By Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host Published Feb 16, 2012 at 9:02 AM

Milwaukee native Bob Wills has become somewhat of a legend in the cheesemaking world. A lawyer by trade, Wills hadn't given much thought to the idea of devoting his life to cheese before marrying into a cheesemaking family at the age of 35. But, as they say, the rest is history.

During his past 20 years at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wills has acted as a mentor to many up-and-coming cheesemakers including Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese, Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy and Al Bekkum of Nordic Creamery. Not surprisingly, Wills' new project, the Clock Shadow Creamery, will continue his tradition of mentorship right here in the city of Milwaukee.

Named for the nearby Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, Milwaukee's first cheese factory is scheduled to be up and running in historic Walker's Point beginning this March. Its mission: to cultivate interest in urban cheesemaking while providing a fresh, local product to urban residents.

To bring the project to fruition, Wills partnered with Milwaukee developer, Juli Kaufman to lease the first floor of the FIX, a new $7.2 million, four-story green structure at 538 S. 2nd St. The building, which has been designed to be net-zero energy and carbon neutral, incorporates a rooftop urban farm, on-site food composting, water treatment and geothermal components, as well as off-site wind turbines. Wills says that all wash water will be routed through a digester being developed by the Potawatomi Tribe before waste water is discharged into a nearby stream.

Clock Shadow Creamery will share its first floor space with Purple Door Ice Cream, a local company with a shared passion for community, quality and environmental sustainability.

"Kaufmann approached us to see if we would be interested in partnering with the creamery and sharing the space," says Lauren Schultz, co-owner of Purple Door. "When we met with her and Bob, we saw that our businesses would be a great fit together."

As part of the move, the Schultzes' plan to expand its Milk for Milwaukee program, which supports area homeless shelters, to include locations in Walkers' Point. Likewise, Wills hopes the creamery will play a role in reconnecting urban residents to their food. In a means toward this end, Clock Shadow will feature public viewing areas where onlookers can see both cheese and ice cream being made, as well as partake in educational programs promoting healthy eating and lifestyle choices.

"Everybody has been promoting local food. But, some of the definitions of local that people are using are pretty lax," Wills remarks. "But, really, the point of local is to be able to target the needs and tastes of that particular location. So, I said, let's take the opportunity to focus on where the real advantage is in local products – and that's on fresh, local products."

And fresh and local will be the hallmarks of his new business. Both the creamery and Purple Door will produce their products from RBGH-free milk procured from nearby suburban family dairy farms.

"We've identified a couple of farms that are in the urban fringe and under development pressure," Wills says. "But by working with them and getting them a higher value for their milk, it helps them resist development and keep farming."

Customers will help to determine what additional demands the creamery might make of its supplying farmers.

"We see our role as being the connection between the farmers and the consumers. We're able to tell the story of the farms to the consumer, and the consumer can listen and make decisions about what they want from those farms. We really become the conduit."

The creamery will begin with daily production of cheese curds, chevre and other fresh products, including one of Wills' personal favorites, quark. A European fresh cheese with a mild flavor and soft texture, quark is made by warming soured milk to denature its proteins and then straining it until it reaches the desired consistency.

"It's such a lovely versatile cheese. I make pancakes with it, peach quark pie, lasagna. You can use it for anything. It's wonderful for cooking, and it's perfect for cheesecakes. I'm constantly finding new things to do with it. It's so much fun."

In addition to distributing the creamery's fresh cheeses through local grocers and outlets, Wills also has his eye on producing a variety of fresh Hispanic-style cheeses to provide to area ethnic restaurants, who have expressed an interest in incorporating Clock Shadow Creamery's cheeses into its menu items.

Day-to-day operations at the creamery will be managed by Ron Henningfeld, a high school teacher turned cheesemaker who has spent the last few years working under the tutelage of Wills and Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. A cheesemaking apprenticeship program will further ensure that the creamery serves as an incubator for future urban cheesemakers.

"I'm working a lot with young people, and I have no idea where they'll take me," Wills muses. "My vision is that it should be collaborative, but the direction it goes is really going to be with the guys coming in. I'd like to see young cheesemakers work together, find ways to grow and get better. I see myself as a resource for that."

Henningfeld also shares Wills' vision, and looks forward to continued work with his fellow cheese artisans. "We're all making cheese and competing on the same market. So, let's work together so that each of us is making the best cheese we can."

Lori Fredrich Senior Food Writer, Dining Editor, Podcast Host

Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club. 

When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.