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Meet Hannah from the Wisconsin Dells' vegan oasis The Cheeze Factory

Meet Hana from the Wisconsin Dells' vegan oasis
The Cheeze Factory
by Marla Rose

To fully appreciate the magical green paradise that is The Cheese Factory (now The Cheeze Factory, but we’ll get to that in a moment), you have to first put it in its context. The Cheeze Factory is located in the Wisconsin Dells, a very tacky, very fun travel destination in south-central Wisconsin. With go-kart tracks, the famous Tommy Bartlett water ski show (three-tier human pyramid on water skis!), a zany haunted house attraction, amusement parks, mini-golf, a musty Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, an attraction I’ve been to but still don’t quite understand the point of and enough water gurgling and spraying everywhere to have it named “the waterpark capital of the world,” the Wisconsin Dells is not a place that takes itself too seriously but it does attract a ton of tourists in the warmer months. Think of it as a Vegas for kids, except instead of gambling in casinos, they’re zooming down water slides. 

In the frenetic environment of the Dells, there are a multitude of restaurants all competing for coveted tourist’s dollars, and most have the familiar menu items one would find in a vacation town that caters to families: chicken nuggets, spaghetti and meatballs, cheeseburgers and so on. There is, however, one very unexpected bright light in the midst of all the fudge shops and all-you-can-eat buffets: The Cheese Factory, an oasis for people who want to eat healthier and those of us who don’t eat animals. Well, it was known as The Cheese Factory until they went through a transformation in 2013 as they remodeled and transitioned to a vegan menu, reemerging as The Cheeze Factory.

If you ask me, it took a ton of courage for a established vegetarian restaurant in a town that is very reliant on tourist dollars during a very limited busy season to change their menu, alter or get rid of popular items and potentially turn away diners. What drove the transformation at The Cheeze Factory? How are people receiving the changes? Has their business suffered? Please read the interview to learn how the one vegetarian restaurant in a tourist town made the decision to transition away from eggs and dairy, and how they are thriving in a competitive market with a very short busy season. I interviewed publicity manager Hana Laurence for all the details.

Marla Rose: What is the history of The Cheese Factory? I remember when we discovered The Cheese Factory about 15 years ago, it was this midpoint between our home in Chicago and my husband's family in Minnesota. It's a long drive but is happily broken up by The Cheese Factory. It just has always seemed like a happy oasis in the middle of dairyland and an unexpected find amid the water parks and tourist attractions of the Dells. How did The Cheese Factory come into being? Could you give us a little history? (After this point, I will be referring to you by your new name.)

Hana Laurence: The Cheese Factory Restaurant opened as a vegetarian restaurant in 1992, around a decade before Wisconsin Dells became “the waterpark capital of the world”.  It was inspired by an unlikely consortium of people from all over the world who landed in Wisconsin, formed a church based on the teachings of “A Course in Miracles,” and individually wanted to integrate their Christian ideals into their daily lives.  The idea of working together in the community occurred just about the same time that a primary investor found the deserted old cheese factory building for sale.

The irony of a vegetarian restaurant opening in the heart of dairy land – and in a charming 1930s-era former cheese store building – created a stir of local gossip in 1992.  It seemed strange back then not only due to the name and the food, but also because the building sat all alone in a then-barren stretch of Highway 12 - surrounded only by a few small motels and a golf course. No one could have foreseen the influx of huge indoor waterparks, the Ho-Chunk Casino, and a discount shopping mall in the Wisconsin Dells area, attracting an ever-expanding diversity of new tourists from around the globe. 

MR: Whenever I tell people about this magical fairyland vegetarian restaurant in the Dells, they inevitably do a double-take at your name. I understand that you are operating under a new name now. Could you tell us a little more about that?

HL: The Cheese Factory Restaurant was originally named for the building itself, which was known in that time (the ‘90s) as “The Cheese Factory”.

Now that the restaurant is vegan, the name no longer serves us – though we have many loyal customers – so we decided to change it to The Cheeze Factory Restaurant. The “z” in the name seems to imply veganism, which is our new bent.

MR: I have a kind of funny story: Last year, I was picking my son up from school and he had tears in his eyes. He told me that he had very bad news for me. Immediately, I thought he'd gotten in trouble somehow but that wasn't it: his teacher has a cabin in the Dells area and told him that you guys had closed. My son was crying and upset because he thought that your place no more. Thankfully I'd heard earlier that you were closing to remodel and reopen with an entirely vegan menu so I was able to tell him. He didn't fully believe me until we got home and I could show him the message on your website. Your restaurant has meant a lot to him over the years and I am sure it's the same to many people. I'm certain that the decision to transition from a vegetarian restaurant to a vegan one was not one that was made lightly as you are a very popular place. Could you tell me what motivated that decision?

