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Step Off the Beaten (Tow) Path And Discover a Deli(cious) Hidden Treasure

(reprinted from the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of Experience Ottawa Magazine)

When you develop an appetite in Ottawa, just say "Cheese!"
Or rather, "The Cheese Shop!"

Owner Marty Ruhland has done a great job melding the past and the present, and the glue that sticks the eras together is... cheese. In naming his enterprise The Cheese Shop and Deli, Ruhland has stuck to his roots while branching out. His past also is apparent in the decor he has chosen for the lofty dining/serving room.

The "deli" part of the name is apparent as soon as you see the display cases of delectable desserts and smell warm aromas of meatballs or fried chicken or macaroni-and-cheese emanating from the kitchen.

"We have home-cooked food with flavor and plenty of it. I'd rather hear complaints that I serve TOO much than not enough." Marty said. Customers are pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices and a selection that includes hot and cold sandwiches, dozens of varieties of soup, salads, pastas and fried chicken. "People come down from Chicago and tell me they've never seen anything like this!" Marty says proudly.

The food is available for take out or dining in, or you can invite The Cheese Shop to be part of your next festivity. Some 30 percent of the shop's volume is catering buffets for weddings, lunches for industrial clients, or special occasions like parties or reunions.

You won't want to deprive yourself of the full Cheese Shop experience for long, though. The interior decor offers as much a feast for the history buff as the menu does for the stomach. Not far from the bustling city center, you can explore this unobtrusive structure along the banks of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal which features the cream of Marty's antique collection.

Metal toy cars, pedal cars and tractors, antique appliances and advertising signs are displayed from floor to ceiling. Many of the items trace the history of Ottawa, Marty's hometown, and some have to do with the dairy industry, in which Marty grew up.

There's a conversation-starter everywhere you turn. Marty has a tough time fending off people who want to buy pieces of his collection, but the items are not for sale.

Down one hallway is a displayed collection of creamers made by Morton Pottery, and two of the pitchers advertise his father's and grandfather's businesses. The items were premium gifts to farmers who supplied the milk for the cheese factory that helped give the deli its name.

Yes, Marty's history explains why the rest of the store's title was a natural. The deli is house in a cheese factory run by Marty's family from before World War II to the late 1980's. In its time, it was the most modern in the state.

More than 30 small dairies once operated around Ottawa, and the Ruhlands' factory is part of that rich dairy history. The factory was supplied by small farms around Ottawa and at one point employed 20-30 people - including the eight Ruhland children.

"Before school I'd pick up a load of full milk cans and bring them here, clean up a little bit and walk to school," Marty said. The cooking process generated steam that filled the room, and it "was like working in a sauna all day. I was a great weight though, about 140 pounds!"

The factory never sold individual chunks, but by the time it closed Marty had branched into sales, taking over one factory office, then expanding twice more to sell specialty cheeses, salamis and chili. By 1990 Marty installed a kitchen and had turned the entire factory over to the deli.

The menu expanded by word of mouth. Whenever his customers suggested a new item, Marty tried it. To his wife's dismay, the Ruhlands started eating out, and Marty would sift through the tastes and ingredients and experiment with recipes until he found one he liked.

Now, when he tries a new recipe, its inclusion on the menu depens on his employees' taste buds. The "initial look on their faces" tells him he has a winner, or sends him back to the test kitchen. That's how chicken tortilla soup and home-made potato chips became part of the menu.

He inherited his pasta sauce recipe when two fellow restaurateurs retired. They refused to sell the recipe, but gave it to him instead and showed him how to prepare it!

"I love to try different things. I've had snake, alligator..." Not that those exotic items will find their way to the menu anytime soon. After years supplying their tastes, Marty knows his customers.

"Our menu keeps changing. We keep the standbys - we'll have chicken and pasta forever - but we still keep coming up with something new, or people get bored." Yet signature recipes that people have come to know and love won't be tampered with, he promises. "When you take our chicken home and everybody raves about it, you want to come back and get that same taste next time."

The nearby Illinois and Michigan Canal has always supplied hungry bikers, thirsty hikers and dog walkers looking to warm up over a delicious bowl of soup.

"My dad had photos, when we were small, of the ice rink that formed (in the defunct canal) in the winter. People would gather there at night and build bonfires." As the canal's popularity surged as a hiking/biking trail, The Cheese Shop's visibility surged with it.

"I am amazed at the traffic, even in winter. We have dog walkers constantly, and a lot of bikers, many of whom have become our steadies. They tell me they love stumbling on a little place that not everybody knows about."

That describes The Cheese Shop in a nutshell. But on you do discover one of Ottawa's hidden treasures, you'll be back!