Noodles & Company loves Wisconsin cheese

Jan Shepel
Noodles & Company's popular menu item – Wisconsin Mac and Cheese – uses several cheeses from one of the state’s premier cheese makers, Sartori Cheese.

When it comes to the ingredients for their top-selling menu item, the fast-casual restaurant chain Noodles & Company doesn’t mess around. For this popular menu item – Wisconsin Mac and Cheese – they use several cheeses from one of the state’s premier cheese makers, Sartori Cheese.

Sartori, based in Plymouth, is a fourth-generation family-owned company and is known for its premium artisanal cheeses. “We have a great relationship with Sartori,” says Nick Graff, the vice president of culinary innovation at Noodles & Company. “If we want to try something innovative they have the ability to work with us and make it happen.

“You tend to think of artisanal cheesemakers as smaller companies, but Sartori is a national brand and they have the ability to create things for us,” he said in a telephone interview.

Noodles & Company has some of its roots in Wisconsin. Company founder Aaron Kennedy earned his MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1989 and opened his first Noodles & Company restaurant in 1995 in Denver. But America’s Dairyland wasn’t far behind. One of his next restaurants opened in 1996 on State Street in Madison.

Graff has held his culinary position with Noodles & Company for six years. Previously he helped develop menus for southern California restaurant groups and later with a brewery that relocated him to Colorado. Once there, he made connections that led him to his current position. Noodles & Company is headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, near Denver.

There are 410 Noodles & Company locations across the United States and Wisconsin is home to 10 percent of all locations. Graff said that Sartori was among the first vendors that began working with the restaurant chain when it began.

“We are incredibly grateful to Noodles & Company for our longstanding partnership,” Sartori told Wisconsin State Farmer. “Our mission at Sartori Cheese is to make the best cheese in the world -- our cheesemakers and culinary teams really enjoy collaborating with innovative, quality minded organizations like Noodles.  Noodles challenges and pushes us to create some really special cheese; we're proud of the best-selling Wisconsin Mac and Cheese that we've created together.”

Nick Graff

If there’s a “secret in the sauce” for the Noodles & Company macaroni and cheese, it’s the cheese, Wisconsin cheese -- and lots of it. Graff said the entrée “gives people what they like” in macaroni and cheese. The sauce starts out in the kettle, with American cheese as the base, and then Sartori-made Jack and Cheddar are added. “I think those notes from the sharp white Cheddar add a lot to the taste,” he said. “What affects the flavor is the age of the cheese.”

The way they make the cheese sauce – in 600-gallon batches -- keeps it consistent and the ingredients add complexity to the flavor, he said. The other ingredients -- like rbST-free cream -- also add to the flavor profile.

The restaurants sell a whopping 10 million orders of Wisconsin Mac and Cheese each year. Graff said that translates into 2 million pounds of cheese sauce each year. You might call the entrée a gateway item for first-time visitors to the restaurant. “Twenty-five percent of our new customers order macaroni and cheese on that first visit,” Graff said. “And it’s our top-selling item overall.”

Other macaroni and cheese entrees are built on the traditional base. Then other ingredients are added – like barbequed pork or Buffalo chicken. They even have a mac and cheese for gluten sensitive consumers. Last summer they introduced ham and gruyere mac and cheese, featuring Black Forest ham and Sartori Gruyere. “That’s one of the things we love about working with Sartori – their willingness to partner. They make your vision their vision,” Graff said.

“We pride ourselves on working with our partners like that. That tells our customers that what they’re eating is very special,” he adds. “Sartori’s quality is up there with the very best in the world. They have cheeses that have gone into contests and beaten some of the world’s best cheeses.”

Noodles & Company is “all about noodles” of course but strives for global flavors. Graff says their different categories include Asian, Mediterranean and healthy choices which are heavy on vegetarian ingredients – including zucchini that are spun into noodle look-alikes – they call them “zoodles”.

Noodles & Company founder Aaron Kennedy earned his MBA at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1989 and later opened one of his restaurants in 1996 on State Street in Madison.

“Those are great with the macaroni and cheese sauce on them,” he says.

When Kennedy founded the restaurant he decided to include many flavor profiles. “Why limit the cuisine to just one flavor?” was his goal Graff said. “His concept was to get flavors from all around the world -- but also to make it a fun, family restaurant. What kid doesn’t like mac and cheese?”

Graff’s work includes overseeing development of all new menu items for the restaurant chain. Along with a culinary team of four and a group of four to five supply and quality assurance staffers, they brainstorm concepts and pitch them to rewards members of the restaurant to see if their ideas appeal to those loyal customers.

They will then develop five or six of the most popular ideas and present them to a taste panel. Those tasters score them accordingly. In the meantime Graff and his team will give a heads up to their suppliers that they will need to ramp up production if certain items go on the menu.

Once menu items reach that stage they are tested in some of the restaurants for a full quarter and marketing data will be used to determine if the entrees will get wider distribution. “It’s a process for sure,” says Graff. “It’s a 14-month window from idea to launch.”

While development of recipes is going on, the supply team goes to existing suppliers with the new ideas and may look into new products from new sources. But Graff admits he and his staff have a lot of “loyalty to incumbents” – his word for those suppliers they have worked with successfully in the past. “There’s something compelling about building those solid relationships.”

As it did for everyone, the coronavirus pandemic caused challenges for Noodles & Company. “It was a challenge for all of our suppliers and for staffing at the restaurants; even trucking had its challenges. Our supply team deserves a big pat on the back,” Graff said.

Their restaurant chain was lucky or prescient in that they had just rolled out a program for quick pickup in the restaurant and a new app. “We did those changes just before the virus hit and we were well positioned to do curbside pickup at just the right time,” Graff said.

With quarantines now mostly lifted and many things going back to normal, Graff said he’s looking forward to a National Restaurant Association event that had to be cancelled last year. “It’s a great event with 9,500 booths with manufacturers from around the world. That’s where you meet suppliers like Sartori Cheese.”

Noodles & Company has a total of 454 locations in 29 states; 76 of them are franchised and 387 are corporate owned. The company is now leaning in to more franchising and kicked off a franchise growth initiative earlier this year.

John Ramsay, vice president of franchise development for Noodles & Company, told that Noodles is “well positioned and primed for an aggressive franchise growth strategy.” The brand, he said, is planning to grow via company locations, existing franchisees and potential new partnerships with experienced multi-unit franchise owners.

The company began franchising its restaurants two decades ago but that effort stalled ten years later as the focus was placed on operations. Noodles & Company is planning a new growth strategy to enter new markets via franchising in addition to opening around 10 corporate locations by the end of this year.

It has its sights set to expand in Wisconsin, given the company’s ties and popularity in the state. And all of that cheese!