There’s a castle just off of I-94 near Kenosha, Wisconsin, but it doesn’t hold the holy grail. Instead, legends tell of a horde of dairy piled high within its stone walls. Eater Chicago spoke with Michael Ventura, Mars Cheese Castle’s co-owner, and Niki Corbett, the company’s marketing manager, to get the full story behind this well-known 60-year-old tourist and food attraction.
What is the history of Mars Cheese Castle?
Corbett: Mars started off as a store out of a schoolhouse in Kenosha in 1947. Michael's grandparents started it. That was Mario senior and Martha Ventura. That was a small mom and pop shop. Over the years, it grew. They added the tavern after. There was also a pretty large fire in 1957 where they ended up moving locations and then building it from there.
Six years ago, it was turned into an actual castle-like building. This past year, over the winter until two weeks ago, we did a little over 22,000-square-foot expansion on top of that. And we went online. We wanted to create a bigger space that was comfortable but a destination. You've got your tavern, you've got your eatery, you've got a fun shopping area with Wisconsin-only products. And we have our wines, because wine goes good with cheese.
We expanded our cheese department quite extensively. We added a "feast hall" which houses wines from around the world. We would like to get into being able to rent that, where guests can have wine tastings or work events in there eventually, and do some small catering events. We also added to our gift shop. We're known for having quirky products and fun Wisconsin-only products, so we needed to expand that.
Ventura: We already doubled the size of our kitchen back in 2011, and this year we've tripled the size of that because we've got so many great food items to prepare and make for our guests. And we've really taken it seriously. It's grown into something that's more than a sandwich counter. We have actual chefs who get what Wisconsin food is. It's comfort food. It's flavor all the way, so we've been doing a better job at that and focusing on that.
How have you grown into a regional tourist attraction over the years?
Corbett: As somebody that's outside of the family, what I noticed is that, even though the building is growing, there's been strong emphasis on keeping that familiar family-like atmosphere. It's something so simple as creating a cheese spread with crackers on it and putting one of those in the bar. It kind of creates that casual atmosphere that you're all at this little party together and you're mingling. It's a very relaxed feeling. We're growing online; we're growing constantly; that's something that's very important to the environment and the staff here in general. We have over 700 cheeses; we're climbing to 800.
Ventura: My grandfather wouldn't just do something — he'd do it the right way. It was reflected in every single element of the business. There's a right way to grow, in our opinion, and it's customer-centered. I grew up here, so it is like my home. That permeates into every element our business.
It's that fun little stop on a road trip.
Why do you think people visit the Mars Cheese Castle again and again?
Corbett: We do have regulars that visit us frequently, but we get a lot of out of state visitors. We've kind of become that Wisconsin staple with that small-town Kenosha charm. We want to have that photo op where people live in a different place and they want to take a picture with Isabel our talking cow. It's wearing the cheese hat and people can have fun with it. When people are passing us, they need to do it. It's that fun little stop on a road trip. Sometimes I shy away from the word touristy, but that is technically what it is.
Where do most of your visitors come from?
Corbett: A lot of people come from Illinois. We definitely get big pushes during Illinois-Wisconsin games. Because we're right on the border, just for the record, we're not going to say which teams we root for the most. We also get people from Indiana.
Ventura: We also get international visitors. We are literally world famous. The castle idea came from our history. If you go to Europe, you see actual castles all over the place. I think tourists, especially those from overseas, get it immediately that there's a European influence mixing and melding beautifully with the Wisconsin scene. When they see our products, it's a reflection of that, as well. There's a beautiful tie-in there.
When tourists come here, they no longer feel like tourists because we're treating them like they're one of us. I think that's what makes us so popular with them. They don't feel like an outsider. We bring them into the fold of Wisconsin and all the fun stuff that there is.
When people visit Mars Cheese Castle for the first time, how do they react?
Ventura: I see the look in their eyes and I go up to people and say, it's okay, take it all in. One thing that I hear is, they'll just be saying the names of cheeses out of astonishment that they can't believe there are that many different kinds.
The very first experience is just taking it all in. Just figuring out what this Mars Cheese Castle thing is all about. Then they start trying samples. Maybe they buy something. Learn something. When your taste buds are a-dancing, Mars Cheese Castle is a-foot. Then people get it.
Then people come back for those things. We hear it all the time that we can only find it here. We're specialists in all those weird, quirky, fun, unique flavors.
We're cheesy and proud of it.
What's that talking cow about?
Ventura: You mean to tell me that other places don't have a talking cow? Sometimes I forget that we're so unique. Part of our role here is educating folks on Wisconsin and the cheesemaking process. We've done various things over the years with displays and videos and brochures and having cheesemakers come in and explain their process, even demo.
We had a cow made and we decided to make her talk to explain the beginning process that all these wonderful cheeses comes from local cows. The different breeds of cows will make different milk. It's just a really fun way to get people involved and to teach them the science behind it. If we want to educate, we don't just educate, we don't just hand out a flier, we do a talking cow. We're here to have fun. We're cheesy and proud of it.
On that note, let's hear about some of the cheese you sell.
Ventura: Some of the cheeses that we get in are so unique and cool. Like we'll get in mammoth wheels, which are like 500-pound wheels. We need a bit of space to cut those and handle them. Your grocery store won't ever see that — they don't know what that is. That's unique to a cheese shop like ours.
What's something you can only find at Mars Cheese Castle?
We have a bigger, better selection of aged cheeses than you'll find anywhere else. Up to like 15 years old, which is just insane. We've got all kinds of other cheeses from throughout Wisconsin. Not only do we have the bigger names, but we go out and find anything that's unique or cool or maybe people haven't heard of yet. We've got hundreds that are their own types that people haven't heard of yet.
We've got tons of sauces and jams and quinces and mustards you can't find anywhere else too. We've got our signature products like our cheese curds. That's a completely unique recipe. Our cheddar cheese bread that's made in-house with two year old sharp cheddar. That's exclusive to us. Our king of clubs cheddar spread. I mean, it's just a cheddar spread, but because it's Mars-ified, it is super unique. It's rich, it's creamy, it's aged a year.
Our reuben sandwich is our flagship item in the kitchen. I've made it a mission to try reubens all over the U.S. and I've never tried one like ours. It's just such a unique mix of our cooking style and our rich ingredients.
And you sell a special beer there, too, right?
We teamed up with Lakefront Brewery to make the Red Planet Ale. It's our own private label. Customers seem to love it and I think we'll continue down those paths. We'll team up with people to make super exclusive items.
What's next for Mars Cheese Castle?
We've got so many exciting ideas being tossed around. There's some that I can't mention yet. We're thinking about maybe festivals. Maybe fun things to do here and enjoy the nice warm weather; some exciting ideas of what to do in the store that we're cooking up. I don't want to reveal too much.
Definitely we're not stopping. We need to keep this going. There's just no place like ours. We definitely want to keep exploring. My grandfather did that. Every two to five years he'd reinvest, try something new, see what else is out there. We're not just carrying the torch.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.