Ask anyone in Viroqua and you’ll likely get the same answer. The Cheese Corner is the place in town to grab delicious sandwiches, salads and more.
Since 1986 the Cheese Corner has been a fixture in downtown Viroqua. However, in April 2020, faced with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the second-generation family-owned business made the difficult decision to close the doors and put the property and business up for sale.
Nearly a year later, the property and business were bought by the Vernon Area Rehabilitation Center, Inc. (VARC), an organization dedicated to serving individuals with varying abilities through programs including job training and employment opportunities.
Knowing what the Cheese Corner meant to the Viroqua community, VARC planned to stay true to the original business model (including recipes!) that had made it so popular over 30 years. VARC’s focus was to re-open the Cheese Corner and ensure that there were employment opportunities in the small community.
“It was such a loved and treasured restaurant in Viroqua,” explained Megan Tully, director of strategy at VARC. “We were intent on preserving the family legacy of the business as much as possible.”
WEDC grant helps fund renovation
The Cheese Corner, under the new ownership, reopened in September 2021 and is staffed by several individuals served by VARC. But the opening didn’t happen right away. The building, more than a century old, was due for a major renovation.
And this was no mere facelift. The interior of the building was gutted to the extent that, for a period of time, a mini excavator worked inside the building, digging up the cement floor to allow for updated plumbing.
The focus of the renovation was twofold. First, VARC set out to make everything compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), including two new ADA compliant restrooms. And second, in a world with heightened sensitivity to social distancing, the team wanted to allow for more space within the restaurant.
This renovation is where the Main Street Bounceback Grant came into play. VARC applied for, and was awarded, the grant to help fund the renovation costs.
A community gets behind the re-opening
When the Cheese Corner reopened in September of 2021 the reception from the community did not disappoint. Viroqua-area diners had missed their Cheese Corner sandwiches and were anxious to enjoy a Turkey Trio, Cheese Corner Special, or any other of their 20+ locally adored subs.
“We didn’t really announce an opening date, it just spread through word-of-mouth and there were lines out the door those first few weeks,” said Tully. “We were overjoyed, and slightly overwhelmed, by the turnout within those first few weeks. We learned some very valuable lessons and the Cheese Corner has since been thriving with the support of our local community members.
Creating jobs and fostering independence
The Cheese Corner currently employs six VARC clients each receiving varying degrees of support. Tully explains that the clients are very invested in the work and that it gives them meaning and purpose every day that they are there.
Typically, a new employee does different jobs that develop skills that build on each other from food prep including slicing, dicing and stocking then moving on to assembly and eventually working the cash register and taking phone orders. Turnover among the VARC client/employees at the Cheese Corner is very low despite typically high turnover rates in the foodservice industry.
Seeing the employees gain confidence and take steps toward independence is gratifying and at the heart of what VARC is all about. Tully talks of one employee who historically has not been able to retain employment with other employers but has blossomed at the Cheese Corner.
With the reopening of the Cheese Corner, the Viroqua community has its treasured business (and sandwiches!) back and, equally as important, residents are getting a better understanding of what VARC is all about as it becomes a key part of the Viroqua business community.