Feed Your Passion

Journey with Ken Monteleone on his path of self-discovery and expression to learn what went into his creation of the Madison jewel: Fromagination.

When I was growing up in a traditional Italian household, food was always the focal point of our family’s events. Every one of us loved to entertain, and because of this I spent most of my childhood either working for our family’s wholesale/retail food business or helping in the kitchen—watching my mom and dad cook, bake, and prepare all sorts of delectable delights for family gatherings. At every family gathering, there was an accordion or a guitar in hand. If we were not eating, we were talking about what we were planning to eat. It truly was a way of life, and they are some of my fondest memories of those days.

I grew up in Trinidad, a small town in Southern Colorado. A local doctor had an international reputation for performing sex reassignment surgeries dating back to 1960, and soon the town became known as the “Sex Change Capital of the World.” Because of this, growing up in the Trinidad community helped to instill an understanding of diversity and tolerance within me and many of the people who called this special place home. I was taught at an early age to live and let live, to treat others like you wanted to be treated—no matter how different from you they might be—and to never judge until you have walked in someone else’s shoes. (It’s unfortunate that later I discovered that beliefs like these were not so commonly shared and valued outside of my hometown.)

My parents encouraged me to feed my passions and explore my interests, and my hunger to explore new things in the world of food and entertaining grew each day.

During my teenage years, I worked in all aspects of the family business, from unloading semi trucks filled with the delightful scent of fresh fruits and vegetables to delivering food to the elderly to working in the retail shop waiting on customers. Growing up, I did not have a lot of friends. I was very shy and was bullied in grade school. Working in the family business brought me great comfort; it was a safe place where I could express myself. I looked at it as my escape from reality. One of the most valuable lessons I learned early on was the importance of service. It became clear that if you took care of your customers, then the customers would take care of you in turn. Honor, confidence, service, and cooperation were the guiding principles of our family business.

But my insatiable need to learn grew as I matured into a young adult, and thoughts of escaping my small-town life to become a buyer filled my dreams more and more each day. I was always interested in understanding what made people purchase a particular product or from a particular store, and I knew the only way to pursue this knowledge was to head off to college. I left Trinidad, and after a few years of hard work I earned a bachelor of science degree in marketing and accounting.

I yearned to become part of a buying program, but the road in front of me was going to be long, and I knew I first I had to prove myself. Everything happens for a reason in life, and I knew I had to be open to any journey life took me on.

Soon, I was recruited by JC Penney. I worked for them for two long years in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Then I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to help open a new JC Penney store there, and I became part of a community where I could truly discover my authentic self. After two years there, I made the move to the much faster pace of New York, and worked to foster my creativity and explore this world that I wanted to be part of at the JC Penney corporate headquarters. When JC Penney moved its headquarters to Dallas, Texas, I went. But, it wasn’t long before Famous Footwear offered me a buying position in Madison. I had never been to Madison, but liked what I had heard, so I decided this was the move I needed to make in order to grow. I moved to Madison in 1993, and shortly thereafter, I met my partner, Robbie.

Finally! I was living in a world I wanted to live in: I traveled extensively for work and with Robbie, I had a job that fed my passions, I had a great partner, and I was living in a great city. I felt as if I had everything I could ever want in life.

Famous Footwear allowed me to see the world, and exposed me to another food culture that I wanted to discover. After numerous buying trips to Europe, I started to realize that my passion for working in the food world was still close to my heart. During my last two years at Famous Footwear, I found myself wanting to spend more time in the discovery of food shops of Europe than in their shoe stores. I started to envision what it would be like to open a specialty food shop in Madison. I put this idea out into the universe, not knowing where this might lead. I knew I needed to make another change in order to move my dream forward. Every time I traveled, I would always make time to pop in specialty food stores around the world, from Peck in Milan to Dean and Deluca in NYC, Barthelemy in Paris, Zingermans in Ann Arbor…the list went on and on, and I keep telling myself I could see myself doing this; that this was the world I wanted to be part of.

My journey took some unexpected twists and turns, and the tapestry of my world began to unravel. After 13 years with Famous Footwear and a year with Lands’ End, Robbie and I decided the corporate world and I needed to part ways, and I was ready to strike out on my own. At the time we made this decision, Robbie, whose leukemia had been in remission for years, was in good health and we decided the time was right to take the risk and open my own business. I wanted to take my 23 years of working in the corporate world—my marketing, buying, and product development background—and chart my own destiny.

We were committed to staying in Madison, and I wanted to feed my inner passion by opening a specialty food shop focusing on cheese. Having lived in Madison for some time, I wanted a location that attracted people from all over the city and state. Madison, I thought, was ideally suited for a retail concept like what was fomenting in my head—and soon the concept of Fromagination was born. Wisconsin after all, was the nation’s leading producer of specialty, artisan, and farmhouse cheeses, and the Dane County Farmers’ Market has a long and rich history in celebrating fresh, premium food products and culinary experiences.

