Larry’s Market Still Features Octagenarian Cheesemonger
Story by Martin Hinz
Photography by Uriah Carpenter
Looking for cheese? By passing through the front door of Larry’s Market in Brown Deer, you know you’ve come to the right place. This century-old building is a cheese-o-phile’s dream come true, emphasizing high quality artisanal fromage. Larry’s is just a block south of bustling Brown Deer Road in what used to be the village center prior to its outward suburban push.
The store is presided over by born-salesman Larry Ehlers, who at a mere 89 remains jaunty in his trademark beret. The place is now owned by son Steve and his wife Cindy.
“We look at the quality of the cheese, the price and the size of the wheel and then decide whether it would be practical for us to sell it,”
-Patty Peterson, manager of Larry’s Market.
Daughter Patty Peterson is the manager, but Larry worked here as a kid when it was a grocery store and consequently knows every squeak in the floorboards. He eventually purchased the place, stocking all sorts of fine eats that attracted patrons from around the area. Even though many were captains of industry and high-flying world travelers, his ever-growing, dedicated clientele knew that they would always get great service and great value.
“In those days, I knew nothing about cheese, except for cottage, Velveeta, cheddar and Swiss. It always came in pre-wrapped chunks,” Ehlers recalls. But in 1970, his wife Carol, treated him to two tickets to the Fancy Food Show in New York. Despite protesting that the jaunt would be too expensive, he eventually relented and trundled off to Gotham with son Steve. Wandering the aisles at the trade exhibition, he admits to “feeling like the country bumpkin in the big city.”
But this was just as imported French cheese was finding its way to U.S. markets. So the Ehlers decided to order some to see if it would sell in Teutonic Milwaukee. “I allowed myself to spend $100,” Larry says of his initial purchase. The Ehlers had to wait weeks before their small sample arrived. Finally, on one of the hottest days of the year, Larry got a call from Northwest Orient Airlines saying the shipment was ready for pick up at Mitchell Field.
However, the wedge was almost melted when they opened the small wooden box. But the Ehlers bravely put the cheese out for sale, after a delightful taste test confirmed they had chosen wisely. Shoppers also decided to give this new cheese a try. Almost within minutes the cheese was gone…sold in a rush. And the Ehlers were forever hooked.
“We are pretty much in agreement when it comes to what we want to stock,” says Patty, looking over at one of the cheese cases packed with Emmi Roth, Sassy Cow, Saxon Creamery, Pleasant Ridge and additional dozens of labels. Slivered tastes, served up happily by Larry himself, are freely offered.
“We look at the quality of the cheese, the price and the size of the wheel and then decide whether it would be practical for us to sell it,” Patty emphasizes.
By 2000, the American artisanal movement was gaining impetus and Larry’s became one of the country’s most vocal supporters of these small batch offerings. Naturally, Wisconsin cheeses often get the nod since they are national and international award winners. Today, the store has more than 200 varieties, gleaned from top labels from around the United States, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy, Great Britain and elsewhere.
“We were willing to work with the cheesemakers,” says Steve, who said the producers appreciated the interest and support that the family showed in their products. Eventually, Steve and Patty began consulting with cheesemakers on everything from packaging to test marketing. Soon, other small batch food producers (such as spiced pecans and flavored crackers) sought similar assistance on how to peddle their lines.
The Ehlers became active with the American Cheese Society, with Steve being a major judge at the organization’s competitions and serving on its board for six years. While working behind-the-scenes organizing these shows for seven years, Patty also became a judge in 2013.
“Larry’s Market and its dedicated team have been a valuable part of the American Cheese Society community for years,” confirms ACS executive director Nora Weiser.
She adds that Steve has played a guiding role in both the direction of the association and the industry. In addition, Weiser praises Patty‘s creativity that has ensured that ACJ’s annual Festival of Cheese and Breakfast of Champions were “a feast for the eyes, not just the taste buds.”
The Ehlers are also active on the state level. Steve helped launch the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a public-private effort promulgated by former Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl to encourage the use of Wisconsin dairy products and to aid producers.
“The Ehlers family is known throughout the national cheesemaking scene and they’re particularly influential in Wisconsin,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), “Steve and Patty seek the budding artisans in the cheese industry and give them, in many cases, their first taste of retail sales,” he adds. Umhoefer also points out that that Larry, Steve and Patty receive great feedback from loyal customers “and their opinions, combined with the family’s extraordinary cheese knowledge, is carried back to the cheesemakers.”
“Larry’s Market is one of the finest specialty cheese retailers in the country because, not only do they have a broad array of quality cheeses, including one of the best assortments of Wisconsin specialty cheeses, but they’re also so knowledgeable about what they’re selling,” agrees Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of corporate communications for the influential Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).
“Aside from eating cheese, people who love cheese love talking about it – sharing discoveries of new varieties and interesting facts – and that’s Larry’s Market. Larry, Steve and Patty are among the most knowledgeable cheesemongers in the country,” Geoghegan asserts.
As confirmation, in 2011 Steve was inducted into the highly regarded Guilde des Fromagers, a French-based international organization for professionals in the cheese business.
What also makes Larry’s Market a great place to shop is its extensive array of other food products, from green lentils to wheat berries and wine. The store’s pot pies are not your Grandma’s Swanson pastries of yore. Larry’s concocts them with chicken, beef, crab, duck, lobster, pepper steak, turkey, pheasant, low sodium chicken or jumbo chicken.
Numerous cheese-related books and plenty of cheese accessories are also available.
The market has six tables inside for sandwiches and soups, plus a row of chairs and small tables ranging along the front porch for summertime chowing. Locals, such as the gang from the nearby North Shore Fire Department, know spring has arrived in early April when Larry’s outdoor grill is fired up for Friday noon-time lunches. In 2012, the market peddled 4,031 burgers, plus hundreds of brats and dogs.
Larry’s fabled deli counter is presided over by Chef Dale Curley, with catering making up about 60% of the firm’s business. The market can provide cheese party trays or accommodate large corporate dinners and small private affairs. The Ehlers have a staff of 12 full-timers and 16 part-timers to help out. Over the years, they’ve had four marriages that evolved out of kitchen romances. “We’re the matchmakers of cheese,” laughs Steve, 62. He learned much about cooking from his late mom Carol who often prepared magnificent dinners at their home for importers visiting from France and other countries.
He and Patty, 52, have another brother Jeff, 64, who was one of the original owners of Beans & Barley.
With all that cheese around them, Patty and Steve still have their favorites. He goes for bandaged cheddar while his sister favors seasonal fresh mozzarella. As for dad Larry, it’s simple. “I love it all,” he says with a broad smile.
8737 N. Deerwood Dr.
Milwaukee, WI 53209
Hours are 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday to Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, closed Sundays.
Gift certificates and baskets are also available.
Martin Hintz is a longtime Milwaukee journalist and author, regularly writing about chefs, restaurants and other food-related topics. He and his wife, Pam Percy, also operate Pampered Produce farm, serving 40-some CSA clients. Hintz is a Milwaukee County director for the Farm Bureau of Wisconsin, and a member of the Food Council of Milwaukee.