Leading the whey to Wisconsin cheese
It should come as no surprise that Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, is home to one of the foremost cheese retailers in the country. After all, the state boasts more than 100 registered cheesemakers and sellers across the state. And it’s home to countless award-winning cheeses, including the 2016 World Cheese Champion, Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix and Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the most-awarded cheese in American history.
Established in Madison in 2007, Fromagination — a whimsical portmanteau combining the words “fromage” and “imagination” — is a veritable wonderland for novice and seasoned cheese lovers alike.
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The shop is situated in a 1930’s vintage storefront with 15-foot ceilings and large, beautifully-staged picture windows, which silently beckon to passersby. Inside, visitors are treated to a charming European-style atmosphere and a long display case featuring 80-plus varieties of cheese, most from Wisconsin. Tables and shelves circle the interior showcasing jams, vinegars, membrillo and other befitting accompaniments. You’ll also find cheese papers, charcuterie, knives, platters, cheese boards, cookbooks, beer, wine and a wide variety of private label items, including cranberry chutney made by Madison-based Quince & Apple.
Meanwhile, a lunch menu offers up a bevy of sandwiches and salads, including the Great Wisconsin Sandwich, a three-cheese concoction loaded with Genoa salami, Italian prosciutto, Tuscan salami from Madison’s Underground Meats, and Mozzarella and Provolone from Monroe-based Roth Cheese.
And there’s a refreshing diversity among its clientele, which includes visiting dignitaries, curious tourists, Boho-foodies and locals looking for something special to accompany their next meal. And it’s no wonder. On any given day, a trip to Fromagination has the power to engender a newfound respect for the art and artistry of Wisconsin cheesemaking.
Ken Monteleone grew up in the midst of the food industry. His family owned Monteleone Produce, a specialty wholesaler based in Colorado, and he says he always envisioned he would one day follow in his family’s footsteps. But after graduating from college, Monteleone found himself on another path. He spent decades in the corporate world, building his career in retail purchasing for department stores like JC Penney’s and eventually Land’s End. In fact, it was a position with Famous Footwear that drew him to Wisconsin’s capital.
“I didn’t know a lot about Madison at the time,” he says. “But it was a great opportunity for me to advance in my career and become a buyer. When I got here, I fell in love with the culture, the food and especially with the cheese.”
But it was 15 years before Monteleone would heed his passion.
“I was burned out,” he recalls. “I was tired of the corporate culture and wanted to do my own thing, so I started to formulate a business plan that focused on specialty foods, particularly cheese.”
He left his job and spent a year in the pursuit of research. He traveled to Ann Arbor, MI, and took full advantage of the training program offered by Zingerman’s, a retailer that had already earned a reputation for offering top-notch customer service.
“I was smart enough to know what I didn’t know,” notes Monteleone. “So I did my due diligence. I worked in the cheese department at Zingerman’s, and I traveled all around the country meeting with many people who did what I wanted to do. I got tons of ideas from leaders in the cheese industry. I also got to know a lot of the local Wisconsin producers.”
Monteleone also spent a great deal of time thinking about how he would differentiate Fromagination from the competition.
“There were plenty of cheese shops and places to buy cheese,” he explains. “But, we wanted to create a slower environment where people would get to know us. We wanted a face that was unique in that way. When I’d travel to Europe, I’d go to shops in France and Italy. And I took a lot of cues from those places.”
When it came time to choose a location for his new business, Monteleone settled on a 1,200-square-foot storefront on Madison’s Capitol Square, a central community gathering space and home to a variety of events, including protests, concerts and the notable Dane County Farmers Market.
“There wasn’t a lot going on around the Square at the time, so many people questioned my judgment,” recalls Monteleone. “But, I’d lived here for a while, and I had a second sense about it. It seemed that, no matter where you lived in Madison, people always managed to make it to the capitol, and it was also a place that welcomed people from around the nation.”
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Relationships Are Everything
One of the first things customers will notice when they visit Fromagination is the shop’s attention to detail. All of its cheeses are cut to order. Wheels are painstakingly placed in the cheese cases each day, and cheeses are regularly scraped and re-wrapped to prevent the development of mold. Frequent sampling monitors the flavor development and ensures cheesemongers are able to point customers to cheeses that are at their peak.
Monteleone notes the key to Fromagination’s success lies in its emphasis on listening to customers.
“Our cheesemongers are trained to be attentive to people,” he explains. “Every customer is different, so there’s no script. We work to get to know people; we read their body language. In an age where Amazon is getting better and better, we have to deliver consistent, authentic service that you won’t get from shopping online.”
And relationships are at the heart of the business. Over the years, Monteleone has developed a personal rapport with area cheesemakers, visiting their farms and facilities and perfecting the art of telling their stories.
“All the people we work with we really know on a personal level,” he explains. “We order direct from all of our cheesemakers. We don’t purchase through a distributor. And the reason we do that is we want to talk to them weekly. We want to bring in things that no one else has.”
That includes cheeses like Leopold, a soft cow’s milk cheese from Bill Anderson of Creme de la Coulee in Fitchburg, WI. Modeled after French Chaource, a relative of Brie and Camembert, the soft cow’s milk cheese is processed in a way that allows it to take on a texture similar to Chevré along with a tangy, robust flavor profile.
Interestingly, the shop has also been the springboard for a variety of food artisans in the Madison area, including renowned cheesemaker Andy Hatch, co-owner of Dodgeville’s Uplands Cheese, who helped Monteleone set up his shop and pull together the cheese assortment.
“Ten years ago, he was working behind the counter,” says Monteleone. “And now he’s an award-winning cheesemaker.”
Evolving With The Times
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“I thought I was going to open up a little brick and mortar,” says Monteleone. “I thought I’d spend time cutting cheese, talking to customers and meeting with cheesemakers. But we’ve grown organically and things have come around that weren’t in the business plan.”
Growth has come through expansion of the business into areas including corporate gifting and catering. And the shop’s online cheese business — which now ships coast to coast — has grown exponentially, comprising about 35 percent of the shop’s annual revenue.
Monteleone says he consistently keeps his eyes open for new trends and items he thinks might fit with the culture and personality of the shop.
“I’m always looking for inspiration,” he says. “And I’m always talking with people, asking them questions and getting to know them. For example, I met a Milwaukee artist, Kate Riley, at Slo Pig. I saw a pig plate she designed, and I loved it. Now we carry an entire line of plates from her. Cheese will always be central to our business, but we’ve always been open to testing out and growing our business with things that complement that.”
One area where his trend-spotting abilities have served him particularly well is in the expansion of Fromagination’s wedding business, which has gained a widespread reputation for its creative cakes made from wheels of Wisconsin cheese.
“I spend hours perusing and researching trends in food,” says Monteleone. “And when I came across the idea of making cakes from wheels of cheese — something they’ve been doing in England forever— I realized it provided us with an opportunity to create something new. A lot of weddings in Wisconsin feature cheese, but there really isn’t anything quite like this.”
Monteleone knew he had to help people envision what a cake made from wheels of cheese could look like, so he called his photographer, Todd Maughan, and scheduled a photo shoot.
Once the pictures went online, demand soared. From there, Fromagination expanded its wedding and special events offerings to include catering, favors and cheesemonger experiences, a popular offering now available for private parties and corporate events.
“Over the years, we’ve seen so many changes,” says Monteleone. “The interest in local food has really changed the way people respond to what we do. Customers are far more savvy. Young people research cheeses online, so they come to the table knowing more. And that means we have to be willing to take risks and keep moving forward. We have to keep evolving. We can’t rest on our laurels.”