When Greg Stephan first burned a grilled cheese sandwich, it was a revelation.
"When I was grilling a grilled cheese, the cheese ran out of the bread and burnt," he said. "It was better than the sandwich. Cheese just tastes best when it's crisp. I just kind of perfected it at home."
Stephan made toasted cheese crisps for family and friends "for eons." He eventually became curious if the general public would have the same appetite for them so he took them to a farmers market.
People initially confused his crisps with Cheese-its and he had to explain it was not a cracker and there was no flour, just cheese. But once people tasted them, the crisps proved to be an instant hit.
Now his Merrillville-based company, Capricorn Foods, sells gourmet cheese crisps at 50 Whole Foods supermarkets all across the Midwest. Billed as "sophisticated chips," the baked cheddar, gouda, and parmesan crisps, which consist of just one ingredient, are widely sold at grocery stores, meat markets and specialty wine and cheese shops.
Locally, the cheese crisps are sold at several Strack & Van Til locations, Welch's Stop & Shop in St. John, Old World Market in Valparaiso, Butler Winery in Chesterton, It's Just Serendipity in Hammond and Hinsdale Fruit Store in Hinsdale.
The cheese crisps initially took off when Stephan started passing out free samples at the St. John farmers market.
"People liked it and were buying more and more," he said. "Toward the end of the season, I crossed the street to the Strack & Van Til and asked if they'd put in it their store. A very gracious buyer tasted it and said it didn't compete with anything. If it were another hummus, customers would just buy yours instead of what they had been buying and the store wouldn't benefit. But this was something totally different that would increase sales."
Eventually, he landed the cheese crisps in the Whole Foods in Mishawaka after clearing all the company's high standards for quality. He found the right supplier and then worked to get the crisps in the cheese section at the Orland Park Whole Foods, but the Chicagoland buyer wanted the product for stores across Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa.
"It took time to jump through all the hoops," he said.
With the help of three employees, he started manufacturing the crisps for Whole Foods throughout the Midwest at a facility at 8880 Louisiana St. in Merrillville.
"I had to double my size and increase my capacity to supply them," he said. "It was like swallowing an elephant. But years ago, when I was maybe in high school, my father told me there were good problems to have and bad problems to have. I scratched my head at that at the time, but this is a good problem to have."
Whole Foods asked him to add parmesan, and he had to drop pepperjack crisps for now because he hasn't yet been able to source a pepperjack cheese that meets Whole Foods' standards.
"I'm still looking for a pepperjack," he said. "It's kind of tough to meet the Whole Foods requirement. My three requirements are that it taste good and cook properly, since some cheeses go from go to burnt with no in between, and that it be cost-effective. Some cheeses meet their requirements but cost an arm and a leg, and I can't do them at the price point I try to keep."
Most customers enjoy the cheese crisps as a snack, eating them like potato chips, Stephan said. He said people dip them in guacamole and salsa, and they pair well with fruit, wine, beer and soft cheeses like brie, for a cheese-on-cheese cracker.
They have proven especially popular with people who are diabetic and looking to avoid sugar, those sensitive to gluten, and dieters who are following the Keto Diet or South Beach Diet and want to avoid carbs, Stephan said.
"You can do all kinds of things with them," he said. "You can put them on burgers or crumble them on salads, soups or bowls of chili. If you put brie on the parmesan with a fig jam, you've got a nice hors d'oeuvre."
Stephan, who worked in industrial tool sales for most of his life, would like to expand the company even more to reach more stores. But he's 71 years old and said his age has made it difficult to secure financing from banks to purchase more manufacturing equipment.
"If I can find investors, I'd love to increase my capacity five-fold," he said. "But it's been a fun ride. Sometimes it makes me feel older and sometimes it makes me feel younger. It's fun to see so many people enjoy something you made."
With the widescale manufacturing and distribution in place, Stephan plans to start bringing Capricorn Foods back to local farmers markets, including Holidaze at the Porter County Fairgrounds, the Hometown Holiday Market in downtown Chesterton, the Holiday Arts & Crafts Fair at Munster High School, and Shipshewana On The Road at Porter County Fairgrounds.
For more information, visit capricornfoods.com or call (219) 670-1872.