Northwoods Cheese Haus holds the distinction of being the first of its kind in Nebraska—a cheese house.
For Nebraskans unfamiliar with this concept, it’s a destination that celebrates the art of cheese-making by offering a curated selection of high quality, Wisconsin artisanal cheeses. Chris and Darleene Evitch recognized the absence of such establishments in Nebraska and set out to pioneer the concept in the Cornhusker state.
Originating from Stoddard, just south of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Chris Evitch’s upbringing in a region steeped in cheese culture laid the foundation for Northwoods Cheese Haus. The couple would make trips up north to visit family with their son Broc multiple times a year, and before each trip, friends, neighbors, and teachers would beg them to bring back some fresh “squeaky cheese.”
On these visits, the Evitchs explored creameries, met artisans, and forged connections with the cheese makers. When the perfect location for a storefront became available in Papillion in 2014, they had already established a network that would bring exclusive, high-quality cheeses to the heart of Nebraska.
“We lived just down the road from this unique little building for 25 years,” Chris Evitch points out. “Every day, we would drive past it.”
Traditionally, a cheese haus is a seperate building from a main house, or a little log cabin where cheese products are sold. The Evitchs purchased the Papillion property, which included an 1800’s estate with an expansive backyard. Initially focusing on the detached building, they renovated the former office setup, incorporating original butterwood lumber from up north to create a picturesque setting reminiscent of a vacation spot in America’s Dairyland.
Expanding beyond the cheese shop, the Evitchs transformed the estate and property into a vibrant live music venue known as “The Stave.” Over nearly a decade, their son, Broc, and his five friends managed the kitchen and orchestrated events.
The Stave featured curated meats and cheeses on charcuterie boards, offered a selection of wines and liquors, and welcomed hundreds of guests into the estate and backyard at a time. In 2020, The Stave stood as the sole open-air music venue in the Omaha area. Broc and his friends garnered acclaim, turning The Stave into an award-winning venue before heading to college and subsequently closing the venue to refocus on the retail aspect of the business.
Even now, the Evitchs personally make trips to and from Wisconsin, ensuring that the products they provide are not only of the highest quality but also exclusive and unique. This commitment guarantees that Nebraskans can access cheeses and artisanal products that might never grace the shelves of conventional grocery stores.
The Evitchs forged agreements with their network of artisans, stipulating that products must reach Northwoods Cheese Haus within two days of completing the aging process. If the makers couldn’t deliver their products within this 48-hour window, they were excluded from the arrangement.
“There’s certain cheese that you must get right out of the vat, like cheese curds,” Chris Evitch insists. “They’re so full of moisture right out of the vat, which is how they squeak on your teeth.”
Darleene Evitch explains further that cheese should never be eaten right out of the fridge. Since it’s a live ingredient, it must warm up to room temperature before it’s fully flavored and textured. Her personal favorite cheese is a 10 to 15-year aged cheddar, which pairs perfectly with another favorite, Syrah (or Shiraz?) wine.
“Every time you make a pairing, you’re going to get a third flavor,” Darleene Evitch describes. “You’re not enjoying the wine anymore, and you’re not enjoying the cheese anymore. It’s the third flavor that you’re enjoying.”
What sets Northwoods Cheese Haus apart is its commitment to offering a selection that makes customers say, “wow.” Beyond cheeses, Northwoods Cheese Haus features an array of carefully curated products, and 80 to 90-percent of the products they offer including meats, maple syrups, honey, oils, and jams are all made in Wisconsin.
Chris and Darleene’s discerning criteria include not only the “wow” factor but also the exclusivity of the products. Their dedication to visiting creameries in person ensures that their offerings are not readily available through traditional distribution channels. The result is a cheese house where every product has a story, every flavor profile is unique, and every visit promises a fresh discovery.
Black Sheep Gourmet food products are some of their best sellers, and their most popular offerings are pickled Brussel sprouts called “Frog Balls.” Chris Evitch sealed an agreement with the owner via a handshake over the phone. The understanding reached was that Black Sheep Gourmet would refrain from placing any of their products in Midwest retail stores without providing a prior heads-up.
“We’re their distributor for five states in the Midwest,” explains Chris Evitch. When a business in the Midwest expresses interest in retailing Black Sheep Gourmet products, the owner contacts the Evitchs. They are then given the opportunity to decide whether they would like to extend their product offerings to the potential client, thereby upholding their commitment to maintaining exclusivity.
Looking ahead, Northwoods Cheese Haus plans to offer educational initiatives, inviting artisans to showcase their craft and share their expertise. Classes on cheese-making, including varieties like mascarpone, mozzarella, and ricotta, are in the works. The goal is to elevate the customer experience, making Northwoods Cheese Haus not just a place to buy cheese but a space where enthusiasts can learn, engage, and immerse themselves in the world of artisanal products.
“The majority of artisans that settled in Wisconsin are first generation European immigrants,” Chris Evitch states. “These are their parents’ recipes.”
In the past, the entire landscape of Wisconsin was covered with wheat fields. However, as immigrants arrived, they began replacing wheat with hybrid grasses and altering the types of flowers and grasses grown throughout the year. Consequently, when dairy animals consume these wildflowers and clover, the resulting cheese carries distinctive earthy notes. This imparts an exceptional, premium flavor profile that simply cannot be replicated when the cheese is shipped across oceans and spends hours to days in distribution warehouses.
So, the next time you reach for a cheese labeled “made in France,” it might be worth reconsidering. The Evitchs have proved that you don’t have to buy products from overseas to indulge in rich, flavorful cheese in the United States. Through Northwoods Cheese Haus, they’ve created a cultural experience waiting to be savored by Nebraskans eager to explore the rich nuances of the cheese-making craft.