February 9, 2024
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Fourth-generation Henning’s Cheese leaders carry on tradition of quality

Photo courtesy of Henning’s Cheese
FAMILY BUSINESS — Third- and fourth-generation family owners and operators of Henning’s Cheese include, left to right: Zachary Henning, Kerry Henning, Mindy Ausloos, Josh Henning, Rebekah Henschel and Kert Henning.

Photo courtesy of Henning’s Cheese
FLAVORFUL — Henning’s Cheese is well-known for its flavored cheeses, such as Garlic & Dill Cheddar, Peppercorn Cheddar and Tomato Basil Cheddar shown above.

By Rena Archwamety

KIEL, Wis. — This month Henning’s Cheese, a family-owned processor of specialty Cheddar and other types of cheeses, celebrates its 110th anniversary. The business, now led by third- and fourth-generation family members, began in 1914, when newly-licensed cheesemaker Otto Henning took over Lakeside Cheese, a rural hometown cheese factory near Kiel, Wisconsin.

“My great-grandfather Otto worked for the man who owned the original cheese factory,” says Rebekah Henschel, who handles sales and marketing and is part of the fourth generation of family running Henning’s Cheese.

Otto saw cheesemaking as a promising opportunity at a time when there was a cheesemaker on every corner, and farmers always were in need of somewhere to take their milk. He traveled all the way to Madison, Wisconsin, to complete a six-week short course in order to earn his license.

After the original owner of the plant where he worked became ill, Otto and Norma Henning decided to purchase Lakeside Cheese in 1914, and it has been in the family ever since.

“Otto’s son Everett — my grandfather — worked in the cheese factory growing up, and when Otto passed away, his four other sisters didn’t want it, so he gave it a shot,” Henschel says. “He was working another job and also making cheese seven days a week. He and my grandmother were struggling to keep it going. They didn’t have anywhere to hold the milk, so whatever came in that day had to be made into cheese.”

In order to meet modern food safety codes, the family built a new cheese factory in 1967 half a mile down the road from the original one.

In the 1980s, Everett’s children — Henschel’s father Kert, along with her uncle Kerry and aunt Kay — joined the family business. Kerry Henning earned his cheesemaking license, and later his Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker certification. Kert Henning handled sales, and Kay ran the office. Not long after the third generation took over, they changed the company’s name to Henning’s Cheese and substantially grew both the product line and reach of their cheeses.

“The three of them expanded into some larger markets and national retailers,” Henschel says. “As we started growing, and Kerry got his Master Cheesemaker license, he started diving into unique and innovative flavors.

In the early ’90s, not many cheesemakers were adding flavors. He worked with retailers and came up with something that would be unique. When traveling, he came up with new recipes. They really started pushing the bar beyond just Cheddar, Colby and plain cheeses. ... He was some of the brains behind starting those trends back in the ’90s. Now so many companies have jumped on board with flavors.”

• Adding flavor

Henning’s has won numerous awards over the years for its Cheddars, Aged Cheddars, flavored and other cheeses. The key to its award-winning cheeses, Henschel says, is a good balance of flavor and quality cheese.

“We focus on balance, having a really good Cheddar flavor along with the flavor we are adding to the cheese. A lot of cheesemakers can struggle with that balance. We take a really good Cheddar and accent that.”

Among the company’s early successful flavored cheeses was its Mango Fire Cheddar, which incorporates mango and habanero pepper in the cheese. It was created 25 years ago, before these types of flavor combinations were on many people’s radar, and it remains a top seller. Other popular Henning’s flavored cheeses include its Blueberry Cobbler Cheddar and the seasonal Hatch Chile Cheddar.

A couple of the latest flavored varieties from Henning’s are its sweet Simply Strawberry Cheddar and savory Louisiana Lagniappe Cheddar. Introduced a couple of years ago when marketing options during COVID were limited, the company recently has been able to expand them to a broader audience.

Simply Strawberry Cheddar was developed following a request from a Henning’s retail customer from the South, where strawberry is a popular flavor.

