I hate to admit it, but in the many times I've driven north up Highway 52, I've never stopped in Cannon Falls, until last week.

That's when I met with three women who call themselves the CannonBelles. Kathy Hupf, Jackie Ohmann and Deeann Lufkin have developed an award-winning, thriving cheese business there in the past few years. I'd heard about them from Linda and Amy Lorber, owners of Gardenaire, as they were using some Gardenaire seasonings in their cheeses.

Then came the pandemic. Now, with things more or less normal again, this was worth investigating, so off I went.

The women came to be business partners purely by chance. Hupf and Ohmann had successful careers in the ministry, and Lufkin was busy on her husband's dairy farm. They are also members of PEO, a women's educational organization, so that was a friendship link. The seeds for their business, however, were planted in 2012, when Lufkin and Ohmann, on a whim, decided to make cheese, starting with a mozzarella.

They had worked together before making wine and beer, and looked at this as a new challenge. Their first efforts were pretty much a failure. Undaunted, their next involved adding cheddar cheese cultures and using a recipe from a local beer-making supplier that also sold simple cheese-making ingredients. The end result looked, smelled and tasted like cheese. It only got better from then on.

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The response from family and friends was so positive, they decided to try to sell it. They knew they needed the help of a dairy expert, and invited their friend Hupf to join their venture. She had grown up on a dairy farm, had at one point owned her own herd, and has a degree in animal husbandry. She immediately accepted the challenge.

Then the learning process began in earnest. The trio visited numerous cheese plants, took classes, and did extensive research. They joined the American Cheese Society. Also key was becoming involved in the Pilot Cheese Makers program at the University of Minnesota, where all the equipment to make cheese is available.

In fact, that is where their cheeses are now produced. That will hopefully change this fall, when a 5,600-square-foot plant they are building will be ready to house their cheese operation. They currently produce 300 pounds of cheeses and 300 pounds of curds. That will increase when they are in their own facility.

The CannonBelles offer five different cheddars and eight varieties of cheese curds. (Contributed / CannonBelles)
The CannonBelles offer five different cheddars and eight varieties of cheese curds. (Contributed / CannonBelles)

Their offerings are impressive. They currently have five cheddars, all with different flavor profiles: Gouda, cheddar, Painted Desert, queso fresco and Tuscan. They also have eight different flavored curds, including dill and bacon. Their first year in business, they entered the American Cheese Society's cheese competition, and the queso fresco came in first — quite an accomplishment for first-timers. That is their bestseller.

As if making cheese didn't keep them busy enough, they now own a coffee and ice cream shop (402 Mill St. W.), called, simply enough, CannonBelles. Cheeses, of course, are sold there, too. The building was built in the late 1800s, and has housed everything from a hardware store to a Ben Franklin craft store and a yarn shop. (As fate would have it, the last tenant was an ice cream shop.)

The space is charming, with original wood floors and stone walls. There are also booths and comfortable sitting areas. The coffee (organic, free-trade) is roasted by Carlson Roasting in nearby Houston. Sixteen flavors of ice cream (yes, 16!) come from Cedar Crest in Cedarburg, Wis. Among the flavors is one you hardly ever see: licorice.

"We had a family drive down from north of the Cities to get some," Hupf said.

There is also a limited menu for breakfast and lunch.

The CannonBelles, from left, Jackie Ohmann, Deeann Lufkin and Kathy Hupf, have developed an award-winning, thriving cheese business based in Cannon Falls. (Contributed / CannonBelles)
The CannonBelles, from left, Jackie Ohmann, Deeann Lufkin and Kathy Hupf, have developed an award-winning, thriving cheese business based in Cannon Falls. (Contributed / CannonBelles)

None of the three live in Cannon Falls, so how did the business end up there? As told by Hupf, Dave Maroney, the director of economic development and planning for the town, invited the women to meet with him and consider it for a location.

"What he proposed was so attractive, and we fell in love with the feeling of the town, it was clear this was the perfect place," Hupf said.

And indeed it has turned out to be.

"The welcoming and the support, even through the many pandemic months, has been tremendous. I can't imagine being anywhere else," she said, tearing up.

You can buy the cheeses in Rochester at Hy-Vee South and West Circle Drive, People's Food Co-op, and several wineries and breweries around the area. Or take a little drive up to their store in Cannon Falls. Buy the cheese and, while you're at it, treat yourself to an ice cream cone or a latte. For more information, visit cannonbelles.com, or call 507-757-1155. Hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Post Bulletin food writer Holly Ebel knows what’s cookin’. Send comments or story tips to life@postbulletin.com.