After more than a decade on the Capitol Square, Ken Monteleone believes it’s not enough to open a store downtown, stock the shelves and sell.

“It’s not traditional retailing anymore,” said Monteleone, who opened Fromagination in 2007. “It’s about creating and curating an experience. It’s about entertaining.

“As a small retailer, you have to be five steps ahead of the customer and figure out what they want before they know they want it.”

Monteleone has seen Madison’s downtown bloom with restaurants, fine dining spots and taverns that complement his little shop of artisan cheeses and “perfect companions” like crackers, candies, preserves and wine.

The Fromagination of today isn’t what it was years ago, both inside the cheese case and out. As labor woes squeeze the food industry, Monteleone figured out how to offer and subsidize health insurance for employees whose expertise he wants to keep. More high end imported cheeses have joined juniper-infused Wisconsin blues and bandage-wrapped cheddar from Blue Mounds.

Marie Kondo and the decluttering trend led Monteleone to pare down what Fromagination stocks. He’s offering classes on cheese pairings and the science of cheese, and he’s bringing in special cheeses for theme months. February is everything French, with “Paris in Bloom.”  

“I have to be aware of trends,” Monteleone said. “You have to be aspirational in how you make your store look and feel. The way we compete with Amazon is you have to make an experience.”

This past week, Monteleone spoke with the Cap Times about where his little store is going next.

You’ve been downtown for more than a decade. How have you seen the Square evolve?

When I first opened 12 years ago, they thought I was crazy. Why would you want to compete against the farmers’ market? I hit several banks before I finally got a small business loan. They were very worried, because that side of the Square was dead for so many years. There was not a lot going on after the work day.

People are living downtown, and there’s a huge population that’s in their late 20s and early 30s. They want entertainment. Millennials want a different experience than what the college students and state workers wanted 11 years ago.

You have to adapt and change. You have to understand your customer, otherwise you’ll be a dinosaur in a brick and mortar store.

Fromagination is popular with visitors who want to take cheese home. What about locals?

It’s interesting. My customer base, a third are locals. They shop us whenever something special is going on in their life, an anniversary, someone’s coming over, Valentine’s Day, the holidays. We’re not on the radar for grocery shopping. We also get that customer when we do something unique, something special in the store

What I’ve found about Madison, and the reason I wanted to take that risk 12 years ago and open my own business, is the local community takes pride in supporting local businesses. Dane Buy Local, the Business Improvement District, Downtown Madison, Inc., they go to great lengths to anchor small businesses. 

A few years after the store opened, you were featured in a profile in Our Lives magazine, in which you spoke about the loss of your partner and the importance of Fromagination in moving forward. Was that a challenge for you?

That feature in Our Lives was good for me. That was right after I lost my partner, and the business helped me grieve. The store was my baby for the time after he died, to pour myself into it.

I was in the corporate world for 23 years. I was an assistant buyer for JC Penney’s and I was in the closet. I wasn’t allowed to be who I was. It was to the point I knew I would never get promoted.

Not until I opened my own business did I feel, this is my business, I am who I am and I need to be true to myself. It helped me grow as an individual, because you blossom when you are able to be who you are. So much has changed in how open our community is.

What is the cheese scene like now versus when Fromagination opened?

Differentiating ourselves is totally different. Twelve years ago, when I looked at the cheese scene in Madison, everyone was going to the farmers’ market for artisan cheeses. Now you go to the (Willy Street) Co-op, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, and the cheese scene has really evolved.

We’ve narrowed our assortments—when you go to big boxes you can be overwhelmed. As a specialty retailer it’s our job to curate. When they walk in they see cheeses that are paired by our staff that make sense.  

Eleven years ago we were focused on local, but Madison is beyond that now. We have that big footprint that’s been laid for us in terms of how important it is to buy local but how do you educate customers about other small producers that are important as well. We create a niche in the market that’s unlike what other people are doing.

We can get good cheese so many places now. Does that mean you can focus more on imports?

We’re always going to be Wisconsin focused. We have a featured artisan, which this month is Roelli Cheese. But our big story in store this month is celebrate France. We brought in all these special cheese from France that we’re only going to have for the month.

One month we’ll feature American women cheesemakers, one month we’ll feature Vermont or Neal’s Yard Dairy (in London).

That’s what our customer wants today. Eleven years ago they wanted to explore Wisconsin artisan cheese, but we have people in Madison from all over the country. They want to see a Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam (from Point Reyes, California) in the case. How do you complement the Wisconsin story with things that aren’t readily available here by season?

When you go online, our website is strictly about Wisconsin. We want them to see what we curated from here in the epicenter of what’s going on in the cheese world.

Marketing is different than it was, too. How do you tap into influencers, people who are influential in the world of cheese on Instagram, bloggers, people on Facebook? The value in that, to me, is better than trying to do traditional marketing. There’s more conversation.

Would you ever open another Fromagination?

I want the brick and mortar store to be special, and I want it to be a destination. When you open other branches, you lose that specialness.

I think a west side store would be successful, Monroe Street would be successful. But I want to continue to push the envelope at our main location, making sure that we’re consistent, well-educated, we’re knowledgeable, we’re profitable and sustainable.

Our website offers tremendous opportunity, to have this niche. Our goal is to be the leader in the United States selling Wisconsin cheese. That’s where the investment is for me right now, focusing on what I need to do complete in the world of e-commerce successfully as a small business.

Food editor and arts writer Lindsay Christians has been writing for the Cap Times since 2008. She hosts the food podcast The Corner Table and runs a program for student theater critics. Member @AFJEats and @ATCA. She/ her/ hers.