Science & Technology

Bob Wills MS’81, PhD’83, JD’91: Urban Cheesemaker


Cheese factories have traditionally been located in rural Wisconsin, but Bob Wills has started the state’s first urban cheese factory and is hoping that it can become a national model. Photo: Kat Schleicher.

When night settles on Milwaukee’s near south side, Clock Shadow Creamery starts humming, as fresh milk sloshes through pipes to giant, gleaming metal vats and the next day’s cheese starts to take shape. By morning, one thousand pounds of the stuff — including cheddar cheese curds, ricotta, and queso blanco — will be on its way to restaurants and shops across the city.

Clock Shadow is the state’s first urban cheese factory, and founder and head cheesemaster Bob Wills MS’81, PhD’83, JD’91 is determined to see if this new style of city cheesemaking can become a national model. “It kind of shocked me to learn that there had never been a cheese factory in Milwaukee,” he says, “and it seemed like it was about time.”

After earning his doctorate in economics and his law degree, Wills worked as an economist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Then he heard the call to a different “whey” of life when he married the daughter of a cheesemaker and decided to become, as he puts it, “a Wisconsin stereotype.” Wills and his wife took over Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wisconsin, more than two decades ago, and they opened Clock Shadow Creamery in June.

Historically, cheese factories have stayed close to the dairy farms that dot the Badger State’s countryside. Although a handful of them operate in Seattle, New York City, and other urban areas, says Wills, “What we’re doing is really different from what everyone else is doing. Those other ones are very tourist oriented, and they’re not very production oriented. … We built this with the intention of serving the community. It’s designed to create jobs in this neighborhood and to make cheese suited for the neighborhood — not yuppie cheese.”

One of the creamery’s specialties is quark, a smooth and creamy concoction that is a staple in Europe. “It seemed like it fit in with the Milwaukee heritage,” Wills says. “It’s an extremely versatile cheese that hasn’t been available for people here to play with, so the chefs are having a lot of fun with it. … There’s really nothing like it in most of the country.”

The creamery also offers tours, incubator space, and an apprenticeship program for aspiring dairy entrepreneurs. It’s housed in a new, ultra-green building that uses geothermal heating and cooling, recycled rainwater, and a power-generating elevator. Wills, who once worked for Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson LLB’42, is known for his commitment to environmental practices.

“We’ve taken stands on some issues that we think are really important, like not having genetically modified ingredients in our food and supporting organic production and urban agriculture,” Wills says. “We’ve been able to use our business to blaze trails on important social issues and show [that they] are not in conflict with business — that [they] are really part of doing business. And people are committed to our products not only because they taste good, but because they stand for something that they believe in.”

Published in the Winter 2012 issue


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