bringing Clock Shadow Creamery to Milwaukee. It's an urban cheese factory that was being built as I was thinking of this and it presented the opportunity for me to make my product right there, with local products and local people. I've been a tenant of Clock Shadow since the beginning, going in when they're not in production to make my pimento cheese. Being a separate business, I do have my own employees, dairy plant license, distribution channels, etc. I am pleased and proud to partner with Red Barn Family Farms to source my primary ingredient: delicious, rBGH-free, Aged White Cheddar. Good food well made every step of the way makes a difference in the end result.
What's special to you about pimento cheese?
It's such a big thing in the South – you'll find it at public schools, gas stations, weddings, funerals, church suppers. If someone's sick, you take them pimento cheese. You always knew a grandmother, aunt or neighbor who made the best pimento cheese and there's a lot of nostalgia around it. There are many industrial products available now, but homemade is always better. My goal was to get as close as possible to homemade, but to make it available commercially. That means my products have a shelf life and I only make to order; I don't sit on inventory.
What products did you start with?
I launched with two varieties – mild and jalapeno. I have two women who work for me and we make and package everything by hand. We started in November of 2012 and in the summer of 2013 I entered my products in the American Cheese Society competition, which was held in Madison. I won first and second place in the spreads category, which was really exciting. I later introduced a third variety, chile de arbol. It's a pepper commonly used in Mexican cuisine that has a lot of flavor and more heat than a jalapeno, but not so much that it burns. I'm a cook and a Texan, so I like big, bold flavors. That's also why I only use aged cheddar in my pimento cheese.
What key challenges or surprises did you face as you worked to bring your product to market?
Among the surprises was the reluctance of people in a whole region to try something new. Because I grew up with pimento cheese I didn't realize that it would be a hard sell here. It's different from other products – not like a cold pack spread or dip—so getting people to try it has been a little tougher than I expected. Distribution has also been an education. I chose early on to go the wholesale route rather than direct sales or farmers markets. It was imperative to build solid relationships with distributors in order to get into the stores. It's been a slow crawl, but I now have four distributors and I feel good about how we're growing. The tortoise wins the race in the end and I'm putting my money on slow, manageable growth.
What advice would you offer to other new specialty cheese entrepreneurs?
Talk to everyone you can and tap the resources that are available to you. Everyone I talked to had an idea, contact or introduction to share. It speaks so beautifully to the power of community. At the end of the day, you're the one who has to check all the boxes and get it all done – payroll, HACCP plans, branding, ingredient sourcing, marketing – but having groups like WSCI, where you can ask questions, stay up-to-date, or just show up at meetings and see smiling, friendly faces of people who share the issues that you're facing is priceless.
Marieke Penterman, Marieke Gouda, Thorp
Marieke Gouda, Holland's Family Cheese LLC, Thorp
Mention award-winning gouda and Wisconsin in the same sentence, and chances are good you're talking about Marieke Penterman. She's one of a new generation of Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheesemakers to make a name for herself and her products -- not just in Wisconsin or the United States, but internationally, as well. She and her husband, Rolf, emigrated with their children from the Netherlands to Wisconsin in 2002 to pursue their passion for dairy farming. In 2006, delivering on a personal vow to start her own business before she turned 30, Marieke launched her on-farm cheesemaking business, Holland's Family Farm, crafting her namesake goudas using milk from the family's cows. Her first year out, Marieke® Foenegreek Gouda won a first-place ribbon at the U.S. Championship Cheese contest. Since then, Holland's Family Farm has racked up nearly 100 top awards, including U.S. Grand Cheese Champion in 2013, which, in addition to bragging rights helped the Pentermanssecure their green cards for permanent U.S. residency.
What led you to choose specialty cheesemaking as your entrepreneurial endeavor?
I knew I wanted to do my own business, and after we settled in Wisconsin and began farming here I'd toss and turn at night wondering what it should be. One night, I had been thinking of my family's upcoming visit from the Netherlands and what I wanted them to bring over for me – especially the authentic Dutch cheese that I missed so much. Out the window I heard a cow calving on the farm and the idea to make cheese came to me. We had the milk and the farm and we couldn't find the type of gouda that we knew and loved here, so it all made sense. I was fortunate to be in Wisconsin where there's so much expertise, infrastructure and support for aspiring cheesemakers.