Aside from this, I was committed to ensuring that Fromagination would become a vehicle for positive social change, supporting the community and providing an environment that would benefit its customers, employees, and “local” food artisans. I wanted to support these hardworking people by giving them a venue to let their wares shine!

I loved Madison’s openness, its diversity, its authenticity, its hunger for learning, and its enthusiasm for a mix of experiences, and wanted a shop that could be a small part of showcasing our uniqueness. I loved the pride the city took in its cosmopolitan quirkiness, its Midwestern lack of pretension, and its respect for the environment—and I wanted my shop to echo that as well. I chose the capitol square for the store’s location because that is where Madison’s diversity flourished, and I wanted a shop that engaged people from all over the city and state, no matter what their station in life.

Cheese is a natural part of the living landscape of Wisconsin—from the farmers who have been working the land for generations to the cheese makers who brought their families’ craft with them to the Heartland. Through this journey, I realized I was going back to my family roots and doing something that was deep inside the very core of my being. I knew deep inside that the time was right to bring my vision to life.

I took full advantage of the year it took to bring Fromagination to life and networked with people throughout the community, pitching my ideas and getting feedback, and enhancing the plan along the way. I spent a year researching, developing a business plan, networking with people in the food world, educating myself, and bringing the concept to life. I talked to numerous people who had taken the risk and were doing their own thing. That gave me hope and inspiration to move the idea forward. I knew I wanted to create a European-style shop, but one that brimmed with Wisconsin pride—a shop that celebrated our state’s rich history of cheese making. I wanted the shop to become an advocate for the cheese makers.

Robbie, whom I had been with for 15 years at the time, was very instrumental in allowing me to follow my dream and passion, and I had hoped one day we would both be part of this business. Three months before opening Fromagination, however, Robbie’s health took a downward turn. His leukemia, in remission for so many years, was back in full force, but at that point it was far too late to turn back from opening the business—the lease had been signed and the build-out was in motion. I knew my life was about to change, and a new journey was about to begin.

Fromagination opened as planned in September 2007, but Robbie passed away in July of 2008. During the last three months of his life, I spent a lot of time with him while he was getting treatments. He was a strong person right until the end. Shortly before Robbie died, however, he gave me one of the greatest gifts anyone could receive.

He spoke with the wisdom of the dying these words from Steve Jobs that he lived by: “Our time on earth is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Follow your heart and don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice…and most important, have the courage to follow your heart, intuition, and dreams.”

After Robbie died I escaped into the being of Fromagination. I spent seven 15-hour days a week focusing on the business and little else. I would go home at night to cry myself to sleep. Subsequently, I gained a lot of weight. I soon realized I was no longer feeding my passion; I was feeding the emptiness I felt from no longer having my Robbie in my life. I knew I had to take control; the pain and misery were unnecessary. I knew I had to take charge of my beliefs, feelings, and actions in order to modify the process of my life without Robbie. I started to read books on health and wellness, self-help books, and grief and loss books. I journaled daily and started to take charge again. Slowly the tears turned into understanding and acceptance. Deep inside, I knew whenever life presents a new challenge or requires a change in course, it provides an arsenal of tools for lasting change as well as lessons for enriching the quality of life.

It was a two-year journey, but I finally realized I had to get my life back on track and listen once again to the inner voice my partner so vividly reminded me to pay attention to. I focused on mind, body, and soul. I started strength training, running, and focusing on a healthy diet. It renewed my commitment to reviving my life. It was a rebirth!

With renewed focus and energy, I ran my first marathon in June 2011, and I have since completed several half-marathons. Once again, things slowly started to fall into place as I realized life is for the living and I need to make the most of my time left. Last year, Fromagination was awarded Retailer of the Year by the National Specialty Food Association.

Fromagination has opened the doors to so many personal opportunities that feed my passions in life. It has allowed me to celebrate what our living journey is all about—from the roots we call home to the inevitable challenges we face in life—and it lets me meet each day head-on with an insatiable hunger for growth and learning. I am able to work with a passionate team of people who are committed to enriching our lives in the world of food.

The simple things in life are worth sharing. In the past five years, Madison and Fromagination have made great inroads in the culinary world. We are what I call a “full-flavored experience” in Madison. We are not only surrounded by great cheese makers and great farmers’ markets throughout the city, but we also have great microbreweries, great food artisans making chocolate, crackers, preserves, and cured meats, and of course we have all the great chefs working with local farmers. Madison is a community that works together to enrich all of our lives. It is a city filled with people who are eager to discover and support small local businesses like Fromagination.

Feed your passion! We all deserve to live our best lives!