Mars Cheese Castle—so-called for the nickname that founders Mario and Martha Ventura had for each other—could have been a short-lived venture if not for some serious perseverance. The Venturas opened the original deli in a former schoolhouse in 1947. A mere decade later it burned down—a tragedy with a silver lining, it turns out, as the couple used the insurance money to buy the Standard Oil store next door. They converted it into a (literal) castle with an iconic sign, a landmark that welcomes tourists and locals alike to this day. “We have become ambassadors for tourism in Wisconsin, not only with the castle itself but with all the cheeses we have and the products we sell,” says general manager Tyson Wehrmeister, grandson of Mario and Martha Ventura.
Today, the food fortress encompasses cheese, gourmet grocery, gift, wine, and beer departments, as well as a bakery, a full-service bar, and a lunch counter. Though the store is expansive, personal service is still paramount. “I’m very cognizant of . . . how I can make it more valuable for our customers,” Wehrmeister says. “If I don’t offer new things, if I don’t give them great products, and if I don’t keep my Wisconsin-centric mentality, then I’m losing focus on what my grandparents built. We try very hard to maintain that legacy here.”
culture: What cheeses do you carry?
Tyson Wehrmeister: I estimate we offer around 600 cheeses . . . Our artisan cheese line is what’s really expansive—we offer more artisan cheeses than any other retail store in the Midwest.
culture: How do you decide which cheeses to carry?
TW: I have relationships with most of the cheesemakers in Wisconsin because I want to know what they’re making, and I want to give them feedback as to what’s working and what’s not. We’re in this together. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
culture: What cheese would you bring to a desert island?
TW: Oh, my. If I had to eat one cheese forever . . . I would have to default to sharp cheddar because I know it would keep and it would certainly satiate my palate. Anything five years and up—because I’m a cheese snob [laughs].
culture: Have you received any strange requests at the Castle?
TW: One of the most famous requests has been for hoop cheese. Not many people know what hoop cheese is—it’s essentially a young cheddar. It’s a cylindrical style of cheese in a wooden hoop. That’s one that, for decades, we had people asking for it, so I finally asked one of my friends at a cheese plant to make up some traditional hoop cheese.
culture: What makes Mars Cheese Castle unique?
TW: We sometimes have two, three, or four generations of families that come back to the store time and time again. That really makes a statement to us; that means that we’re doing something right. It’s nice to be in business and have people like us and get good publicity, but when you affect so many people, and so many people appreciate what you do, that’s what really makes me get up in the morning.
2800 W. Frontage Rd.
Mon.-Sun. 9 a.m.-7p.m.