Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cheese Haven, Port Clinton, Ohio

Though we live in Missouri, Sue and I make it at least once a year to Cheesehaven—preferably before the holidays, so we can stock up on goodies for our entertaining. And in our checked luggage, we always smuggle back to Missouri a couple pounds of extra sharp, ten- or eleven-year-old white cheddar, some smoked fish, and a bierwurst.

(When we’re in northern Ohio, we also try to make it to the Vermilion Farm Market, which I’ve told you about before.)

Why am I writing about northern Ohio, in a blog by a Missouri gal? (1) Because it’s where Sue’s from, and we go there often to visit her family. It’s part of our life, and this blog is about our shenanigans. (Yes?) (2) Because northern Ohio’s a great place to visit. (3) Because I’m trying to reinforce a general point, here, about celebrating local businesses and local flavors. (4) And because the Midwest isn’t as lame and homogenized as the TV makes it out to be.

To be honest, the first time I saw a billboard for Cheese Haven (though the logo closes it up as “Cheesehaven,” I think it’s technically two words), I figured it was some kind of tourist-trap cheese outlet filled with lots of ultraprocessed and rubbery, flavorless cheeses for the masses. And lots of nightmare salty jerky. They’re right on a highway exit! In other words, because I read Gourmet magazine and watched the Food Network, I figured I was more classy than Cheese Haven.

I was wrong. There are treasures at Cheese Haven for every culinary taste, from the common to the extraordinary. And if you are looking for some local specialties, you can find them here. (Well, okay, if you’re vegan, you’re probably out of luck. But I digress.)

Here’s What They Carry

Cheese, and lots of it. I’m partial to the aged white cheddar, but there is much more. They’re famous for their smoked cheese, and they have a large selection of flavored types (salami, garlic, hot pepper, and caraway cheeses, for example); standard varieties such as Swiss, Colby, bleu, Gouda, Muenster, and Brie; and a growing list of imported cheeses. They usually have samples available (though I don’t think you’re supposed to make a free meal out of it).

Sausage, meats, and smoked fish. Their beef snack sticks are quite popular, and these make “Slim Jims” seem like parts of a brine-soaked old shoe. Which is to say, the beef snack sticks are actually quite meaty and delicious.

They carry a full line of deli meats, but perhaps the most notable is the store’s own bierwurst, which is made locally for Cheese Haven, using a family recipe that’s been used by the store since it opened in 1949. (It reminds me a lot of the Hott & Asel “baloney,” or garlic sausage, that my own neighborhood association has had made up, based on another vintage recipe, and sold as a fund-raiser.) I think the bierwurst is just the kind of thing you need at your New Year’s Eve party.

And the smoked fish is something we don’t get much around here in Missouri. Until I went to Cheese Haven, the only smoked fish I knew was the raw-looking salmon type—basically lox. But this is the dry-smoked stuff, and although it looks rather creepy and mummified, it is absolutely delicious! It’s intensely flavorful. It’s generally local fish from Lake Erie. Cheese Haven always has some kind of smoked fish available, though the types vary by season. The smoked catfish, for instance, is only available in the spring.

I particularly love the smoked trout and salmon. When I’m feeling decadent, I’ll make a quick pâté out of a bit of it (crumbled) beaten into some cream cheese and chopped shallot. Triscuits really love that kind of thing!

Condiments and relishes. Here again, it’s local. They sell their own brand of mustard, made in the store, as well as the complete line of Woeber’s mustards (from Springfield, Ohio). They also sell “Perfetto” marinara sauce from Sloopy’s Sports Café, a popular area restaurant. And there are jams and jellies, salsas, hot sauces, relishes, and pickles. And pickled eggs!

Wines. Cheese and sausage lead naturally to wine, and northern Ohio is a major grape- and wine-producing region. There are several small wineries on the Lake Erie islands and on the mainland, producing decent reds, cool, rich whites that make you truly appreciate the very soul of the grape, and sweet, regal ice wines. And if you’re not into wines, Cheese Haven sells other beverages, as well.

Candy. I usually don’t spend a lot of time in the candy section of Cheese Haven, but I need to point out that they have lots of candy you don’t find much anymore, including penny candy. They have every flavor of saltwater taffy imaginable, including sassafras! They have lots of old-fashioned candy, too. You can see why I avoid this section—it’s the only way I stand a chance!

Well! It’s looking more and more like a picnic, isn’t it! When I was there last week, I asked them if a lot of their business comes from Cedar Point tourism (Cedar Point is a huge amusement park near Sandusky). And they said that most of their tourism-related business is with people headed to the Lake Erie islands: Put-In Bay and Kelley’s Island, for example, plus local tourism for the Marblehead area, famous for its picturesque historic lighthouse.

