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By Anna Wolfe - 10/01/2013

Even before stepping foot into Fromagination, the store's creative merchandising – the brainchild and passion of shop owner Ken Monteleone – is on full display.

Located on the Capitol Square in Madison, Wis., Fromagination is known for its stellar cut-to-order cheese selection, which features Wisconsin's finest cheeses. Often, the cheesemakers themselves are in-store sampling their products.

Owner: Ken Monteleone
Location: 12 South Carroll Street, Madison, Wis.
Employees: 8
Phone: 608-255-2430
Awards: Specialty Food Association's Retailer of the Year 2011; Madison Magazine's Best Specialty Food Store; local newspaper The Isthmus: Madison's Favorite Specialty Food Source; perennial winner of the specialty food retailer category in Best of Madison awards.

Stocked with an array of specialty products, including condiments, chocolate, cheese papers, charcuterie, knives, cutting boards, cookbooks, beer, wine and private-label items, the shop offers catering services and does a solid sandwich business. Fromagination's signature sandwich is smoked turkey with Nueske's bacon and cranberry relish, one of the store's private-label products made by Quince and Apple. (See Management Strategies: Private Label in this issue.)

"What I found when I was coming into this industry, the producers are not marketers. They're very humble," says Monteleone. His challenge: "How do I put artisans in the limelight with everything we do? We do it in a way that is locally driven."

The retailer's proximity to many of its vendors makes it possible for staff to visit the source and also allows producers to come into the shop and talk about their product with the staff and customers.

The selection of local and domestic cheeses continues to grow. About four months before the American Cheese Society conference, which was held in Madison in August, the shop began selling down its selection of imported cheeses. Historically, the cheese case has been about 60 percent domestic versus 40 percent imported. In the future, Fromagination will sell 10 or so essential imported cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano.

By expanding his focus on local cheeses, Monteleone doesn't have to deal with high shipping costs, nor does he have to worry about how the product has been handled throughout the supply chain. Many of the cheeses are hand-delivered by the producers. This helps Monteleone and his staff maintain one-on-one relationships with the producers.

Madison is well known for the thriving Dane County Farmers' Market. It is reportedly the largest producer farmers' market in the country, held on the Capitol Square every Wednesday and Saturday – right in front of Fromagination's doorstep.

"We work with so many producers, it does take time. I'm not writing one check to Sysco, I'm writing 60 to various producers," says Monteleone, who is quick to declare that developing partnerships has been the most rewarding part of being a specialty food retailer.

"Sampling is a huge part of our success," says Monteleone. Upland Cheese's Pleasant Ridge Reserve, pictured right, is one of the shop's most popular cheeses.   Fromagination is carrying more and more local and regional cheeses.

The Location
When he decided to enter the specialty food retail business, Monteleone had this area – on Madison's Capitol Square – in mind. "I always wanted to be on the square," he says.

Located on an isthmus, Madison stretches to the east and to the west, with the state capital in the middle. The Capitol Square is a community gathering spot and home to many events, including protests, concerts and the renowned Dane County Farmers' Market. "People meet at the Capitol Square," Monteleone says. "Everybody comes together there."

When he was ready to open his cut-to-order cheese shop, a long-vacant storefront was available. The structure, built in the early 1930s, has the charm of a bygone era – 15-foot ceilings and oversized front windows flanking each side of a glass-and-wood door.

Windows are redesigned monthly and often feature seasonal themes. "We do our best to have a local feature or hard-to-find products," says Monteleone. The retailer has established its reputation as a champion of cheese and specialty-food vendors.

To execute his concept, Monteleone had to gut the interior. During the remodel, the perimeter was outfitted with strategically placed dark floating shelves that display the store's assortment of specialty foods, cheese accessories and more. An oversized table, located in the back of the store, is used for displays but also is used for seating during the store's events.

But it's all all just a backdrop for the store's true star – the cheese.

In the Spotlight
Cheese is in the spotlight, literally and figuratively. Throughout the 1,200-square-foot store on the square is an array of light fixtures and spotlights. Lighting "is a very important element," notes Monteleone; there's soft lighting throughout the space, with spotlights on key products. Track lighting is an essential tool that enables Monteleone and his team to change the look of the shop.

A Good Student
Monteleone grew up in the specialty food business; his family owned an Italian food wholesale company. Before opening his own specialty food store, he worked for 23 years as a shoe buyer, a position that required him to travel internationally. He saw an opportunity for a cut-to-order cheese shop in Madison – in the backyard of many of nation's top cheesemakers.

As he was formulating the plan for his specialty retail venture, he was able to do reconnaissance. "I was in and out of the best shops of the world looking at trends. I always enjoyed the different stories they'd tell."

Monteleone was inspired by his travels and his experience to open a cheese shop. "I wanted to celebrate Wisconsin's rich tradition of cheesemaking and bring to life a shop that showcased what is going on in the Dairy State. The goal was a European-style shop with Wisconsin charm," he explains, "a cut-to-order shop that focused on telling the stories of our cheesemakers and working one on one with our guests to bring to life a full-flavored experience."

