Thursday, January 23, 2014

Say This 10 Times Fast: Awesome Wausome Wafers From Wausau

You know that feeling when you discover a new food you never knew existed but after consuming twice the number of recommended servings in one sitting, promptly decide you can no longer live without it? Yeah, that happened to me this week with cheese crisps, courtesy of a man named Brian Gunning from Wausau, Wisconsin.

In between working more than a decade as a graphic designer, marketing consulting and mobile computing inventor (he holds a patent for a Batman-belt-like inventory device), Brian has been secretly cooking cheese into perfect circles of pure crispy bliss for years. He started in 2000, as a bachelor in downtown Madison, who for fun would fry cheese in a skillet until it turned crispy.

"I remember being really excited and taking my first batch of cheese to work one day, and the people I worked with were absolutely revolted that I would do such a thing. So needless to say, I gave up on it for awhile," he said. Luckily for us, he perservered. Fast forward a few years, now married with children, Brian started packing his kids' lunch and including the ever popular Goldfish crackers. "Have you ever looked at the nutritional value of Goldfish? They’re terrible for you," he said. "So instead, I put some cheese on the griddle, and the kids liked it. So I started packing cheese crisps in their lunches instead."

Today, Brian is still cooking cheese, and as it turns out, he's gotten incredbily good at it. After setting up an 800-foot commercial kitchen near Wausau using stainless steel equipment he scored from a bankrupt Krispy Creme (thank you failed donuts!), he's unveiled his new Wausome Wafers (Wholesome + Awesome = Wausome) to a select number of specialty food stores in Wisconsin, where they're taking off like an out of control grease fire. Well, maybe that's not be best way to put it, but you know what I mean.

So what exactly are Wausome Wafers? Pure and simple, they are fried cheese (well, actually baked, but they seem fried - I got sort of lost in Brian's scientific cooking explanation - there's a reason I'm an English major). No gluten, no carbs, and sugar free. Think Parmesan crisps, only better, using different kinds of cheese made only in Wisconsin.

The first two Wausome Wafer flavors to hit the market are Clever Cheddar and Hug & Kiss Colby/Swiss. The Clever Cheddar is made entirely from cheddar crafted at Bletsoe's Honey Bee Cheese Factory near Wausau. It's a straight-forward cheese crisp that's surprisingly addictive, containing the perfect amount of cheddary goodness. Then there's the Hug & Kiss Colby/Swiss. The cheese is made by Decatur Dairy (Colby Swiss was invented by Master Cheesemaker Steve Stettler) and it's sweet, with a bite of swiss, "right in the kisser." It comes out lacey but marbled, smooth but sharp, a true Wisconsin original.

Brian has four more flavors in development, including Soupa Gouda, Party Havarti, Such Bliss Swiss, and Forever Cheddar (an aged cheddar crisp). When I asked about his recipe development process, he said his market research is simple.

"I take them to church and put them out at the potluck and stand in the background. Then I watch the expressions of people who eat them. Typically, if they turn out well, the little old ladies devour them. They gather them up in a napkin and run off to someone else and say, 'You have to eat this!' Then I know I've got a winner," he said.

Each crisp is 1-1/2 inches in diameter and packaged in just about the cutest, best-ever designed packaging you've ever seen. Because the crisps are fragile, the boxes are triangular, with each lid acting as a spring cushion. And in a novel marketing concept, each box tells the story of the cheese and the cheesemaker, not the story of the product creator.

"I wanted to tell the stories and celebrate the cheeses and cheesemakers, because without them, this product would not exist," Brian says.

And what about the name? Turns out it's a combination of factors. The first was the City of Wausau's attempt to rebrand itself with the ever-creative tagline of: "It's Wausome." Shockingly, the slogan failed, but a local high school kid did adopt "wausome" as his Twitter handle and made a few t-shirts. It was Brian's mother-in-law who suggested Brian adopt "Wausome Wafers" as the product name, and it was a mentor at the county entrepreneurial center who gave him the tagline: "Wholesome + Awesome = Wausome."

"So basically, I stole the name from a high school kid, my mother-in-law and a teacher. I'm surrounded by creative people. It's a good thing," he said. "I added my skills of knowing how to brand something to make it personable and effective, then added my background in supply chain and an obsession with eating fried cheese late at night."

Wausome Wafers are shelf-stable with a 6-month shelf life. Brian encourages consumers to not only enjoy the wafers, but to then visit the cheesemakers' websites and also purchase the cheese from which it was fried to a crisp. "I'm just helping cheese realize it’s true potential,” he says. And I would argue he's accomplished that goal.

To get your very own box of Wausome Wafers, visit Vino Latte, Lil Ole Winemakers Shoppe, and Downtown Grocery in Wausau. They'll also be available in Madison at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale starting Saturday, and at Fromagination early next week. Once you have your very own box, you'll be saying it with me: Wausome Wafers are awesome!

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