This part of northern Ohio is branded to tourists as “America’s North Coast,” and it’s a good slogan. Boating, fishing, and swimming are big draws here. Put-In Bay, on South Bass Island, is a magnet all by itself. People take ferries to the island from Port Clinton, then rent golf carts or bicycles to get around on the island. Put-In Bay’s big lovely waterside park and its many cozy vacation cottages beg for you to bring along a cooler with bread, cheese, sausage, and wine. Which naturally leads you to Cheese Haven!

You might think that, like other businesses that cater to a tourist market, Cheese Haven might close during the off-season—but no way! They’re open year-round; they are closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but they certainly don’t shut down for the winter. (Hey, they have to stay open in order to sell you goodies for the holidays!)

The Cheese Haven Story

When we were there just after Thanksgiving, we noticed a sign that said “Under New Management.” We didn’t see the sign until we were exiting the parking lot on our way back home, so that night the clan sat around and discussed what might have happened at this landmark local business.

I was wondering, too, so I called to get the low-down. Here’s what I found out. Cheese Haven opened in 1949. Its original location was at Old Route 2 and State Route 53. A decade later, it moved to a location that was right across the street from where it is now. In 1989, Cheese Haven moved to its current address.

All those years, it was owned by the same fellow: Richard Brassel, who is called “Pops” by all the locals. He is the father of Tom Geisheimer, who, with his wife, Lisa, recently bought the business. Thus it remains a family-owned store! APPARENTLY I got this wrong--see the comments below! Needless to say, there's been a change in management, but apparently it's still locally run. (—JS, 6-24-11)

We did notice a few changes—most obviously in signage—but you can expect to see some other changes as well. They will be increasing the number of imported cheeses, for example. One thing you won’t see is a big turnover in staff: in this family-run business, the longtime workers are friendly with the owners, and a feeling of mutual goodwill prevails. Alas, alack, apparently I was wrong here, as well. Again, see the comments below.

One More Thing

They sell by mail order, yes they do! You can find Cheese Haven online here. They sell their cheese and sausages individually, plus they also offer gift baskets—combinations of goodies at reasonable prices. If you don’t see it online, give them a call—I’m betting they’ll ship it to you.

Why I Care

If you’re a regular reader, you already know what I’m going to tell you: Please support your local, family-run businesses. They are treasures, full of color and community pride, home of the American Dream. Even if they’re quirky places at times, they nevertheless have genuine character and a commitment to their community. Whether it’s Cheese Haven or another mom-and-pop shop just two blocks away from you, don’t let Walmart and its faceless international corporate cronies squeeze them out of the ring.

Cheese Haven on Urbanspoon


jill said...

Hi! Your post makes me very hungry! I'm from to local tourism bureau (Lake Erie Shores & Islands). Thanks for a fantastic post - I hope your readers discover CheeseHaven for themselves!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Hi, Jill! Thanks for your kind comments. Of course, it's not like Cheese Haven is the "only" place in northern Ohio to visit--there are so many more--that's one reason I included pictures of Put-In Bay and the Marblehead lighthouse. Maybe my post will help convince some midwesterners to consider that area for their next "staycation"!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Notice: I accidentally deleted a bunch of comments from my posts. Here, I try to reconstruct what I can of the ones I stupidly deleted.
--Julie (6-27-11)


On 6-23-11, Anonymous commented:

There is a major correction: Tom & Lisa Geisheimer are NOT Dick Brassel's children. He had 2 daughters who were kicked out of the business this year by their step mother Tina Brassel, who is Tom's mother. Please make your correction. Thanks.


And the same day, I replied:

Thanks, Anon, for the correction. I'm truly sorry to read this--not because I was wrong (before I wrote this post, I did call Cheese Haven and got the story from someone there) but because apparently the happy story I tried to portray wasn't happy for all involved.

Not being a local and not personally knowing anyone in the family, I have only been only dimly aware of who's who when I have shopped there (I don't remember anyone wearing name tags or introducing themselves as owners as opposed to employees)--though I think I have been helped in the past by one or both of the daughters--but I had no idea anyone had been forced out of the business.

I hope that Mr. Brassel's daughters have managed to transform their disappointment into new opportunities, and to move on to more congenial circumstances.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Brassel never had any children, the four childern were his wife's by a former marriage. He divorced their
Mother in 1987. Her girll, worked at CheeHaven as management.she moved on and became a Pastor and
has her own church. This the true story so much for

Julianna Schroeder said...

Oh, my goodness. It's starting to sound like a soap opera. HEY FOLKS, go there for the cheese and sausage, the smoked fish, the wine, and all the other yummy treats.

However, I don't recommend trying to figure out the goings-on of the family and the management. What a can of worms! It almost makes me sorry to have attempted to mention it. (Almost.)

Good luck to everyone involved!


Anonymous said...

Awesome to find this blog. I remember the original location as a child & wanted to share this info with my husband who moved here in 1967. Thank you for writing such an informative blog. Yes, we should shop local.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Anon, for your compliment. Cheesehaven is a colorful, unique place amid a sea of chain-store sameness. I'll bet it was fun to have watched the store grow and evolve over the years!