Staying true to dairy roots

Cheese shop honors farming background


WEST SALEM, Wis. — Nick Miller grew up on his family’s 40-cow dairy farm and enjoyed frequent trips to a cheese store, where he could get a scoop of ice cream. When he graduated college with a business degree, he was looking for a job close to home so he could continue to help his parents on their dairy farm.

Then, his dad heard that the owners of the beloved cheese shop, Duane and Mary Lou Pfaff, wanted to sell their business and retire. Not long after the revelation, Miller became the proud owner of Le Coulee Cheese Castle in West Salem.

“I thought it was awesome, because I had a background in the dairy industry growing up on a farm and what a cool business to continue in,” Miller said.

The shop operated under the original owners until the day Miller bought it. The shop closed for four hours while Miller and the Pfaffs signed papers at the bank. That afternoon, Miller returned to the shop and resumed operations. Duane stayed on for a few weeks to help Miller make the transition. Miller has been on his own for the 21 years since.

“It was really nice that it was an established business already that had a following of customers,” Miller said. “It really helped that people knew the products here were high quality.”

The Pfaffs, cheesemakers by trade, started the business in Mindoro in 1980. Their creamery is now a Prairie Farms Dairy Inc. plant. The Pfaffs opened a retail space in the upper room of the creamery, which is the origins of the castle part of the business name. When they wanted more exposure for the business, they moved the retail portion to West Salem in 1981.

The Pfaffs continued making cheese in Mindoro while their daughter ran the retail space in West Salem for 10 years. When Duane retired from cheese making in the early 1990s, he ran the retail business for another 10 years until 2003 when Miller purchased the business.

 “He told me the things that I should look out for in finding quality cheese,” Miller said. “He knew the places that were the best manufacturers in making cheeses. It’s true because customers will tell you if they like it or not, and nobody’s ever complained about most of the things he told me back then.”

Miller carries around 60 varieties of cheese at any given time. All products are sourced as blocks 5-40 pounds in weight from Wisconsin companies and cut and packaged by Miller at Le Coulee Cheese Castle. Some of the suppliers include Vern’s Cheese, Kenrich Foods Corporation, Meister Cheese, Jim’s Cheese LLC, Old Country Cheese, Pasture Pride Cheese and Carr Valley Cheese.

Miller’s shop is a short drive from downtown La Crosse, and many of his customers are tourists who come to visit the Driftless Area. It provides them with an opportunity to discover the unique varieties of cheese that are not available in their home states.

“There’s hardly any bad cheese in Wisconsin,” Miller said. “We take it for granted. I know so many people that are traveling through that just can’t believe the cheese selection here.”

Miller also likes to recommend the basics like Colby and mild cheddar so people can compare what they get in their grocery stores. He said if he sees customers again, they always say there is a taste difference in Wisconsin-made cheese.

Cheese curds are delivered fresh three times a week and are always the top selling item, Miller said.

In addition to cheese, Miller also carries eight varieties of Kemp’s ice cream sold by the scoop. Miller goes through about 13 3-gallon pails of ice cream per week. A lot of kids who walk or ride their bikes to school stop in for a treat on their way home in the afternoon. In the summer, Miller said it is common for kids to hang out on the benches outside the shop or stop in for a break from playing at the nearby playground.

“So many people, in the summer especially when it’s busy and kids are on their bikes or hanging out on the benches outside, will come through and ask where the parents are because there’s kids all over,” Miller said. “This would never happen wherever they’re from. It’s the benefit of a small town, I guess.”

Another busy time of the year is June Dairy Days, which is a festival that West Salem hosts every year in honor of June Dairy Month. Miller often runs specials or has sampled items to promote the event. At Christmas, he is busy shipping out cheese gift boxes all over the country.

In addition to the food products served at the shop, Miller stocks a variety of gifts and cheese utensils. There is a common farm and cow theme among the items, giving a nod to the source of the dairy products and his background.

“Growing up on a dairy farm, I have always had a spot in my heart for the dairy industry,” Miller said. “Without farmers, especially, we wouldn’t have a lot of things that we rely on every day in the food supply, especially in a cheese shop like here. Definitely, you need the farmers, and you need the cows.”


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