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For most of its 74 years, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart was a sleepy little shop on Old World Third Street. Originally in the old Metropolitan Block building, across an alley from Usinger's, the store moved a half block north in 1976 after its historic edifice burned.
The mart ran through a succession of owners, and at times seemed to be as much a deli as a cheese retailer. Enter Ken McNulty in 2003.
A software implementer who spent too much time on the road, he had tired of living out of a suitcase, and he wanted to own a business that could sell its products online. McNulty bought the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and it woke up.
The new owner swept all of the non-Wisconsin cheeses, except a handful of European specialties, off the shelves. He installed a high-powered website that offers customers multiple ways to navigate through the shop's vast inventory.
Cheese categories include "stinky," "spicy" and "smoked." You can browse through cheeses that have won awards, are made in small batches, or are in unusual shapes. Internet sales leaped 1,000%.
The mart ships to all 50 states from an old cigar factory located a block north and across the street from the retail space. California, Texas and Florida are the three hungriest states for Wisconsin Cheese Mart products.
McNulty gave the bricks and mortar location a merchandising facelift, and three years ago he expanded into the adjoining storefront, adding a full bar and cafe open to midnight on weekends. Shop sales have increased 600% since he bought the business.
Cheese plates ($7.25 to $11.25) for pairings with wine and beer are offered. Deli plates of sausage ($6.75), meat and cheese ($7.75) and charcuterie ($12) are joined on the menu by a half dozen variations on grilled cheese sandwiches ($3.50 to $8.25), wieners and brats on pretzel buns ($4.50), and of course, cheesecake ($3.75).
The sausages are from Usinger's, Bolzano, and Wautoma's StoneRidge Meats.
All of the bottled and tap beer is brewed in Wisconsin, with the selection ranging from Miller and Leinie's to Capital and Furthermore. Beer and wine flights are available.
McNulty expected most customers to pair wine with their cheese, but ya der hey, this is Wisconsin. Brewskis rule. Beer decisively outsells wine, and the owner responded by bulking up the beer list and selling six-packs to go.
The bar and cafe contribute only a small number to the business' bottom line, according to McNulty, but they drive store cheese sales, which in turn drive internet sales. Customers can wander the shop with a glass of beer or wine in hand. That encourages browsing and lowers reluctance to trying something new.
The mart stocks more than 200 Wisconsin cheeses, and many are unusual. Basic aged cheddars are the best sellers in the shop and online, but check out some of these more exotic offerings:
- Mango Fire Heritage Cheddar from Henning's Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel uses mango and habanero peppers to give your mouth a pop. An 8-oz. package is priced at $6.25.
- Raspberry BellaVitano is a cheddar and parmesan mix soaked in New Glarus Brewing Company's Raspberry Tart beer. The winner of the 2008 World Cheese Award for best new cheese and best American cheese, it is made by Plymouth's Sartori Cheese. The Raspberry BellaVitano sells for $4.65 for 5.3 ounces.
- Nut Brown Ale Caerphilly, a cave-aged Welsh miner's cheese soaked in Bull Falls Brewery ale, is made by Harmony Specialty Dairy Foods in Stratford. It is $17.75 a pound.
- Wild morel mushroom and Jack cheese from the Meister Cheese Company in Muscoda costs $4.45 for 8 ounces.
- Juusto, a Finnish-style baked cheese served heated with jelly or jam, is produced by Pasture Pride Cheese in Cashton. It is $4.95 for 7 ounces.
McNulty said the cheese industry is mirroring the brewing business in the splintering of the market among specialty and niche products. Industry growth is not coming from the familiar lowest common denominator brands, but from cheese makers offering new and intriguing flavors.
The Wisconsin Cheese Mart attracts a substantial number of tourists seeking a slice of Milwaukee's heritage on Old World Third Street, and McNulty uses that introduction to make them follow-up customers online. "It helps to have a store and not just a virtual presence," he said.
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.