You came into the industry at an exciting time for specialty and farmstead cheesemakers.
Absolutely. It really was at the beginning of a huge surge in interest among consumers in artisan foods, in knowing where foods come from and how they're made. I don't know that if I'd started 10 years earlier the market would have been as ready for a small, specialty product like ours, but our timing was great.
And today you're not only making cheese, but have added an agri-tourism aspect to your business.
Yes, we opened a new facility in December that includes a retail store and we give visitors tours of the complete cheesemaking process, starting with the farm and the barn where the cows are milked. I feel it's really important to be able to not just sell our products but to help to educate people about the process and the quality.
What's one big marketing lesson you've learned since becoming a specialty cheesemaker?
Like many consumers, I used to wonder why some specialty cheeses were so much more expensive. Now, I understand. Large cheese manufacturers making commodity cheeses can spread their costs over huge volumes, but for small cheesemakers it can be difficult. We have to compete on the quality of our products and our craftsmanship because there's no way we can compete on price.
How has being a member of WSCI helped you to grow your business?
It's a great organization and a valuable one for smaller cheesemakers and people new to the industry. There's so much to learn, and the contacts I've been able to make and the sharing of ideas with other members is invaluable. It can be tough to break away to get to all of the meetings, but when I do I always come away with ideas and information that help me grow both as a cheesemaker and as a business person.
Did you have another business in mind to pursue before deciding on cheesemaking?
Yes, I initially tried to get into the children's furniture business. I did a few designs but couldn't find anyone to build them for me, so it didn't get off the ground. I've had a lot more success with cheesemaking!
Luke Buholzer, Klondike Cheese Company, Monroe
Vice President of Sales
Klondike Cheese Company, Monroe
A member of the fourth generation of the Buholzer family to own and operate Klondike Cheese in Monroe, Wis., Luke got his start in the business washing cheese forms at age 12. After college, armed with dual majors in marketing and management, he joined a Wisconsin specialty cheese packaging firm to gain outside experience before rejoining the family business. He now heads up sales for Klondike and is a past president and board member of WSCI.
Klondike has achieved impressive growth over the years, enough to support four and now even five generations of family involvement. What have been the biggest milestones in the company's growth?
We've had a lot of expansions, but what really put us on the map was when we began producing feta cheese in 1988. Shortly after that, we saw explosive growth and, while we have always continued to produce other award-winning varieties, too, feta became our flagship product. It continues to be a growth category, particularly as we introduce more value-added products like crumbles and new flavor variations. In 2001, we had one shift producing feta on one production line five days a week. We now have three lines and three shifts for feta production six days a week. Getting into yogurt production was another big move. It took a while to get it off the ground, but we're now expanding our yogurt production facilities, as well.
Your company is now among the largest in WSCI. Has that fact changed your relationship with the organization?
No. We've been involved in WSCI ever since I can remember and even though we're now larger than many members in terms of product lines and sales volume, it doesn't feel any different. Maybe that's because we're very much still a family business. We all face the same issues and challenges and we still really value the networking and information sharing that comes with being a member. It's a very supportive group and that's important no matter what size your company is. It also keeps us informed and up-to-date on industry programs that are available to us, through WSCI as well as other organizations that are represented at meetings, such as the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection.
What are some recent accomplishments that you're most proud of?
We just did very well at the 2016 Wisconsin State Fair Cheese & Butter Contest. We won five blue ribbons and swept the flavored semi-soft cheese category. That was pretty exciting.
What single WSCI educational event has had the greatest impact on your business?
One of the meetings featured an educational session and panel discussion on what to do if your company faces a product recall. It included experts as well as cheesemakers who shared their experiences and what they learned when they lived through difficult recalls. We always thought we were prepared, but we learned a lot in that session and made a lot of improvements afterwards.
What one WSCI social or networking opportunity is your personal favorite?
I will rearrange my calendar and do whatever it takes to make sure I never miss the annual golf outing. It's always a fantastic event, and this year's was no exception -- great golfing and a full day of relaxing and socializing with friends and peers in the industry. There's nothing better!
