The Secret Life of String Cheese
The inventor of the mozzarella cheese stick in your childhood brown bags wasn’t looking to be your lunchroom superstar.
Brian Baker is obsessed with string cheese. He talks about it poetically, rambling about the string factor, the machines that pump out individual-sized ropes, the flavor profile of the stick.
But Brian’s love for string cheese is almost forgivable: His grandfather Frank may have invented it.
It makes sense that string cheese was most likely invented in Wisconsin, cheese capital of the United States. Brian (referred to by his first name here to avoid confusion between various members of the Baker family involved in this story), is the president of a family-owned and operated cheese brand named Baker Cheese, a company that has made cheese for nearly 100 years. Over the course of four generations string cheese has become close to the entirety of their business.
Baker Cheese began as a small operation. Starting in 1916 they sold cheddar cheese in St. Cloud, Wisconsin. It was one of many local cheese shops scattered throughout the dairy state. “It was just a small cheese plant, our great grandfather and my great-grandma made the cheddar cheese,” Brian said. “It was their career. They lived right next door to the plant.”
Then the 1950s came, and with it, the pizza craze—changing the cheese business forever.
American soldiers returned home from Italy with a hankering for a bread topped with tomato sauce and cheese. The bread and tomato sauce weren’t too difficult to reproduce but mozzarella was a hard find in postwar America. Italian immigrants substituted the buffalo milk that the cheese was normally made from with cow’s milk, creating a rubbery white mound that melted perfectly onto bread—perfect for the takeout pizza business that was popping up throughout the Midwest: Pizza Hut (Kansas) in 1958, Little Caesar’s (Michigan) in 1959, Domino’s (Michigan) in 1960.
Baker Cheese, in America’s dairyland and in the eye of that delivery pizza storm, was positioned perfectly for a mozzarella takeover. So the outfit switched gears and met the surge in demand for the pizza-topping cheese by transforming from a cheddar cheese company to a mozz maker.
For these early pizza joints, Baker Cheese would make six-pound loaves or 20-pound blocks of cheese that restaurants would then cut and slice for their pizzas. But then Baker Cheese started getting requests for consumers who were addicted to the hot white melted mass of cheese on their pizzas. They wanted smaller units that they could eat as a snack.
The question was: how? Baker Cheese had to figure out a way to produce and package smaller units of their mozzarella for individual consumption. That wasn’t something they had ever done before.
At the time, the third generation of Baker Cheese had now come into management, but the old guard was still around. “My grandfather, Frank, was playing around with mozzarella” in the plant, Brian said. Frank remained an active participant of Baker Cheese, visiting the plant to watch over the mozzarella-making process.
“My grandfather was an innovator by nature,” Brian said. “He wanted to see if he could seek to do something with the product and packaging for these one-pound packages of mozzarella. Mozzarella was already shredded and cubed, but we didn’t want to compete and invest in that market.”
So Frank started experimenting in the factory with these one pound packages. Normally, mozzarella is molded into a shape from a continuous flow of cheese that is then shaped into a block or square. Frank wondered what would happen if he took this continuous flow of mozzarella and simply chopped them into strips?
“He would cut off strips and hand stretch them and roll them up and cut them into ropes, into little three, four, five inch pieces,” Brian said. “He’d soak them in the salt brine—this highly concentrated salt water—and he realized by doing it this way, cheese would have ‘stringing’ characteristics.”
Et voila: string cheese.
Of course, at the time Frank had no idea he had stumbled upon the future lunch snack of children across America. In fact, children were not the consumer he first tested the stringy cheese logs out on. This being Wisconsin, his idea of market research was simple: Head to the local bar.
“The marketing plan was very elaborate,” Brian laughs. “It was going to parties and taverns and asking people, ‘What do you think?’”
What they thought was this: It was easy to snack on. It had a mild, pleasant flavor profile. It wasn’t offensive. It was stringy. And it was popular among the bar goers.
“[String cheese] certainly wasn’t targeted specifically to kids,” Brian said. “It was meant to be a functional, high quality piece of cheese you could peel and stretch.” From its humble three- to five-inch length origins, Baker Cheese quickly designed a stick that was thinner, more holdable, and lighter (current string cheese clocks in at 28 grams; prehistoric string cheese was in the 40 to 45 gram range).
That was in 1976. But it wasn’t until the a few years later, when string cheese had become cylindrified from its original twisted rope state and retail opportunities abounded, that string cheese catapulted from a local oddity to a national craze that caught on with the younger set. A key part of that was packaging, Brian said. Rather than stuffing 15-16 sticks into a one pound bag, they started making the individually wrapped mozzarella tubes we know today.
“With the one pound bags, parents would get [the entire bag] but have to throw them out because it would start to spoil,” Brian told me. “But we invested in vacuum packing to extend shelf life. Pretty quickly, kids thought it was cool and the adults liked it, too.”
So, Baker Cheese invented string cheese. But were they the first? The answer to that question is hard to find.
“Certainly in the Midwest, we were the first, I can confidently say that,” Brian said. “That is the birth of the string cheese in our facility. At that point, there was no string cheese in the market, probably in the nation. But I can’t say that for sure.”
There might have been simultaneous Frank-like cheese experimenters out there, breaking mozzarella into bits, making them into sticks to snack on. But there aren’t any patents for string cheese, and those inventors’ stories have been lost to time.
Regardless, it seems string cheese is here to stay. Baker Cheese has even gotten into dietary trends, creating a reduced fat string cheese, an organic string cheese, and a “twisty” string cheese of white and orange-dyed mozzarella swirled into a cheesy twist.
And they’re not just innovating on cheese types either. Brian is now looking to spread the string abroad. “We’re in Vietnam and southeast Asia, we distribute there,” he said. “We ship out our label [to wholesale suppliers] that have gone to the Middle East, Korea, South America, and Mexico.”
No matter where string cheese goes next, though, there is one quality that Brian refuses to compromise on.
“It must string.”