Monteleone learned from those retailers how to create compelling back stories about specialty products, developing merchandising techniques that ignite desire; that gotta-have-it, can't-live-without-it-feeling is essential to Fromagination's bottom line.

"We're not a needs-based store," says Monteleone. "The challenge is: How do you create that want? That excitement? Ninety percent of our customers come into the store not knowing what they want."

Before a customer sets foot in the door, Fromagination is conjuring its spell. Giant windows are beautifully staged, beckoning passersby to stop and take a look. During TGR's visit, the front window featured an oversized poster of Chris Roelli, cheesemaker/owner of Roelli Cheese, and some of the store's private-label tabletop items.

Monteleone and his team work on creating a comprehensive in-store experience. "Through the smells, the touches, the sounds, we're bringing to life a time everyone wants to go back to," says Monteleone. "We're [recreating] that rustic, traditional lifestyle."

Merchandising, Monteleone says, "is the fun part. I probably spend too much time doing it. But we're a small store, and a small store could become cluttered very quickly. How can a different story be told? How can we contrast the merchandise?"

Windows are redesigned monthly and often feature seasonal themes. "We do our best to have a local feature or hard-to-find products," says Monteleone.

Little has changed at Fromagination, which celebrates is sixth anniversary Oct. 19. Since the beginning, Fromagination has been clear about its primary focus – cheese – and Monteleone has stayed true to his founding vision.

Google asked the retailer to star in television ads promoting Google Places. "We are very fortunate that people come to us with great ideas," says Monteleone.

"There is so much product out there, so many excellent products. You have to decide who you want to be and be consistent with the message and have a platform," he explains. "More is not better. It is [all about] editing the assortment, fine-tuning things."

An Eye for Expansion
Monteleone would like to expand the Fromagination brand. If the space adjacent to Fromagination were to become available, he'd like to open a cheese bar next to his shop – similar to what Pastoral Artisan Cheese Bread and Wine has done at its Lakeview store in Chicago.

"It would create a great synergy for the shop. Customers would see cheese presented in a different ways." Plus, Monteleone adds, "People who come into our store want to linger. They want to sit and enjoy."

During the warmer months, patrons do sit at the patio tables outside the shop, enjoying cheese plates, glasses of wine, cold microbrewed beers and sandwiches.

Madison's liberal liquor laws let retailers such as Fromagination sell – and serve – beer and wine in-store.

Because of its prime location and welcoming atmosphere, Fromagination gets a lot of foot traffic. Here, Claire Maillffer updates the store's outdoor signage.

"When you ask someone if they'd like a beer or a glass of wine while they shop, it changes the whole atmosphere," says Monteleone. Customers become more relaxed and spend more time thoroughly shopping the store. "It puts people in a food mood," he adds.

In the near future, Fromagination will issue a four-color direct-mail piece to promote its gift baskets and holiday offerings. Monteleone is also working on devising a comprehensive, long-term, social-media plan for Fromagination.

Balancing the store's signature customer service with modern-day technology is an ongoing challenge. "We've debated how an iPad might live in the shop – see a cheesemaker on a sheep farm," notes Monteleone. "I want the shop to be a refuge. A place where you can forget about the fast pace of life for 10 minutes. It's fine line we continue to explore. We're building a Facebook fan base, we tweet, we use Instagram and all these other things. With the in-store experience, we want it to be wholesome and one-on-one.

"How do you stage it so that it is not overkill? I am struggling and working through it," he says, adding that he is thinking through 60 days of Facebook postings.

Sandwiches and catering have been part of Fromagination's concept since its opening six years ago. Pictured is Ryan Converse.

As with other components of the Fromagination brand, Monteleone wants the social media outreach to "hold true to our values," including education about cheeses and cheesemakers. Consumers, he believes, "tune out retailers" that are sales driven with their social media.

Fondue-mental Events
In the winter months, Fromagination does fondue lunch and dinners in-store. A large communal table, which serves as a merchandising fixture when not in use, seats 12. The fondue events have become a hit, partly because of the large number of people with Swiss heritage in the area. "Usually it would be sluggish business in February and March," says Monteleone. "With fondue events, we've turned those months into good business."

In 2014, Fromagination will add another traditional Swiss dining experience – raclette. The fondue and the upcoming raclette gatherings will "give customers a chance to get out of the cold and engage with other people in a fun, festive environment," he explains.

To help promote these events, Fromagination uses social media and also sends out releases to the local press. Plus, Monteleone networks with other businesses that are trying to "make events memorable and bring people downtown."

Learning the Ropes
Fromagination has a staff of eight people, all of whom are thoroughly trained.

"There is so much to learn in a shop like ours," says Monteleone. "They [new employees] have to absorb a lot of info, so we do a lot in stages."

Overall it takes about 90 days to bring someone onboard. Newbies are paired up with more experienced staff in a one-on-one mentoring program that lasts for their first 30 days. Every day, the new hire learns about three cheeses – the flavors and suggested pairings. They also go out and visit a local vendor or two, such as Potters Crackers and Uplands Cheese, "to make connections with the producers" and to hear firsthand the story behind the product.