Shirley Knox, Maple Leaf Cheese
Owner of Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe, Wis.
Shirley Knox has been with Maple Leaf Cheese for the last sixteen years of the company's 100-year history and has been a member of WSCI for nearly fifteen years.
Why did you join WSCI? I was new to the cheese industry and found a lot of friends at WSCI. Some of my customers were members and suggested that I join.
How has membership in WSCI benefited you and your business? The networking has been invaluable in learning the workings of the industry and in finding out what other people do in challenging situations.
Why did you choose to become a part of the specialty cheese community? I used to work in the banking business and had cheese companies as clients. Cheese people always had a positive feeling – they were making a real product. They were making something they could be proud of, while being creative at the same time. It also seemed like a stable and growing industry.
What has been a favorite part of your career? Growing our business and developing our employees. Giving an employee a chance to advance in our company where they might not have had a chance. Helping and Training. It is very rewarding - not only professionally, but also personally - to help develop current and future employees.
Please list a few of your most recent accomplishments. We are proud of our recent awards, but mostly I am proud of the company we have built and the people that work here. We make very special products that are challenging to make and require a lot of dedication and hard work, yet every day we do it successfully.
Shirley feels WSCI provides its members value, as it truly is a networking group of cheese professionals who exchange information and ideas in a unintimidating environment.
She explained, "WSCI meetings are unique in that they are set up to inform people in a variety of professional positions within the cheese industry. Meetings are usually at a location where an educational tour precedes the meeting. During the meeting, a variety of groups present materials that help inform everyone of the resources and events that are available. Afterwards, there is usually a networking lunch where members share ideas and experiences with each other to solve technical or resource challenges. Although some members may compete for some business, the environment of meetings is such that members do not feel like competitors, but like colleagues."
Joe Widmer, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars
Entering Widmer's Cheese Cellars in the tiny town of Theresa, Wis., is like stepping back in time. Adorned with the flags of Swiss cantons on the outside, the plant inside affords visitors a close-up look at the making of some of the Dairy State's best, most classic cheese varieties. Just a step down from a small retail area sits the "make room," its traditional open vats being carefully tended, curds being stirred or hand-scooped into forms, or the famous Widmer bricks being gently placed atop the forms to press the whey out of the signature Brick cheese.
The plant itself, purchased by the Swiss immigrant John O. Widmer in 1922, has been home—literally—to three generations of Widmer cheesemakers. "It's a classic Wisconsin cheese plant," says current owner Joe Widmer, who, like his father before him, grew up in the rooms above the plant and who raised his children here, as well. "Very little has changed in the 80-plus years that my family has been making cheese here," he says.
For Widmer, growing up in a cheesemaking family instilled in him great pride in producing top-quality cheese and a reverence for doing things "the old-fashioned way."
"From the time I was 6 years old, I remember helping out in the plant," he says. "I'd come down in the morning and do my job before going to school. At the end of the day, I always took pride in the fine products my father had made, and in his commitment to always be the best he could be. That's what keeps me going and makes me believe that sticking to tradition–not taking any short cuts–is the way to go. The way I see it, it's like comparing Grandma's donuts to Dunkin' Donuts. I'll take Grandma's every time."
Today, Widmer's cheese is widely hailed for its authenticity, handcrafted quality and consistency. The company makes a wide range of cheeses, but is best known for its traditional stirred-curd Wisconsin Colby, award-winning aged Cheddar and, of course, classic Wisconsin Aged Brick.
"Brick, particularly the surface-ripened, foil-wrapped version, has always been our calling card," Widmer says. "It's a Wisconsin Original and is one of the finest cheeses we make. Because it's a washed-rind cheese that's aged longer, it develops robust flavors. We're seeing demand for it increasing as consumers seek out more distinctive artisanal cheeses."
Following in his father and grandfather's footsteps, Widmer says he'll continue to maintain and grow his family's cheesemaking traditions. And, like his father, he strives to never stop learning. He's one of a handful of cheesemakers in Wisconsin to have earned the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, having completed a rigorous three-year advanced training program for veteran cheesemakers. Widmer has completed the course not once, but twice, earning Master certification in Brick, Cheddar and Colby varieties.