The uninitiated might think those cheesy-looking foam hats worn by thousands of Packers fans arrived on the fashion scene during Green Bay's recent run to Super Bowl XXXI. But there would be holes in that story. Actually, cheese hats have been around since 1987 and were introduced not at Packers games but at Brewers games at Milwaukee County Stadium.
These days fans have their choice of cheesy chapeaus. Foamation Inc., in Milwaukee, produces the Cheesehead, at $10.50 and $20, while Scofield Souvenir. Inc., in Menomonee Falls, Wis., sells the $20 Cheese Top. But don't invite Foamation and Scofield to the same wine-and-cheese tasting. While Brett Favre, Reggie White and the rest of the Packers have been fighting it out on the field with the Dallas Cowboys and the New England Patriots, Scofield and Foamation have been slicing each other up in the U.S. district court in Milwaukee. More on that later.
The first American cheeses were of the brick variety, produced in Wisconsin in 1877. Foamation was born one summer night 110 years later, when company founder Ralph Bruno fashioned a hat that resembled a triangular slice of cheese out of a piece of used furniture foam and wore it to a Brewers game.
Bruno took a handful of his Cheeseheads to County Stadium and eventually persuaded stadium officials to offer them for sale. Then he started peddling them to cheese shops and sporting goods stores. In 1991 he teamed with Chris Becker, who took over the marketing so that Bruno could concentrate on manufacturing. "At one time, some people thought Cheese-head was a derogatory term," Becker says. "Then, all of a sudden, it became cool to be a Cheesehead."
Foamation's offerings go beyond the traditional Cheesehead topper, which comes in two sizes. They include cheeselike can and six-pack holders, coasters, a cowboy hat, a fire hat, cufflinks, earrings, a necktie and a bow tie, bricks, a clock, a purse and a football. Bruno and Becker won't divulge their annual sales figures, but they say business is booming.
The newcomer to the cheese-hat scene is Scofield Souvenir, now owned by lifelong Packers fan William Jacobs. Last year Scofield introduced its Cheesetop hat, the Cheesebottom seat cushion and a can holder. All three have been big sellers, says Tom Wedeward, who sold Scofield to Jacobs last January and is currently a consultant to the company. "Sports fans throughout the state have been starving for years," Wedeward says. "The Badgers made the Rose Bowl a few years back, but otherwise it's been a long dry spell for the Pack, the Brewers and the [Milwaukee] Bucks. That's what made last year so special for the Packers. Even outside Wisconsin, people appreciate the team and its players, the city, the football heritage of Green Bay."
Becker agrees. Stores in Chicago, not known as a hotbed of Packers enthusiasts, were running out of Cheeseheads last season. "There are Packers fans all over the world, and they're amazing," Becker says. "We were busy even when the Packers weren't doing so good. The Packers are a true hometown team, and the fans have been there for them, even when they're cruddy. But the last few years, it's been truly nuts."
That may be the only thing Becker and Wedeward agree on. Last year Foamation sued Scofield for copyright infringement. Foamation recently lost that case, and Scofield has countersued for interference with business, defamation and unfair competition.
The legal dispute has Wedeward feeling blue, even though his former company prevailed in the first round. "The lawsuits put a damper on what's supposed to be fun," he says, "but that's the way things go sometimes."