From meats to popcorn to other goodies, state-based foodmakers have retail outlets worthy of a detour.
My family knows that my trips across Wisconsin rarely proceed in a straight line. Heading up north? It might be necessary to take the “bacon detour” to Nueske’s in Wittenberg. If there’s a Brewers game, there are ethnic groceries that need to be acquired, either pre- or post-game. And no trip along the Lake Michigan shoreline is complete unless there’s a “Sheboygan swing” to grab a dozen hard rolls.
Most, but not all of these stops are company stores, in the towns that make iconic Wisconsin food products such as Johnsonville Brats, Rural Route One popcorn, and Jones Dairy Farm sausages.
Here are some more of the detour-worthy places to gather goodies from Wisconsin.
Jones Market – 601 Jones Avenue, Fort Atkinson
I grew up on Jones Dairy Farm’s breakfasts—the pancake mix stored in muslin bags of buckwheat so popular at Christmastime, the tins of real maple syrup, and the little sausages. Heck, I even played in the old farmhouse that’s on the cover of the bacon labels. It’s still there, visible through the trees from the Jones Market. I’ve been shopping there for decades, back when it was a utilitarian room where you bought giant bags of Canadian bacon seconds. But a few years ago, the market had a complete makeover and is now full of gourmet products, lunch specials, a dairy bar, and a full service meat counter. (Do not think about going after noon on a nice day to nab those extra thick pork chops for grilling, though. Those Fort Atkinson grillers get there early. You snooze and no pork chops for you!)
There’s a brat of the week—it was corned beef and cabbage in mid-March—and an ice cream sundae of the month. (We were sad that the April special, the liverwurst sundae, turned out to be an April Fool’s joke). There are still plenty of deals to be had, especially on larger quantities of sausages, the annual Easter ham sale, and even something for vegans as Jones has the Sunburger line of vegan burgers.
The store has lots of special events, including a Mother’s Day weekend event where you could build and plant herb gardens while munching on pork snacks. At Easter (the big holiday in the ham world) kids could participate in an egg hunt and meet Porkchop the Easter Bunny. Some children might be confused by a pig mascot dressed as a bunny, but if you grew up in Fort Atkinson, it seems kinda normal.
Johnsonville Marketplace – N6877 Rio Road, Sheboygan Falls
You gotta love the irony of driving down a very rural road somewhere between Elkhart Lake and Sheboygan and having the architect-designed mid-century modern headquarters of Johnsonville, the bratwurst empire, rise from the cornfield. Across the road is the company store, which opened in late 2020. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you spot the giant red BRAT sculpture, created by artist Richard Indiana, known for his iconic LOVE statue of the 20th century. In addition to every kind of bratwurst, the store has a lovely selection of upscale cutting boards, picnic sets and the like for gift giving. There are also very funny sausage themed T-shirts for all ages. My favorites were a mustard yellow baby onesie that said “Sun’s Out, Bun’s Out,” and one that read “This ain’t my first brat fry.” Pairing with Potosi Brewery, the company created its “Grumpy Grandpa” line of beers, emblazoned with the crabby face of the O.G. of Johnsonville, Ralph F. .Stayer. The company founder’s persnickety taste for food and drink fueled Johnsonville’s rise to the country’s number-one sausage company. You can only buy Grumpy Grandpa beer in one place, and that’s right here.
Nueske’s Company Store – 1390 E. Grand Ave., Wittenberg
For years I’d find excuses to travel Highway 29 between Wausau and Green Bay so I could veer into the Nueske’s bacon store and grab a big box of irregularly cut rashers for half the price that this iconic Wisconsin bacon fetches. Early on, it turns out I’d been going to a different spot that wasn’t the actual Nueske’s Company Store—then I had a conversation with a foodie friend.
Me: “I think it’s great that the Nueske’s store is also a gas station. How Wisconsin is that?”
FF: “It’s not, it’s a quaint store in downtown Wittenberg where they still have the original stone smokehouse.”
