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Cheese company crafted from a garage

Sister companies use 1 million pounds per year

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CORSICA, S.D. — There are many successful businesses that began with an idea and an empty spot in a garage. The Apple corporation would be just one example.

While not nearly as big as Apple, Wooden Shoe Cheese Company and its sister entity, Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches, began in a garage and has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years.

Tom Gerlach got his start in the cheese business when he took a job as a cheese salesman.

“I began working as a traveling salesman in 1982 for the cheese plant here in Corsica,” Gerlach said. “I had a route and was paid on a commission basis.”

In 1984, the Corsica cheese plant decided to discontinue the cheese slicing part of its business. Faced with the prospect of drastically reduced sales, Gerlach decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I bought their cheese slicing equipment and set up an 8- by 8-foot section in my garage for slicing and packaging cheese,” Gerlach said. “I even hired the lady who had been doing their slicing.”

Gerlach’s business, which he named Wooden Shoe Cheese Company, grew steadily over the years. Then, a new opportunity presented itself.

“I had been selling sliced cheese to a sandwich company in eastern Nebraska,” Gerlach said. “They talked me into starting a sandwich-making company.”

Gerlach launched Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches in 1986. He added onto his garage but soon outgrew the space. Gerlach eventually moved his businesses into a former Case IH farm implement store.

“It was easy to sell sandwiches in the early days,” Gerlach said. “I would go to convenience stores or mom-and-pop grocery stores, and they would immediately see the value of our products.”

Gerlach began to feel overwhelmed by the stress of running two businesses, so he sold Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches in 1992. This enabled him to concentrate on the cheese business.

A big change took place a few years ago when Rocky Nelson and his partner, Dave Van Roekel, purchased Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches and Wooden Shoe Cheese Company.

“I had been working as a nursing home administrator,” said Nelson, who grew up on a diversified livestock farm near Platte. “I got a job offer that would have meant relocating my family to Hot Springs, but then my in-laws made me aware of the opportunity to become part of Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches and Wooden Shoe Cheese Company.”

Nelson and his management team have engineered remarkable levels of growth in both of their businesses.

“Our sandwiches and cheeses are sold all across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa,” Nelson said. “When I started here, we had 22 employees. Now we have 86.”

Many of the sandwiches made by Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches include a slice of cheese. The sandwiches are put together by hand on an assembly line. Last year, Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches shipped 2.7 million sandwiches.

“We make 50,000 to 60,000 sandwiches per week,” Nelson said. “Between the cheese and the sandwich business, we go through more than 1 million pounds of cheese each year.”

The cheese for both businesses is sourced from a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers. 

“I’m officially retired, but I still enjoy the cheese business,” Gerlach said. “Once a month, I will get into my refrigerated semi and drive to Wisconsin. I will drive from one end of the state to the other and buy cheese from six or seven different cheesemakers until I get a truckload. We deal with cheesemakers who specialize in the cheeses that we want. We buy the best quality cheeses at the best possible price.”

Wooden Shoe Cheese Company transforms the large blocks of cheese that it buys into smaller blocks that are wrapped and sold to consumers. They also sell cheese curds, shredded cheese and cheese horns. They add seasonings to cheese curds, transforming ordinary curds into such flavors as  bacon or jalapeño pepper jack.

In addition to producing sliced cheese for Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches, Wooden Shoe Cheese Company has partnered with food businesses in the region. For example, Wooden Shoe Cheese Company makes a blend of high-temperature shredded cheeses that is sold to companies that make pizza.

New partnerships and additional growth are on the horizon for Wooden Shoe Cheese Company and Dakota Tom’s Sandwiches.

“We just shipped our first order of coffeehouse-style sandwiches to retail outlets in Sacramento, California, and New York City,” Nelson said. “The sandwiches were made under contract for a third party, so they won’t carry the Dakota Tom’s label, but it’s pretty cool to know that sandwiches made here in Corsica are now being enjoyed by people on both coasts.”

If this partnership proves fruitful, it could result in dramatic growth and changes for Nelson and his companies.

“It could mean expanding our business by four- or five-fold,” Nelson said. “Our current facilities are filled to the max, so we would be looking at building a new facility, probably in the Mitchell area. It’s an exciting time to be in the cheese and sandwich business.”

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