Ten years ago, cheesemakers Tony and Julie Hook moved from Mineral Point to Madison in an attempt to slow down and semi-retire. Little did they know that the cheese business would change in such a way to create a whole new kind of busy for them.
The Hooks began their company in 1976 and used to make cheese somewhat anonymously, creating a product for distributors to slap other labels on it. They made some small batches under their name, with a colby made by Julie winning a world championship in 1982. They also set aside some cheddar to age, some of which turned into the 15-year cheddar that brought Tony worldwide fame.
In the past decade, smaller-batch cheeses have become all the rage in the U.S. food world and have created a way for farmers and cheesemakers to earn more money for their products. The Hooks are anonymous no more, and sell more than 40 varieties of cheeses under their own name throughout the U.S. from their 19th century limestone building in downtown Mineral Point.
Q: You’re so associated with Mineral Point. Are people surprised you live in Madison?
A: They are. Almost anybody you tell says, “What?” Yes, we drive back and forth, every day, Monday through Friday. We do have quite a bit of business in Madison, selling at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, and we sell to a lot of stores in Madison.
Q: You are cheesemakers, but it seems that marketing and selling is a big part of your work, too.
A: Up until 2001 when we said we’d had enough of 100-hour weeks each, we were mainly just making cheese and selling it to big distributors and they were handling all of that. The cheese wasn’t going out under our name and we were only making a couple cents over market price. So in 2001 we’d had enough and we were going to just sell under our own label.
It’s a lot different. Typically we make cheese three days a week but we’re out here doing other things, like shipping. And marketing is a big part of the job anymore. The more you do, the more you get your name out there.
Q: People love cheesemakers now. Is it weird that it’s suddenly a cool job?
A: It is. It’s completely different. Up until the last 10, 12 years it was, “Oh you’re in Wisconsin, you make cheese.” Now, some of them think you’re a celebrity or something. I went in to get a cellphone, and the guy asked for my phone number so he could look up my account. He looked at the screen and saw “Anthony Hook.” Then he looked at my shirt and said, “Really? You’re the guy? You do God’s work.” It’s pretty cool.
Q: The area cheesemakers seem like friends, not rivals. Is that the case?
A: Up until the ’80s it was the opposite way. You were always concerned your neighbor was going to steal your patrons, that they might pay a few cents more a hundredweight and take your milk. Now it feels like we all have different niches in different areas. We actually complement each other, especially at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. There’s probably 12 places that sell cheese but I think we all together bring more customers to the market instead of us thinking, “I’ve got to have a better price than they do.”
Q: Do you still work 100 hours a week?
A: It’s back to around 80 hours a week, but now it seems like fun. I get to deal more directly with people and they’re buying your product, that’s your name on it. Even though it’s hard work, it doesn’t seem as hard anymore.