“They said, ‘Strawberry is really big for us, and you do other fruits,’” Henschel says. “This honestly is one of my favorite cheeses now. It includes natural strawberries, so you get the seeds — it’s creamy with a little crunch of dried strawberry. It’s so decadent, really good with sweet white wine or chocolate. It’s spring/summer seasonal, but we like to get a jump start with it for Valentine’s Day, for charcuturie boards or dipped in chocolate.”

The other new cheese is named for the Cajun-French word “Lagniappe” that means “a little extra.” This savory-flavored Cheddar also originally was requested by a customer from the South who wanted a crab-boil flavored cheese.

“There’s no crab in it, but it includes lemon zest, cayenne pepper and crab boil liquid (a popular flavoring for seafood). I like it shredded on potatoes or alfredo,” Henschel says. “Stores like to feature it for Mardi Gras or cross-merchandise it with seafood. It’s a fun cheese to incorporate into some of those merchandising strategies.”

Louisiana Lagniappe Cheddar is available throughout the year, and Henning’s sees an uptick in its sales from Mardi Gras through the fall months. Henschel adds retailers in Southern states, especially in Louisiana, purchase it year-round.

• New generation, growth

Henning’s in recent years has grown its reach, moving beyond regional distributors into direct sales with customers in different parts of the country. Henschel notes the main areas of growth have been the West and South, and Henning’s cheeses can be found from Wisconsin to California, down through Texas and Louisiana. Now the company is looking to expand more in the East Coast as well.

“It’s exciting, looking at the history of Henning’s, and this is new, taking products directly to our customer,” Henschel says. “In the past we would sell to distributors and they would take it. Now we’re packing and shipping and know where a lot of our product is going, though we’re still using some distributors.”

Henning’s also has fostered close partnerships with companies, making cheese for them under their brand.

“They will have an idea and come to Kerry. He and that company will work on culture recipes, or if they think a flavor would work in their cheese, he will work with them on refining that flavor. We have a good balance of Henning’s branded and private label,” Henschel says.

As Henning’s continues to add new flavor innovations and expand its customer reach, the company takes great care to prioritize quality over growth.

“We pride ourselves in making quality Cheddar. It’s quality over quantity — we’ve done some expansion, but we really don’t have an interest in operating 24-7 or pushing out tens of millions of pounds of cheese per year,” Henschel says.

And with the fourth generation of the family now on board, Henning’s is ready to carry its tradition of quality cheese into the future.

Second-generation owner Everett Henning passed away in 2022 at age 90. His daughter Kay has retired, and sons Kert and Kerry continue to work in the business. Meanwhile, Henschel, along with her brother, Josh Henning, and cousins Zachary Henning and Mindy Ausloos now represent the fourth generation of family owners.

“I take care of a lot of the sales and marketing here, locally and nationally, and a little bit of everything. My cousin Mindy does a lot in the office and wears many hats as well,” Henschel says. “Josh and Zachary are licensed cheesemakers, and Josh is going to start working on his Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers license within the next year. I know he’s really excited about growing his knowledge in all things in regards to that program.”

Henning’s remains a small, family-focused business, with around 40 full-time employees. Henschel notes that some of the advantages of being family-owned extend to Henning’s other employees and suppliers, in addition to its customers.

“For us, we value still being family-owned and operated. We like to be able to treat our employees like family ... we believe there is more to life outside of work, and we try to focus on making that balance for us and the employees,” Henschel says, adding that the farmers supplying milk to the plant also are treated like family.

“We pay our farmers a premium to ship their milk here, which contributes to the quality of our cheeses. We also want to keep them in business for more generations. A while back, we created a market floor, and when the market rises above that, we pay them more,” she says. “Our customers respect that. They like knowing where their product comes from and that we have morals and standards that we abide by. For us, being able to share those standards with customers means something.”

As the new generation of Henning’s Cheese works toward future goals, they also value what has been established in generations that came before them.

“You’re not in business for 110 years on a whim. We understand that’s a blessing and doesn’t just happen,” Henschel says. “As we move into the future, we constantly look at how we can do these things better — make a great product or better products. How can we be more efficient or improve? That’s what we can bring to the table moving forward into the future.”



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