Um, she was right. Nothing against the nearby travel center, but if you go to the official Nueske’s store, you can learn all about how great Grandpa Nueske started smoking meat over applewood because he was homesick for the meats of his homeland. Nueske’s bacon is a trendy chef’s favorite and you’re as likely to find it on restaurant menus in New York City as you are here in Wisconsin. And if the store isn’t open when you’re passing by, you can stop in at that Wilderness Crossing truck stop at the interchange of highways 29 and 45 and buy many of the great Nueske’s products. Tell them I sent you.
Grandma Miller’s – N4317 Elizabeth Lane, Hancock
You cannot live on sausage alone, so if it’s June in central Wisconsin, and the pea harvest is on, you must visit Grandma. As you’re heading up north on I-39, take the exit at Hancock and look for Grandma Miller’s just west of the highway. You’ll know you’re in the right place if the lot is full of golf carts from the neighboring camping resort and everyone in every cart is clutching a five-pound bag of freshly picked and shelled sweet peas. Yes, they have a small cafe and cute tchotchkes, but the real reason to visit is PEAS! And if you have your Grandma Miller peas and a ham from either Jones Dairy Farm or bacon from Nueske’s, you’re most of the way to having the splendid Italian dish Pasta e Piselli or, as mom called it, ham and pea noodles.
Stefano’s Slo Food Market – 731 Pennsylvania Ave., Sheboygan
And speaking of Italians… Stefano’s Slo Food Market is not technically a company store, but it did grow out of the lovely constellation of Italian dining spots in downtown Sheboygan. It opened this spring after outgrowing the market space in the back of the Il Ritrovo pizza restaurant around the corner. We learned about the original small shop from some sailor friends who spent a foggy week stuck at the Sheboygan marina and survived by trooping to the store for containers of house-made minestrone and bolognese sauce. The much larger Slo Food Market has all sorts of imported Italian goodies from wine and pasta to glassware and tableware. You can buy a half dozen kinds of fresh mushrooms from the farmer’s market, and have prosciutto sliced to order at the deli while you sip your espresso. There’s a pizza counter, sandwich press, and a giant glass-fronted cased of aged beef.
Miesfeld’s Meat Market – 4811 Venture Drive, Sheboygan
Ironically, I first started visiting what’s known in our family as “the meat palace” for bakery items. Sheboygan is home to several fine bakers of hard rolls, those iconic crusty on the outside, soft on the inside rolls that elevate your bratwurst or burger to the heavens. You cannot buy a proper hard roll west of Jefferson, so if I’m anywhere near Sheboygan, I stock up. Mieseld’s is conveniently located just off I-43 and carries hard rolls from at least two of the iconic bakeries. It’s a fine argument over whether City Bakery, Hi-Lo Bakery, or other hard rolls are best, but any of them are welcome at my house. I first got hooked on Miesfeld’s garlicky summer sausage in the grilled sandwich they serve at the Old Fashioned in Madison. Miesfeld’s tiny mini-brats are fun for tailgating. And since my brother is a fan of the hard-core German meats, like suelze, braunschweiger, and head cheese, I’ll usually give him a heads-up that I’m stopping at “the meat palace” on the way home from Door County.
Rural Route 1 Popcorn Store – 101 US Hwy. 18, Montfort, WI
They do grow some mighty fine corn in the southwest corner of Wisconsin, and some of it becomes Rural Route 1 popcorn. The Biddick family has been raising seed corn here since 1906, and about 40 years ago, they branched into popcorn. The farm’s outlet store is located along Hwy. 18 in Montfort, a good pit stop for picking up a bag of warm popcorn to munch on as you head west toward the Mississippi River. Of course, you have to decide which flavor of corn to get, so you might have to sample the dozen or so flavors, which range from cheese and caramel to fudge knuckle and peanut butter cup. The shop is filled with “girls day out” wine accessories and housewares, and it sponsors occasional craft fairs in the parking lot.
Obviously Wisconsin has plenty of other company stores for its most famous products: cheese and beer. We’ll save those for their own stories and have more reasons to go on road trips.
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