On the drive north from Chicago to Milwaukee, there is one roadside sign that stands above the rest—literally. At a whopping 80 feet tall, the Mars Cheese Castle sign towers over Interstate 94. On the off chance your interest isn’t piqued by the looming sign, the building situated next to it should do the trick.
Mars has long been a destination stop for travelers driving along I-94 and has attracted some high-profile customers throughout the years. John F. Kennedy, Johnny Cash, and basketball coach Al McGuire are among the more famous visitors who have stopped by the Wisconsin cheese shop. In May, 2001, the rock band Weezer even held a record signing event at the Castle. When I visit, cars parked in front of the Castle sport license plates from all over the Midwest: Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. One car bears a California plate.
Located in Kenosha across the interstate from a sprawling Amazon Fulfillment Center, the Mars Cheese Castle is hard to miss no matter where you’re arriving from. It is designed to be exactly what the sign proclaims it to be: A medieval chateau among 21st-century warehouse buildings. Its sandy stone facade, complete with a guardhouse, flag-festooned turrets, and a drawbridge-inspired entrance, acts as a beckoning beacon to roadtrippers from all over the country. In the state where cheese is king, the Mars Cheese Castle certainly looks the part.
Three generations of royalty
Mars has been serving up cheese for nearly 75 years. Inspiration for the business struck when Mario Ventura visited California and saw the interstate highway for the first time. He witnessed the success of the businesses along it and decided he would open a family cheese shop along the interstate that was being built back in Wisconsin. In 1947, Mario and his wife Martha established Mars Cheese Castle in an old schoolhouse in Kenosha.
Over the years the business was forced to move twice—once due to a fire and again because of an interstate expansion. With each move, Mars also grew in scope, going from a simple cheese market to a lunch counter and cafe, then a supper club, and today the site includes a tavern. There was even a Mars Castle Motel at one point in time, but it didn’t last.
There’s a story behind the name: Mario decided to use a nickname that he and his wife used for each other and their son, Mario Jr., taking the first three letters from their names (M–A–R), and making it plural. Mario Sr. and Martha passed away in 2004 and 2007, respectively, but their legacy lives on. The business has passed down through three generations and now rests in the hands of their grandchildren: Michael Ventura, 36; Tyson Wehrmeister, 45; and Natalie Broussard, 38. The three share the duties of general manager, while Tyson is also the store’s purchasing manager and Michael is the human resources director.
At some point the planet Mars became incorporated into the store’s signage. According to Michael Ventura, local artist George Pollard is the most likely suspect for this addition. Pollard made the early signage for the store back when things were hand painted. While the family is unsure if it was originally meant as a joke, the planet emblem has stuck around to this day.
“It kind of fits the kitschy nature of the store,” Ventura says. “I mean, who would think to put Mars and cheese and castle together?”
This March, Mars celebrated 10 years since the grand opening of its current castle building. Even considering everything that has happened in the last decade, the COVID-19 pandemic included, the one thing that has remained the most impactful, Ventura says, is the customers. “Some places have customers and others have fans,” he says. “Our customers tend to have that fanatic-like devotion to the store.”
The royal bounty
Despite the name of the business, cheese isn’t the only product sold at the Castle. The store acts as a one-stop shop for all of Wisconsin’s delicacies, including the famous Scandinavian Kringle pastry, the state-exclusive New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, and several varieties of Wisconsin bratwurst. The bakery within the store is known for its signature cheese bread—an egg dough loaf with sharp cheddar cheese rolled inside—and the deli is lauded for its classic Reuben sandwich.
The crowning jewel of the kingdom, however, is the cheese section. The store typically stocks more than 600 different kinds of cheese. If you want a block of Wisconsin cheddar shaped like a cow or the University of Wisconsin–Madison badger, Mars has it. If you want a 5-pound wheel of baby swiss, look no further. There’s even a chocolate cheese fudge (I was not brave enough to try it myself, but I was told it’s a top-seller).
The selection is overwhelming, but I opt for a bag of white sharp cheddar cheese curds. I’m walking toward the bakery when one of the store’s employees, or “cheesemongers in training,” as Ventura calls them, stops me. “Do you want my advice on buying the best cheese curds?” he asks. I nod and he plucks the curds out of my hands and replaces them with a bag he’s just about to add to a wagon-shaped shelving display. “These are fresher,” he explains. “Made at 3 a.m. this morning and haven’t been refrigerated yet.”
I learn that fresh cheese curds don’t need to be—and shouldn’t be—refrigerated until 72 hours after they are made. Once refrigerated, they lose the squeakiness, a sure sign of a cheese curd’s freshness. “The squeakier the curd, the fresher the cheese,” I’m told, but the cheese curds I purchase are long gone before I can test the 72-hour rule.
If you go
The Mars Cheese Castle is open every day from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.