HL: Our decision to transform The Cheese Factory Restaurant into The Cheeze Factory Restaurant was the result of a major shift in focus of the management team to reflect how we ourselves live and eat, so we offer healthier menu choices using plant-based ingredients, and a less cumbersome organization. The transition from 21 years as a popular vegetarian restaurant to a fully plant-based restaurant required closing for a couple of months late in 2013 to remodel the inside of the building, create brand new recipes, and educate potential staff about our new purpose.

MR: I think that was a very brave decision, especially being such an established place and in the middle of an area that attracts a lot of tourists with a lot of competition for diners' dollars. Last summer was your first one with an all vegan menu: How was business? Have you had many complaints from longtime customers? Has the support outweighed this?

HL: Our support by “like-minded”, enthusiastic customers has been very rewarding and they truly appreciate our unique new, all-encompassing menu. “Great vegan food!  Really, the Cheese Factory proved that it IS possible” was a recent review from a Madison visitor. We are rewarded with impressive reviews on Tripadvisor and Yelp.

Our Chef is very excited to come up with brand new recipes, and the physical re-organization of the space itself has made it much easier on our staff. However, we would like to grow our business and would appreciate more customers in the off-season.

MR: What were any unexpected obstacles you faced as you transitioned your restaurant to a new menu? What were some unexpected benefits?

HL: Actually, there were no unexpected obstacles at all when we transitioned to a new menu.  The greatest benefit was that our Chef had such good fun coming up with brand new recipes, and our customer reviews came in that the food is even better now than it was before...when we were vegetarian!

MR: When I go to The Cheeze Factory, the sense I get is that the majority of people there are not necessarily vegetarian or vegan but just like your great food. How would you describe your "typical" Cheeze Factory diner?

HL: The typical Cheeze Factory Restaurant diner is a tourist from out of town who either finds us by driving by, or by searching specifically for a vegan or vegetarian restaurant in Wisconsin Dells.

Here is an example of a review by one of our recent customers:

“Awesome food! Very different, specialty food. The menu was all vegetarian, vegan, made of non-genetically engineered, organic food. So, it was top-notch. We ate a lot and still felt light. They had an elaborate menu but it was hard to believe that they could have so many varieties made from specialty. The server was extremely sweet and polite.”

MR: The majority of your old menu was vegan except for a few items but your desserts - which I am sure have been a big attraction in a vacation town - were mostly made with dairy and eggs. How did you approach this? Did you re-formulate your popular recipes as vegan or did you create new ones? Could you walk us through the process of transitioning a vegetarian dish to a vegan one?

HL: Since we opened in 1992, we learned that the most important thing is to make sure that the food and the desserts are delicious, regardless of whether the food is vegetarian or vegan. This has always been our focus. When we decided to shift to a vegan menu, that same focus applied. 

Our chef loves to cook and transitioning to vegan was no big deal. We reformulated some of our popular recipes as vegan as well as created lots of new ones. The same applied to our desserts. Many of our customers have commented that they prefer the vegan menu and desserts over the previous dairy filled ones.

Transitioning from vegetarian to vegan requires only one thing - a deep desire and commitment to do so. The rest is simply research and there is an abundance of information online.   

MR: Have your costs or prices changed with your transition?

HL: Our food costs escalated immediately as our menu changed and that is reflected in our higher menu prices. Yet we have found that, by far, most diners are very grateful for what we are doing and are willing to support us with little or no question about our menu pricing.

MR: I have not been to The Cheeze Factory since you remodeled and reopened. Can you tell me what I could expect to find on the menu that's different? I hope you kept the Rattlesnake Tofu!

HL: There are a few of the old favorites on our current menu – like the rattlesnake tofu and our homemade hummus – though most of the items are brand new creations by our Chef Sage-Louise.

MR: Anything exciting TCF fans can look forward to checking out?

HL: We are in the process of putting together our vegan cookbook - no  availability date yet.
We have specials all the time and you can follow us on
our website, Facebook, and Twitter.
The best way to experience us is to stop in for lunch or dinner.

MR: Last, I just want to thank you again for your courage. This can't have been an easy decision and I am sure there were some people who were scared you'd lose something successful that you'd worked hard to build for many years. You guys are an example to us all of being mindful of not only the bottom line, but also creating good in the world and a reminder that businesses can be guided by ethics as well. Thank you for all you do and I can't want to visit you this summer!

2015, Vegan Street

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