A thriving food culture is making Viroqua the place to be

Samara Kalk Derby
Wisconsin State Journal

VIROQUA - Craig and Connie Minowa of the band Cloud Cult had been living in Minneapolis and were looking to settle in a small, progressive town with a thriving food culture - a place to get "back to the land."

They found Viroqua, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

Organic Valley, a farming cooperative with 500 farmer members, started in 1988 in nearby La Farge and has been a foundation for the food landscape in Viroqua, which now boasts a James Beard-nominated restaurant to attract food tourists.

One big livability indicator for the Minowas was the quality of a town's food co-op, and when they toured Viroqua, they found a huge, thriving grocery cooperative. That sealed the deal.

In this June 1, 2017 photo, Julie Tomaro shops for plants with her son, Levon, 20 months, in a greenhouse at the Viroqua Food Co-op in Viroqua. This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

Elevated above Main Street, the Viroqua Food Co-op, established in 1995, is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. It has 4,400 square feet of retail space and is undergoing an expansion that will double its size, said Charlene Elderkin, the co-op's marketing manager.

In a town of 4,300, the co-op has more than 3,500 members.

"The people here, they are educated about food. They want to have that connection with their local farms and with clean food," she said.

More than 30 percent of the co-op's sales are local products, defined as coming from within 100 miles. And that's not just produce. It's also meat and cheese, and items like Wisco Pop natural soda and Kickapoo Coffee, two Viroqua companies with fans in Madison and beyond.

Jamie Lamonde worked for Organic Valley for 11 years before leaving to stay home with her children. She's now editor and publisher of Edible Madison, a 7-year-old magazine focused on food and agriculture in Southern Wisconsin.

In this June 1, 2017 photo, Luke Zahm prepares food for customers at his restaurant Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

While Lamonde has a P.O. box in Viroqua, she lives about 30 minutes away in La Farge. The magazine's writers and photographers live in Madison and all over Southwest Wisconsin.

She picked the name Edible Madison because of Madison's foodie credentials, but admits that Viroqua's food culture is "pretty amazing."

"It's just really been a pioneer in organic, sustainable farming practices" and Vernon County and Viroqua are hubs of the lifestyle that goes with it, Lamonde said.

That ethic is reflected in everything from the area's alternative schooling options, to its outdoor recreation, its musical life and its farm-to-table local food focus.

And it's drawing like-minded residents, such as the Minowas, from bigger cities.

"There are so many transplants from all over the place," Craig Minowa said.

These days, Driftless Cafe is the heart and soul of Viroqua, tucked just off Main Street at 118 Court St. It's busy day and night, particularly since its chef and co-owner, Luke Zahm, became a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Midwest.

In this June 1, 2017 photo, Ruthie Zahm takes a call at the Driftless Cafe, which she owns with her husband Luke, in Viroqua. This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

That recognition, considered one of the highest honors in the restaurant business, has brought in a lot of customers from outside Viroqua, and Zahm is happy to expose them to the town that he loves.

Zahm, 37, grew up in La Farge, and, his wife, Ruthie, 38, in Viroqua. After many years living in Madison, they moved back to Vernon County to raise their three children and have operated Driftless since 2013.

Ruthie Zahm said before they moved back, they would hit a certain point on their drive to Vernon County, and Luke would feel the call of home.

"We love camping as a family, we love canoeing. Although you can do that in Madison . it just wasn't the same home feeling," she said. "Paired with knowing that he could get really great ingredients here and always wanting to kind of come back home, was quite a big push."

Luke Zahm, who worked in the kitchen at Epic Systems in Verona and at Lombardino's in Madison, said he has no idea how the Beard judges knew about him, but guesses it could have come through the advocacy work he's been part of in Washington, D.C.

He's traveled to the nation's capital to lobby for truthful labeling, specifically in regard to GMO products.

