When Ralph Bruno was reupholstering his mother’s couch one day in 1987, he got an idea.
Wisconsinites had come to be known, mostly by Illinois sports rivals, by the nickname “cheeseheads” because of the state’s vast dairy and cheesemaking industry. Bruno turned the insult into a mark of pride.
He looked at a piece of couch foam and saw its potential: a cheesehead hat. He sized it to his head, burned a few holes in it to look like the air bubbles in cheese and spray painted it yellow. His friends would get a real kick out of it at the Milwaukee Brewers game at County Stadium that day.
Bruno got a much stronger reaction to the cheesehead than he expected. Everyone wanted to know where he got it.
“My friends didn’t necessarily want to walk with me as I was wearing it,” he said. “(But) people were really attracted to this silly hat.”
So he started making more of them and lugging a trash bag full of cheeseheads to sell outside of sporting events in Wisconsin. Eventually, he was able to get them available for sale in the stadiums and at other retailers around the state.
And with that, Foamation Inc. was born. The St. Francis company makes the now iconic cheesehead hats, as well as varieties on the popular original. Cheesehead baseball caps, sombreros, car dice, coasters, Christmas tree stars and about 25 other products are available.
Foamation also makes novelty hats on contract for a variety of diehard fans, including buffalo wing hats for the Buffalo, N.Y. bar that claims to have invented them. The contracted hats almost always involve food products: cheesecake, Chicago pizza, Philly cheesesteak, bread loaves and tortilla chips are among them.
Bruno has a background in patternmaking, which is what he was doing before he started Foamation. He had the right skillset to create the machinery, models and molds for production. There are now about 1,000 molds.
The cheesehead is made by pouring a propriety polyurethane mixture into a triangular mold complete with the spots for holes.
Once mixed, the polyurethane foam is quickly poured and put under pressure. As it foams and expands, the liquid hardens into the shape of the mold.
After about five minutes, the foam is released from the mold and squeezed to help it keep its shape while drying.
Finally, it is hand-trimmed to remove excess foam.
“It’s not as straightforward – there’s an amount of finesse needed to do it,” Bruno said.
The cheesehead wedge draws its inspiration from several kinds of cheese, Bruno said. It has a yellow-orange color like cheddar or American, air holes similar to Swiss and a shape like it came from a wheel of cheese.
“Our cheese itself really doesn’t exist as a true one piece of cheese,” he said.
In the first year, Foamation sold fewer than 10,000 cheeseheads. Now, it sells tens of thousands of them each year around the globe.
Fans might be surprised to learn the company is a pretty lean operation, with about eight employees most of the year and 12 employees during its peak season, corresponding with football. The production facility is about 3,500 square feet.
“The popularity it has is not driven by a marketing plan that we had, it’s really driven by the fan, by the Wisconsinite, by the Midwesterner,” he said.
It’s a cyclical business. When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996, Foamation expanded production by 600 percent and still couldn’t keep up with demand.
The hat has garnered national attention from appearances at the Packers games it is now most associated with, the Olympics, nationally televised commercials and a licensing agreement.
Foamation holds two trademarks related to the revolutionary hat: the name cheesehead in association with a hat and the color and hole pattern of the product.
“People try to imitate us on occasion and we spend a fair amount of money defending our intellectual property,” Bruno said.
Since it has become a legend, Bruno recently wrote a book about the invention of the cheesehead, called “Where there’s a wedge there’s a whey.”
“A lot of the success of our company is because of the product itself. It’s kind of self-selling,” he said.