In our monthly Made in the Tri-States feature, we’ll go behind the-scenes of some of the area’s signature products. Watch for new installments the first Sunday of each month. And if you’ve got an idea for us to feature, send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
FENNIMORE, Wis. — To Linda Parrish, it is hard to envision the city of Fennimore without Carr Valley Cheese.
“For as long as I have been here, there has been a cheese store there,” said Parrish, promotions coordinator for the City of Fennimore and manager of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and economic development offices. “It is one of the premier businesses in our town and a place that people really seek out. When people come (into town) on the south end, that is what welcomes them to Fennimore.”
Carr Valley Cheese has operated the building at 1675 Lincoln Ave. since 2005. Prior to that, the structure housed Fennimore Cheese for multiple decades
The Fennimore plant is one of four used by Carr Valley Cheese, a company headquartered in La Valle. It is the only one, however, that creates a signature product known as bread cheese.
Plant manager Joy Bussan explained that the term is a bit of a misnomer.
“It is not actually made of any kind of bread,” Bussan said. “It is all cheese, but it kind of looks like a piece of bread. When we bake it here, that is what gives it its golden brown appearance.”
The baking process also brings out the flavor, Bussan added.
Carr Valley’s bread cheese comes in five flavors: Goat cheese, garlic, plain, jalapeno and chipotle. The chipotle bread cheese recently took “Best of Class” at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison.
BLOCKS TO BREAD
Cheese from La Valle arrives in Fennimore in massive, 40-pound blocks before undergoing its transformation into bread cheese.
Within the Fennimore facility, the hefty blocks are sliced into 54 pieces. These small pieces are then placed upon a conveyor belt and sent through one of six commercial pizza ovens.
The bread cheese is placed on a cooling rack before being packaged and labeled on-site.
In a typical week, the 10 employees at Carr Valley Cheese collectively produce more than 800 cases of bread cheese. This cheese ultimately makes its way to retail stores and restaurants throughout the Midwest.
Bussan said bread cheese should be heated before consumption and noted that customers do so in a variety of ways, ranging from microwaving to grilling it.
Some eat the bread cheese plain, while others opt to dip it in sauce. Others get even more creative.
“You can use it as a piece of bread,” she said. “People have made grilled cheese sandwiches with two pieces (of bread cheese) and cheese in the middle.”
Bussan said that newfound efficiencies have increased the rate of production.
The Fennimore facility was recently outfitted with a pair of new ovens, increasing its capacity for baking.
The cheese-cutting process, which once was done “with the worker’s muscle,” has since been streamlined by the purchase of new machinery. Carr Valley employees used to seal and label each block of cheese by hand. That process also has been automated.
“All of those changes have been made in the last two years,” Bussan said. “And the result is that we can produce a lot more.”
The Fennimore facility also has added employees in its efforts to boost production. When Bussan was hired by Carr Valley five years ago, the facility employed six part-time workers. Today the plant has 10 employees, including five who work full time.
In addition to creating and packaging bread cheese, these workers also package butter, blue cheese crumbles and “cheese stix” products made at other Carr Valley locations.
While the work that occurs inside the building produces the bread cheese, a fixture located just outside the plant long has been the calling card for Fennimore’s cheese plant.
A giant statue of a mouse, which locals have named “Igor,” is located just outside the Carr Valley Cheese plant. The enormous rodent predates Carr Valley’s time in Fennimore.
“Igor is very well known and is kind of an icon for our business and the community,” said Parrish. “It is kind of our claim to fame.”
Bussan said it is common for tourists to stop at Carr Valley Cheese and take pictures with the rodent monstrosity.
In addition to the cheese-making operations, the Fennimore location serves as one of eight retail stores for Carr Valley Cheese.
The store sells the full array of bread cheese products created in Fennimore, as well as a wide range of other cheese products produced by Carr Valley.
In addition to cheese, the store sells beer, wine and a wide selection of souvenirs. It even sells ice cream during the warmer months.
Parrish has been impressed by the wide appeal of the operation.
“They have lots of knickknacks and other items that they sell there, and Joy does a great job of giving advice, letting people know which wines pair with which cheeses and so on,” she said.
The retail store is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
“I like to say we are more than just a cheese store,” Bussan said. “I think that we have a lot to offer.”