No matter which direction you’re traveling through the northern half of Ohio, you’re likely to get a whiff of Grandpa’s Cheesebarn. The cheese emporium’s flagship barn is located just off I-71 in Ashland—dubbed the “World Headquarters of Nice People”—while its two sister stores can be found about 45 minutes northeast, in Norton and Fairlawn.
“We always say it’s perfect because [we] can hit anyone coming in any direction through Ohio,” says Mistie Poorbaugh, who owns the Norton location.
The original Grandpa’s Cheesebarn certainly has all the makings of a requisite roadside stop: a smorgasbord of free samples from chocolates to cheese, situated on Instagram-worthy grounds with a converted barn and silo next to a tiny pond and gazebo. But it’s also become a destination in its own right, attracting approximately 100,000 visitors annually, including some high-profile guests like Hillary Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Kathy Griffin, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
Yet Poorbaugh’s favorite visitors are the next-generation kids whose families have been coming to Grandpa’s Cheesebarn for decades. She can relate—after all, Poorbaugh was just three years old in 1978 when her parents, Dick and Ronda, sold their sporting goods store and opened a cheese shop. At the time, the land housed a working farm and active cornfields—along with some four-legged friends that quickly became the Poorbaugh family’s coworkers.
“Back then, we had the cheese barn upstairs, selling cheese, meat, and gifts, and when you walked into the bottom part of the barn, there were sheep and goats,” says Poorbaugh. “No way would the health department allow that today.”
Indeed, things have changed in the family’s nearly 43 years of business—today Dick and Ronda run the original Ashland location, while Poorbaugh operates the newer locations. At Ashland, the shop still encompasses the full former barn with two floors worth of indulgent eats. In addition, it has also expanded to include a separate building housing Sweetie’s Chocolates.
Fudge fans for life
Even though I grew up in Ohio, I was a bit late to the Grandpa’s Cheesebarn party. I’d seen the billboards on I-71, but I never actually stopped to check it out until my 42nd birthday. My family and I were going to be in the car most of the day, so I figured it’d be a fun way to celebrate my birthday en route. Several impulse purchases and a family picture outside the Cheesebarn later, I knew I was right.
Just 35 miles down the road is the heart of Ohio’s Amish country, located southeast of Ashland in Holmes County. It’s a fortuitous proximity, as many Amish exports can be found at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn, from hand-stirred jams and jellies to the secret ingredient in the shop’s best-selling fudge.
“We use rolled Amish butter, and you can’t beat the flavor of real butter going into fudge,” Poorbaugh says. “Customers will come in and say they’re not ‘fudge people,’ but after they taste ours, they’re fans for life.”
But the real star of the show is the shop’s famed Ohio Swiss cheese, also sourced from Holmes County. Poorbaugh says the cheese is aged in “an old wooden box that’s been seasoned over years and years,” producing a signature nutty flavor and large eye holes that distinguish the cheese from other Swiss varieties.
If Swiss isn’t your thing, Grandpa’s has more than 100 other varieties of cheese to ensure you’ll find something that is. Espresso bellavitano, dill Havarti, raspberry ale, truffle cheddar, and steakhouse onion are just a few samplings of the cheeses that sit on the well-stocked shelves at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn.
“We like to try and find small businesses that are just starting out that have brand-new products that haven’t made it to any other stores or shops, so we do a lot of private labeling with new businesses,” says Poorbaugh. “We buy a lot from Amish country, but we also source a lot of overseas cheeses from cheesemongers.”
At Grandpa’s you’ll find Kerrygold cheese from Switzerland, old-fashioned Red Leicester cheese from England (try the Old English Cheddar spread), and parmesan and Romano cheeses from Italy. “One of the cool things is that when we go to food and cheese shows, a lot of people ask us to taste cheese from different cheesemongers overseas,” says Poorbaugh. “They use our opinion to determine whether it will sell in the U.S.”
Built on love
Becoming an authority on cheese didn’t happen overnight. The Grandpa’s Cheesebarn story dates back to the early 1900s, when Poorbaugh’s great-grandfather Floyd Yarman traded a portable RCA radio for a wheel of Ohio Swiss to open “Yarman’s Cheese House” in West Salem—specializing in cheeses and smoked meats such as ham and bacon. Decades later, Yarman’s daughter Vera and her husband Dick Baum continued his legacy by opening a store called Wonderland of Food.
In 1991, the Baums sold Wonderland of Food to join Ronda and Dick Poorbaugh full-time at Grandpa’s Cheesebarn. Mistie Poorbaugh followed suit in 2015 when she rejoined the family business to open Best of Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Norton, offering a curated selection of favorites from the flagship store.
“I got married and traveled around for a while, then I taught school and worked at a YMCA for nine years,” says Poorbaugh. “The thing that brought me back to the family business was that I love being around my mom and dad, and grandma and grandpa. When you work for someone else and then come back to a family business, it has so many positives.”
And it’s the in-house family recipes that have really helped Grandpa’s Cheesebarn become a longstanding favorite with locals and travelers alike—like Ronda’s mac and cheese and Buckeye fudge, or Grandma Vera’s house salad dressings and relish spreads.
“When you step into the Cheesebarn, it’s like going back in time,” says Poorbaugh. “This place was built on love.”
If you go
Grandpa’s Cheesebarn in Ashland is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.