Growing up in Wisconsin, seeing a passing Packer fan donning a giant foam cheese hat during a football game is far from unusual. In fact, at Lambeau Field, it’s often met with a high-five or the clinking of beer cans. Still, both inside and outside of Wisconsin, the legendary Cheesehead brings both beguilement and intrigue.
Following the Chicago Bears’ *ahem* only Super Bowl victory in 1986, some flatlanders began using the term “cheesehead” to disparage and mock Wisconsin Packers fans. Rather than taking offense to the derogatory nickname, Milwaukee native Ralph Bruno embraced it.
“When we’d go up north, people from Illinois would call us a bunch of cheeseheads. I never really thought of it as being negative because I like cheese, personally,” Bruno says.
The debut of the Cheesehead hat occurred not at Lambeau Field, but at a Brewers game in 1987. Prior to attending the game at County Stadium, then 26-year-old Bruno was reupholstering his mother’s couch when he came up with the idea for the original Cheesehead.
“We were playing the White Sox, who are from Illinois, and that’s kind of where this whole thing started. I was reupholstering my mom’s couch at the time, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to make a cheesehead,'” Bruno explains.
Cutting out a triangular piece of the couch cushion, Bruno burned holes in it to give the appearance of Swiss cheese and painted it a shade resembling cheddar, entirely unaware that he had just started a new chapter in Packers fan history. Bruno also didn’t realize that the hat’s lack of resemblance to any real cheese would soon give him a business advantage.
“I wasn’t thinking too deeply about it,” Bruno says. “But because it was a unique thing and there is no such cheese, it allowed us to have trademarks applied to it. It was dumb luck in a lot of ways.”
Prior to the Brewers game, Bruno and his friends took part in some tailgating revelry. When it was time to head into the stadium, Bruno popped on his eye-catching new hat. His friends were surprised by the usually shy Bruno’s unabashed attitude.
“I’m a quiet, pretty reserved person for the most part, but this was just one of those occasions where it felt like the right thing to do,” Bruno says. His friends, who were initially embarrassed to walk next to him, soon realized the hat was a hit.
“People were pointing at me and calling me a cheesehead. A group of girls ran up to me and wanted to try it on. So here I am talking to all these girls with my hat on, and my buddies are like, ‘Wait a minute. He’s getting chicks with this hat,'” Bruno says with a laugh.
Bruno was entirely unprepared for the attention he received. The Cheesehead was passed around throughout the entire baseball game, while intrigued Wisconsinites asked where he got it.
It was then he realized he had a business opportunity. Bruno took the hat to County Stadium’s retail provider, Milwaukee Sportservice.
“I spent two weeks waiting for somebody that was supposed to see me. Every day I came there with my hat and tried to get in front of somebody,” Bruno recalls. “Finally, a guy walked through and said, ‘I noticed that you’re here every day. What’s going on?’ He ultimately took them on consignment.”
Business took off, and that same year Bruno opened Foamation, Inc., the Original Cheesehead Factory, in Dousman, Wisconsin, eventually relocating to St. Francis.
By the time the Packers made it to Super Bowl XXXI in 1997, the Cheesehead was synonymous with Packers fandom. With a caravan of five or six vehicles filled with friends and family, Bruno made scheduled stops from Milwaukee all the way down to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, selling Cheeseheads and giving out prizes to joyous Packers fans along the way.
Today, Foamation has sold Cheesehead products in all 50 states and in over 30 different countries. From cowboy hats to tiaras, the Cheesehead has taken on a wide variety of forms over the years, even entering entirely new product categories. Foamation offers bowties, cup holders, graduation caps and more, all in the familiar spongy yellow material.
Some of Foamation’s customers don’t want Cheesehead-related products at all. Foamation has also made oversized Chicken McNuggets for a Detroit Tigers on-field promotion, peanut hats and even giant antlers to be affixed to helmets and worn by servers at a Canadian restaurant chain.
“We don’t question a lot of the stuff we get,” Bruno says.
Cornheads (which are exactly what you’re thinking: corn cob hats worn like Cheeseheads) are Foamation’s second most popular trademarked piece, frequently purchased by Nebraska Huskers fans.
Last year, Foamation moved its production and head office to a 16,000-square-foot building at 1120 S. Barclay St. in Milwaukee. With a well-stocked retail store and five times more manufacturing space than its previous location, the company is looking forward to showing off the new location through public tours in the near future.
From Christmas ornaments to Badgers gear, Foamation’s retail store offers far more than just Cheeseheads. Customers can find a variety of items in the company’s trademarked color and hole pattern, including baby bibs, beach towels and scarves.
Foamation teamed up with toy manufacturer Rubba Ducks to create cow- and football-themed rubber ducks wearing Cheeseheads. Bruno hopes to develop similar relationships with manufacturers in order to expand Foamation’s product offerings into more non-foam categories.
Foamation will also be introducing a “make-and-take kind of scenario,” where scheduled groups can come in and make their own foam items to take home.
For Bruno, being a cheesehead means identifying with one of the friendliest and most devoted fan bases in the NFL.
“It’s the way we are,” Bruno says. “We’re very confident, outgoing and positive. Whenever we travel abroad, we’re the life of the party. We’re not afraid to strike up a conversation. We’re not afraid of our roots.”
After taking what was once meant to be a derogatory nickname for Wisconsinites and turning it into a term that Packers fans around the world identify with, Bruno has plenty to be proud of.