Despite the fact that Chris Kohtz recently gave up a decades-long media career to open The Wedge & Wheel, a cheese shop and bar in downtown Stillwater, his radio roots remain strong. He may be serving up slices of Stilton instead of selections of classical music, but storytelling remains the center of his game as he brings a cut-to-order cheese counter to the St. Croix Valley.
“When I tell people about the stories behind the cheese, that just resonates with the small, locally owned vibe [of Stillwater],” he notes as he cuts a wheel of Wisconsin-made clothbound cheddar that costs close to $30 / lb. “That is superseding any concerns about cost in the case. I just try to find the best cheese.”
Open since Jan. 2, the Wedge & Wheel is the culmination of Kohtz’s three-year passion project that started with a trip to London’s La Fromagerie, segued into the cheese-centric blog Wedge in the Round, and finally led to the Three-Day Intensive Cheese Education Program at the Cheese School of San Francisco. The relationships Kohtz formed with cheesemakers and other industry professionals through his blog proved critical as he began to build an inventory that balances artisan American cheeses with imported favorites.
“I thought long and hard about doing an all-American case, but it was clear that locals wanted the best international stuff, too,” he says. “People like the interesting, funny, exotic, challenging cheeses.”
The small, sunny storefront features cheese and charcuterie to enjoy on premises as well as to take home. Several cheese and meat flights anchor the menu, along with a grilled cheese of the day. Though the wine list leans toward Italian and Spanish, the beer selection is decidedly local — after all, the Stillwater Lift Bridge is steps away — with brews from Lift Bridge, Fulton, and Lake Superior Brewing Company.
“I would love for us to be known as elevating the cheese game in town,” Kohtz says as he distributes slices of that Wisconsin-made clothbound cheddar — Kingsley Clothbound Cheddar, made by cheesemaker Chris Roelli. The full-bodied, English-style cheddar tastes earthy and mustardy, but is less craggy and dusty than a typical clothbound cheddar. Obviously, the locals are loving it — just a small wedge of the original drum remains in the case.
“Many of our customers are intimated the first time they come in. But almost always they leave saying, ‘This is something Stillwater needed,'” Kohtz adds.
Kohtz recognizes that assembling and training the right staff will be key to The Wedge & Wheel’s success. He encourages his team — ranging from former cheesemongers to future farmers — to get out from behind the counter to talk to customers and look at the case from their perspective as they taste.
“People I hire need to be good storytellers, be personable,” he says. “I like to put together teams of passionate people.”
Digging into a funky, barnyardy sheep’s-milk tomme from Star Thrower Farm in Rich Valley, MN, Kohtz surveys his steady stream of customers; they will help to shape the shop, its cheese selections, and its atmosphere in the days, months, and years to come.
“I want our customers to take us where on that pendulum they want us to be. We’re leaning toward being a more elegant spot. We’ll make decisions about our decor, even our clothes based on that,” Kohtz says. “We’re letting the place find itself. Like a good cheese, we want to nudge it along rather than force it.”
The Wedge & Wheel, 308 E Chestnut St, Stillwater, MN 55082; 651.342.1687.