Cheesehead and its maker get better with age

Richard Ryman
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The Cheesehead Factory and Retail Outlet of Foamation Inc. is located at 1120 S Barclay St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The new location will eventually have a museum and interactive activities for guests. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

MILWAUKEE - The Cheesehead: Bright yellow, triangular, full of holes, sits on your head. But if you live in Wisconsin, and a lot of other places, the description is superfluous.

Foamation Inc., the company that makes Cheeseheads, is not so well known, but that could change. The still-small business is moving to a larger, spiffier building in Milwaukee's Walker's Point district, where it will invite its customers to shop, tour, meet, eat and make their own Cheesehead products.

The original Cheesehead, locked in a safe in the new headquarters, is a metaphor for how far the company has come in three decades. It's functional, but not quite as cheesy yellow or classy as its descendants. It's couch foam for crying out loud.

Much the same can be said for the difference between Foamation's original factory in St. Francis and its new quarters seven miles north. The previous place was functional, the kind of facility a start-up occupies, but the new site has ample space for all the company's operations and then some.

"We're growing, so we needed a new facility to house some of the things that we want to bring to bear in our 30th year of operation," said Ty Foren, Foamation vice president of sales and marketing.

It's the future, except the future's kind of stuck right now in a Green Bay Packers-created vortex. Because the Packers won't stop running the table, Foamation has been unable to move its production tables to the new site. So workers continue to turn out yellow-foam wedges, cozies, hats and magnets in St. Francis, while the retail store, offices, warehouse and trimming operations are at Walker's Point.

It's a manufacturing process that, on the face of it, looks no more difficult than your basic Easy-Bake Oven. You pour the liquid in the mold, turn on the heat and wait for it to cook; about 4 minutes for a medium-sized Cheesehead. But, of course, it's not that simple. Except for very small items, such as magnets, each piece is made individually and has to meet exacting quality standards. Individual presses have their own personalities, and the age and condition of molds matters, too.

"Some days the foam gods are happy with us. Some days they remind us we don't know what we are doing," founder and owner Ralph Bruno said.

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His staff of a half-dozen production workers are mostly young and look like they'd be as comfortable on skateboards as the factory floor, but they know what makes good foam and how to do it.

"It's a hybrid version of a chef and a factory worker," Bruno said. "You have to pay attention to a lot of details. You can usually tell in the first two weeks if they are cut out to do this."

Polyurethane liquid that gets poured into the molds comes from a local source, as do the cups with which they do the pouring. Bruno has relationships with manufacturers who make and maintain paper cup-making machines. He buys the cups they run off when making sure the machines do what they're supposed to do.

The foam, by the way, isn't naturally yellow. They blend their own colors at Foamation, and sometimes those colors are red, blue and tan.

Contract work for other companies is an important part of Foamation's business model, as is making products that ... er ... might be bought by fans of other football teams that recently crossed the Packers' path. Blue and red foam cowboy hats, for example.

But when the Packers end their season — a Super Bowl victory would be really good for business — Foamation will move the last of its operations to the Walker's Point building that is old enough on the outside to have an historic building designation, but new enough on the inside to be modern, trendy and clean.

A gift shop already is open there, and plans call for a viewable production area, where visitors can not only watch Cheese-whatevers being manufactured, but can take part in the process themselves.

Fans send suggestions for new items all the time. Some of them become products.

"When people look at us, they think 'do we have a think tank?'" Bruno said. "We are really facilitators of the fan base. There kind of isn't a plan."

They've got Cheesehead bow ties, Cheesehead seat cushions, Cheesehead cozies, Cheesehead hanging dice, Cheesehead top hats and ... um ...  Cheeseheads. They also have things that aren't made out of foam, such as Cheesehead fleece blankets and Cheeshead socks.

As does any good business owner, Bruno looks for better ways to do things. He's experimented with 3D printers to make molds (a good idea) and robotics to perform the more repetitive tasks (a theoretically good idea that didn't quite pan out).

People said he couldn't make molds with 3D printing, but he did, and competition in the industry means speed is picking up and costs are coming down.

The original Cheesehead, made out of foam from his mom's couch — "She got over it pretty quick" — was for Milwaukee Brewers games in response to taunts from Illinoisans and not with business creation in mind. Bruno and friends had season tickets. He wore it to a game, where his friends shunned him but other fans wanted to know where they could get one. Somewhere along the way, Cheesehead became a moniker for Packers fans specifically and Wisconsinites generally.

But largely, a football item it has become, promoted by hours of free media. Try to remember a nationally televised Packers game where there was not at least one Cheesehead shot.

Foren said they could track how the Packers performed in the divisional round playoff game against Dallas by watching online sales. In the first half, when the Packers took a 21-3 lead, sales were brisk. In the second half, when the Cowboys mounted a comeback to tie the game, sales dropped to one. After Mason Crosby's field goal, boom!

They can turn out product pretty fast, but this time of year, it's unlimited overtime and limited days off.

Orders come from everywhere: 30 countries and 50 states, and anywhere there's a military base. San Diego is big.

Located a half-mile from I-94 and only two blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower, 1120 S. Barclay St. is becoming a stopping point for football fans, not all of whom sport green and gold.

"When the Packers played the Giants, we had 14 guys who go to one Giants game a year. They picked that one and they said they had to stop here," Foren said.

The plan is to make it a destination for locals, too. The company will have a space where groups can hold birthday parties, celebrations or meetings, and watch through glass walls as new Cheesehead items are produced. They'll even be able to make something personalized for themselves.

"We're going to have an experiential museum," Foren said. "We certainly hope there's going to be a big market. We have a lot of schools reach out to us (and) we've had Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops ..."

Badgers fans, Brewers fans and dairy industry fans, among others, are regular customers, too. With his new facility, Bruno is working to expand his customer base, but he knows what will keep his business growing for the next 30 years.

"New Cheesehead Packers fans are being born all the time," he said.

Contact and follow him on Twitter @RichRymanPG, onInstagram at rrymanpgor on Facebook at Richard Ryman-Press-Gazette. Or call him at (920) 431-8342.

Foamation Inc.

Address: 1120 S. Barclay St., Milwaukee

Founded: 1987

President: Ralph Bruno

What it does: Design, manufacture and sell the Orginial Cheesehead hat and related products

Services: Custom foam products production, retail store, and soon, party and meeting space provider


Foamation Inc. employee Liliana Lopez trims a Wisconsin-shaped foam cheese coaster on January 17, 2017 at the Cheesehead Factory and Retail Outlet in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Foamation, the official maker of the original Cheesehead hat, is in the process of moving to Milwaukee from its previous location in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Foamation Inc. production worker Mike Bednar checks the quality of a newly made Cheesehead after taking it out of a mold on January 17, 2017 in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Ralph Bruno, founder of Foamation Inc., stands inside a vault original to the historic building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 17, 2017 that the Cheesehead manufacturing company is moving to. On display inside the vault is the first Cheesehead Bruno made from the foam of his mother's couch. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Foamation Inc. production worker Mike Bednar cleans out a Cheesehead mold before beginning the process to make another on January 17, 2017 in St. Francis, Wisconsin. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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