Since I’ve started blogging, I often stumble upon places that remind me to avoid making assumptions. This week’s blog is a very good demonstration of that. It’s about a factory, producing a product that screams Wisconsin, whose staple has been seen at sports venues across the state. I’m talking about the Original Cheesehead Factory in the heart of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Immediately, as I discover this place, I’m surprised to learn that there is a stand-alone factory that creates cheeseheads. My assumption, when seeing these foam wedges on a retail shelf, was that some guy had a contract, probably with a factory in china, and made a substantial profit after they were sent to retail stores and purchased on-line.
In itself, the factory will surprise you. It’s a functioning factory and store, yet it’s inviting to visitor’s with an inspiring aesthetic quality that combines both American grit and visitor’s fun. Besides a brewery tour, this is the first product producing facility I’ve visited. However, I doubt there are many quite like this.
We make our way across National avenue and spy a rudimentary brick building, nestled away amongst old structures on Barclay Street, adorned with a wood sign proclaiming the ‘Original Cheesehead Factory’. Its location is advantageous for those interested in Wisconsin industry Icons, being a short drive from the Harley-Davidson museum.
We park on the street, as it was relatively easy to find a spot. When we stroll through the plain door, which could be the entrance to any century old main street shop, I’m greeted by a store stylishly combining modern and throwback elements. Bare brick walls and rudimentary shelves hold the main attractions.
Foam products, the color of cheddar and dimpled with replicated swiss cheese holes, are for sale. There are all sorts of creations, from fireman and policeman hats to neckties and bowties. Of course, the famous wedges that gave birth to the craze of the nineties are also here for purchase. There are also some Tee’s that boast the place’s title.
A lady behind a modern counter asks if she could help us. I respond “We booked a tour for two on-line.” It was pretty simple to book the tour. I simply went to The Original Cheesehead Factory website and purchased the Cheddar Tour at a convenient time slot.
There are three tours to choose from- the Swiss, Cheddar and Holy Cow Tours. The Swiss simply gives you the history of the Cheesehead. The Cheddar provides history and takes you through the factory. The Holy Cow, including the elements of the cheddar, allows you to create your own cheesehead. I’m cheap, so I went for the cheddar tour at $12 per person versus the $25 Holy Cow.
That’s enough about booking a tour, now, back to my story. The lady replies after I tell her we’re here for the tour, “give me a few minutes, I’ll see if we have any walk-ins.” We have time to check out all manner of all things cheesy while we wait.
After a brief delay, she guides us through a curtained entrance into a room with a walk-in safe standing in the corner. We pull up a seat on a plush sofa and learn about the history of the Cheeshead.
We learn of Ralph Bruno, a young inventor and student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. While bothered by the degrading label ‘cheesehead’, which people from Illinois facetiously would call the home town fans in County Stadium, he decided the best way to subdue the disparaging term was to own it.
So, he cut out a wedge from a foam cushion of an old sofa, burned some holes with a welder and painted it yellow. In 1987 he wore it to a game pitting the Milwaukee Brewers against the Chicago White Sox, where people asked, “Where can I get one of those?”
That ‘Prototype’ is enshrined in the Iron Vault, a testament to the age of this 113 year old building, for visitors to see.
This building is not the original location of the Original Cheesehead factory, the original structure was an old warehouse. The new place’s original purpose was a two-story metal-working sight. It has changed hands a few times over the years and, in 2017, became the home of the Original Cheesehead Factory. The area we now sit in can also be used for events and social gatherings.
After about a fifteen minute history lesson, we’re guided to the Factory portion. It’s pretty much an open expanse, partitioned off. Our guide informs us that not only does the factory churn out cheesehats, but there is some contract work for other businesses. Things like buffalo wings and corn hats, for those Nebraska fans, have also been created and sold. I won’t tell you all of them, I’d rather have you surprised during your own tour.
We finally find our selves in the room where the magic is made. The actual production room is tiny, with a handful of stations. There’s a robot that decides how much reactant and foam are distributed for each creation. Besides that, it’s pretty much done by hand. I see the demonstration and feel confident that I, Indeed, could have constructed my own cheese hat.
After the tour ends, we head to the photo area where the guide takes a picture with us and some fun hats. I absolutely love it!
What I like most about this place, it demonstrates that the American Dream is still alive. A cheesehead isn’t a corporate Idea marketed and sold to the masses. It’s the offspring of a man with a fun Idea that speaks of the Wisconsin sports culture, namely the Green Bay Packers. What’s more, the product is created by a handful of employee’s. They churn out 50,000 to 150,000 products a year, depending on Green Bay’s performance. Freedom to create what you choose and make a living doing it, that’s a prime example of my vision of the American dream.
To that I say Go Pack and stay cheesy Mr. Bruno! I loved your place!