Good, fresh food is just the start to this creative Beloit cafe. And, like any classic Wisconsin stop, it’s also home to a variety of fresh and locally produced cheeses.
“Opening a restaurant was not at all in our plans,” says Darren Larsen, who, with wife Judith, owns both Café Fromage and The Cheese People of Beloit, a storefront coffee shop, restaurant and cut-to-order cheese shop at 431 E. Grand Ave., in the heart of downtown Beloit.
The Larsens began their careers as cheese mongers in 2009. They started selling Wisconsin artisan and farmstead cheeses at two local farmers’ markets and now are proud vendors at more than a dozen of these markets in Beloit, Rockford and the surrounding area. Café Fromage is the happy result of knowledge, experience, opportunity and a passion for really good food.
“In the fall of 2011, we had the opportunity to purchase a 101-year-old building in downtown Beloit, and began remodeling the space to create our first permanent retail location,” Larsen explains. “We opened the doors to the cheese shop in May 2012. We initially had a tenant operating the coffee shop side when we opened. We ended up buying out his company in August 2013, did some extensive remodeling in the space and opened Café Fromage in early November.”
Renovating the kitchen and installing a new exhaust hood took time, but Larsen likes having the full space. He’s a hands-on kind of guy who is nearly always present for customers, on both sides of the business.
“What we offer our diners is a fresh, new menu featuring all made-to-order entrees,” Larsen explains. “We use only the best- quality ingredients. So far, the response has been positive.”
Not surprisingly, many of Café Fromage’s menu items feature cheese. There’s a savory sandwich made from house-roasted turkey topped with apple-cranberry preserves, a special three-cheese blend and apple slices. There’s also a Mindoro apple salad with sliced green apple, Mindoro blue cheese, and toasted walnuts on greens dressed with raspberry vinaigrette. Morning customers dine on brioche breakfast sandwiches, fresh fruit and yogurt, Umpqua oats or something equally tasty.
“Rose Orbison initially worked in the cheese shop, but now she runs the kitchen,” Larsen says. “She and a group of talented cooks hashed out the menu, and we tweaked it a few times.”
Cheese aside, Orbison’s tender, flavorful scones, fresh French baguettes and trays of cookies keep customers coming back, along with gooey cinnamon rolls served every Saturday morning.
Walk into Café Fromage on any morning and you’ll find a group of coffee sippers seated at the front window sharing conversation. During the day, the cafe attracts not only couples and single diners who feel at home, but also various book clubs and other groups.
“We’ve become a hot-spot for young mothers,” Larsen adds. “Sometimes, the cafe is filled with strollers. It may be because we offer the only baby changing table in the downtown area.”
Folks may dine in or go home with bags of baked goodies. Trending this holiday season is hard cider and cheese pairings, a switch-up from traditional wine-and-cheese gatherings. Café Fromage and the Cheese People stock a variety of hard ciders, wines and beers.
At any given time, the Cheese People has at least 40 regional artisan cheeses on hand, cut to order.
Along with top-selling Sweet Cream Havarti, the cheese shop offers temptations like applewood smoked baby Swiss, Texochile cheddar and a variety of goats’ milk cheeses. Folks can shop in person or place online orders at thecheesepeoplebeloit.com. Larsen says future plans include selling gift baskets during holiday seasons and renovating the building’s upper floor to accommodate special events.
“We were involved with this year’s (Beloit International) film festival and we have a wedding rehearsal dinner on the calendar,” Larsen says. “While we’re still at the early stage with Café Fromage, we intend to build on the compatibility of the restaurant and cheese shop and to explore catering options.”
Winter hours are Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m., lunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.