The story behind the sandwich

Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship honors dairy industry for 11th year


DODGEVILLE, Wis. — The 32-degree weather and snow flurries did not stop attendees of the 11th annual Wisconsin Grilled Cheese Championship from warming up with an ooey-gooey sandwich and cup of soup April 20.

Held in the Ley Memorial Pavilion at Harris Park in Dodgeville, approximately 1,300 volunteers, contestants, judges and attendees honored the dairy industry with the annual competition. 

The event is hosted by the Dodgeville Area Chamber of Commerce. It began when the late Loren Topper created the event to promote local dairy farmers. Jenna Vondra, director of the chamber, said the event continues to grow while the mission remains the same.

“We have a lot of farmers in our area, and they’re very important to our community and what we do here and the food that we have,” Vondra said. “We just appreciate them so much.”

The event has 10 heats with guidelines for making sandwiches. Separate heats are held for amateurs and professionals. Categories range from classic, with one type of cheese, butter and bread, to classic plus extras, which can have multiple cheeses and unlimited additional ingredients. There is also a dessert category and differentiations for sweet and savory sandwiches.

Wisconsin cheese must account for at least 60% of the ingredients in every category. Judges are selected from the community. This year, the panel included the reigning Alice in Dairyland, Ashley Hagenow, and a member of the state assembly, the local police chief, a media personality, the Dodgeville mayor, a local farmer and other community members.

Sandwiches are scored based on presentation, taste and style. Portable stoves are set up where the contestants have 12 minutes to cook two sandwiches — one for the judges to taste and one to present. Bleachers are set up surrounding the cooking stations for spectators to watch.

This year, 30 contestants made about 70 varieties of sandwiches. Zach Washa, a Highland native, was competing for the eighth time. He began as an amateur contestant but, after winning for five years in a row, was moved to the professional category.

Among Washa’s new recipes this year was a creation using maple-glazed Kwik Trip donuts for the bread filled with bacon and cracked pepper cheddar cheese from Gile Cheese in Cuba City. He said the inspiration came to him a couple of weeks before the event.

“I’m not saying it was alcohol induced, but I’m also not saying it wasn’t,” Washa said.

The donut grilled cheese won second place this year.

Another contestant, Robert Jake, said the competition is about more than just cheese for him.

“I first entered my wife into the competition in 2016,” Jake said. “She was so mad that I signed her up, but then she won third place, so she kept competing.”

Jake’s wife has since passed away, so he continues to compete in her honor using her recipe. He uses Texas toast, a butter and mayonnaise combination, lobster, Old Bay Seasoning and gouda cheese. The sandwich earned him third place this year.

The competition holds a special category for first responders. The winner of this category receives a traveling trophy that stays in the winner’s station for the year and a $75 cash donation to the station.

Vondra said they are looking for more competitors in that category.

“We only had one first responder who competed this year, so no award was given out,” Vondra said. “We thought about opening it up to different areas to make it more like a hero category, but right now, it’s just first responders.”

The event also hosts food trucks and local vendors, a bloody mary bar and a beer garden featuring Spotted Cow.

There is also a family area where kids can get their faces painted and play. Vendors grew from 12 last year to 17 this year. They sell wares like baked goods, artisan cheese, homemade candles, Wisconsin apparel and more.

Vondra said that while attendance has remained steady, the event has grown in competitors and reach.

“It’s really special because the number of contestants and the number of sandwiches have grown so attendance might be similar but the number of people participating has grown,” Vondra said. “It’s super fun because this event is not just for people from Wisconsin; it brings in people from all over the United States. One of our contestants grew up in Highland, but he lives in Hollywood, California, and competed this year.”

Attendees also traveled from Maryland, Florida, Iowa, Illinois and Ohio.

Vondra said that prior years have presented weather challenges, but it is something they can always work around. The event is indoors but not heated. Food trucks are parked by open garage doors so the outside air does get in.

The Dodgeville chamber is already planning for the April 26, 2025, event.

“It’s really an amazing event and something that we like to host because it does bring in so much tourism to our area,” Vondra said. “It’s people coming from outside Wisconsin to experience the wonderful cheeses and different dairy products that we have.”


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