In this June 1, 2017 photo, a customer waits for an order at Blackhawk Grille on Decker Street in Viroqua. This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

Zahm likes to take the opportunity to tell the story of what's happening in Vernon County, which he says with 220 certified organic farms has the highest concentration of organic farms of any county in Wisconsin. Zahm gives that statistic not just as a restaurant owner who uses organic ingredients, but also as president of Viroqua's Chamber of Commerce.

"That is a big, big driver economically," Zahm said about the farming community.

He's pleased that organic farmers from the area are starting to branch out.

When recruiting other chefs at the Culinary Institute of America in 2011 in Hyde Park, New York, he cooked at the campus in the evening. His team was sandwiched between Bobby Flay's people and Mario Batali's people and he said he was overwhelmed by the perceptions of Wisconsin that he heard.

They really only knew about beer, cheese and the Packers, he said. In trying to establish credibility and luring soon-to-be graduates to the Midwest to cook, Zahm kept emphasizing that this is the area where food comes from. "This is the bread basket."

The CIA's star students prepared a meal one night and on a list of their sources were four ingredients from the Driftless Region.

"And that for me was the light bulb," Zahm said.

It's called the "Driftless" Region because of its unglaciated geography. The area doesn't lend itself to industrial farming and one of the reasons Organic Valley started was to find a way for small family farms to make it and not have to "go big or go broke," said the co-op's Elderkin. The landscape really lent itself to smaller farms, she said.

Joe Rogan-Nordstorm runs Cowboy David's Coffee & Bake Shoppe on Main Street in Viroqua, selling vegan, low-sugar and gluten-free bakery items.

The bakery developed out of the popular La Farge lodging property Rogan-Nordstorm co-owns with his husband, David, where they leave one of their signature double chocolate chip-walnut cookies for each guest.

Joe Rogan-Nordstorm said food tourists will drive from Illinois or from Madison on a Saturday to get two dozen of their cookies or their famous cashew, ginger carrot cakes, shop at the town's farmers' market and then eat at Driftless Cafe.

As Driftless' Zahm spoke with a reporter one Thursday in early June, Viroqua's most famous son, Garbage co-founder and music producer Butch Vig, walked into the artfully designed, two-room cafe with his brother.

And Vig, who lives in Los Angeles, was happy to discuss the amazing food culture that is shaping his hometown.

"Viroqua has had a complete 180-degree transformation in the last 20 years," he said. "When I left here in the '70s and went to UW, it was a dying community and people were moving out."

In this June 1, 2017 photo, customers sit for dinner at Driftless Cafe in Viroqua. This small town about two hours northwest of Madison is helping put Wisconsin on the culinary map.

The Vig brothers were in Viroqua that day to visit their father, who is 94. Every time they come to town, they eat at Driftless Cafe for lunch and dinner, Butch Vig said.

Back in the early '90s, Vig said his father told him, "the hippies are saving Viroqua."

"In a way, he's right because it's a little left-wing counterculture that's come in here. It's not what people consider traditional farming. They've transformed this area, and now to have a restaurant like Driftless here is incredible."

A self-described "foodie" who loves dining out, Vig said he's been lucky to travel with his band Garbage and eat in some of the world's best restaurants.

And he's noticed that when he eats out in Madison, or visits the Dane County Farmers' Market, that a portion of the produce is coming from Viroqua.

Sarah Elliott, market manager for the Dane County Farmers' Market, said the market has five members from Vernon County, three of which are from Viroqua proper. Western Wisconsin as a whole is well represented at the market, with a total of 23 vendors from a group made up of Vernon, Crawford, Richland, La Crosse and Monroe counties.

Eddy Nix, who owns Driftless Books and Music in Viroqua, likens his "slow media" business — getting away from technology and smartphone addiction — to the slow food movement.

The food scene is part of what brings people to Viroqua, but good food can't exist without the people who buy it, Nix said. He credits Zahm with pulling off something amazing.

"It wouldn't have worked in most other towns. And if it wasn't for (Driftless Cafe), it would be a completely different town."

The food culture in Viroqua is far different now than when he was a kid in La Farge High School's graduating class of 1998, Zahm said.

"This was another dying farming community in southwestern Wisconsin. Then it wasn't."