Stella’s Bakery’s hot-and-spicy cheese bread may be a hot commodity at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, but few are aware both the bakery and their trademark product arose from humble beginnings.
In the wake of a drought in 1988 that ravaged most of Wisconsin’s crops, the then future in-laws of one Stella’s Bakery’s current owner, Brian Winzenreid, opened up the business in their modest Fox Valley farmhouse.
“Farming was brutally hard,” Winzenried said. “Baking was preferable to toiling in the hot sun only to lose crops to the drought.”
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From an endeavor that emerged out of necessity, Stella’s now-trademark hot-and-spicy cheese bread surfaced unintentionally. An unusual combination of white Vienna bread and empanada stuffing, the end product seemed to be bread gone awry at first, Winzenreid said. Despite the initial revulsion, Winzenreid’s wife’s grandmother encouraged the family to take it along to the farmers’ market nevertheless.
As fate would have it, the busted bread turned out to be a raving, delicious success, and market attendees continued to come back for more, Winzenried said. From there, his mother-in-law tweaked the recipe and the product soon made a big name for itself. In 1994, the family relocated the bakery to the west side of Madison, and the rest was history.
Now, nearly three decades after the bakery’s farmhouse beginnings, Madison residents and tourists alike attend the Dane County Farmers’ Market to taste the renowned hot-and-spicy cheese bread. Zesty red peppers and chives blended with provolone and Monterey jack cheese is what Stella’s Bakery dubs “the original guilty pleasure.”
Now on the city’s south side, the bakery itself hosts different outlets for selling their key product, such as cream cheese Danishes, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, morning buns, pretzels and artisan bread. They ship out hot-and-spicy cheese bread across the nation, mostly catering to customers in the Chicago area.
But the Dane County Farmers’ Market is still their main focus, and 95 percent of Stella’s income comes from Saturday mornings during market season, Winzenried said. Additionally, Madison grocery stores such as Willy Street Co-Op and Whole Foods carry Stella’s Bakery products.
While Stella’s Bakery has the potential to become a national phenomenon, Winzenreid and his wife are content to keep operations within the family and in Madison. Part of this incentive lies in the rules of the farmers’ market, which requires businesses a maximum of one location in the state of Wisconsin.
“Basically, the people that run the farmer’s market want to keep it a ‘mom and pop’ business,” Winzenreid said. “Every owner has to play a significant part in developing the product or harvesting the produce. You have to actually ‘have your hands in the flour.'”
Still, despite its continued modesty, Stella’s importance, as well as its hot-and-spicy cheese bread, is not lost on Winzenreid. After all, it was through Stella’s Bakery that he met the woman who would one day become his wife back in high school. It’s also where the couple returned when they were ready to settle down after bustling careers in New York.
Winzenried said his career transition from modeling in New York to owning Stella’s Bakery has been drastic, but one with no regrets. Owning a business with a “cult following,” Winzenried said, was attractive from the beginning — even if the bakery, and their hot-and-spicy cheese bread, emerged from the most modest of circumstances.