Inwardly, Janet Hedinger must be saying “cheese” all the time — because, outwardly, “The Cheese Lady” seems to never stop smiling.
She lives and breathes cheese as the third-generation proprietor of Valley Cheese Co. in Wheeling’s Centre Market. Even her Valley Cheese T-shirt claims “Everything’s Better With Cheese.”
She should know. Her whole life has been “cheesy.”
Janet’s grandfather, Roy Hedinger, opened Valley Cheese in “stall No. 38” — probably a 10-by-10 spot — in the upper market house around 1948. Although none of the family business principals are alive to share the early history, she does have some childhood recollections.
Roy and her dad, Bob Hedinger, made their own cottage cheese, buttermilk and fresh-ground horseradish.
“People to this day still ask if we grind our own horseradish. So there’s still the older generation around that remembers this business, and they still come and patronize the business, which is awesome,” Janet said.
“In my grandmother’s basement, there was a walk-in cooler. And outside the walk-in cooler, they had the grinding station. I remember clear up to their elbows would be beet red, and they’d be crying because of the horseradish smell. I always hated to go to the basement … the walk-in cooler was kind of scary, too,” she recalls.
Her dad, grandfather and brother would drive to Amish country to pick up cheeses, and then deliver in their refrigerated truck to Convenient, Kroger, Giant Eagle, IGA.
And she remembers the big, old scale that hung above the counter. “I wish I had one of those antique scales just to hang up and never use,” she said.
“They had the slabs of bacon that they would slice, the links of kielbasa that were just a big giant roll of kielbasa that they would cut from. And the cheese came in pretty much pieces how we have them now, but they were probably wrapped differently. … We had a giant pail of pickles that my dad would lift me up and put me on the counter, and I’d pick out a pickle — try to find the biggest one. … They were like a kosher garlic pickle … ooooohhhh they were just amazing.”
She carries on the pickle tradition. “I get five-gallon pails of pickles, and we slice up our own pickles to put on our sandwiches and serve the whole pickle, too. Sandwiches and pickles always go so well together.”
A 1993 Central Catholic High School graduate, Janet worked at the business through her high school years. “I’d walk down every day after school and finish up the rest of the day, and my dad would go home.”
In 2000, her dad became ill and passed away, and Valley Cheese became hers. Her five older siblings had either married or moved away or both.
“Me, being the youngest, I was pretty much left with it. …” She didn’t want that to misinterpreted, as she clarified, “It was an honor honestly to take over the business for them.”
And Janet wasn’t about to rest on the laurels of the first two generations. As the third-generation of the Wheeling staple, she’s a hard worker who has taken the business to its third location in the market house — and to a new level.
“There are a lot of people that say, ‘well I don’t like fish sandwiches, so I never go to Centre Market.’ They don’t know what they’re missing out on. There are so many different businesses down here inside and outside of the building … that people are not aware of here. It’s really amazing.”
Those who don’t know about it are really missing out on this “hidden gem,” she said.
“Then they say, I know you do cheeses, but do you make sandwiches? I’ve done this for almost 30 years myself. …”
In 2003, she moved Valley Cheese from its 12-foot by 20-foot kiosk, where Osaka is located now, to a 15-foot by 50-foot spot a little farther south in the middle of the lower market house.
Just before her move, she and Coleman’s Fish Market owner, Joe Coleman, added the restrooms just south of Valley Cheese, with matching funds from the City of Wheeling.
She expanded the line of Amish offerings — adding fancier flavors of jellies and jams (like apple pie, triple berry, hot pepper jam); apple butter and pumpkin butter; jars and jars of pickled beets, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, okra and eggs; noodles, pouches of gravy and even candles.
Farm-fresh eggs, beef jerky, pizzelles, mustards, honey roasted nuts, salsa, relish, candy, cookies, gift baskets and party trays also are available at Valley Cheese.
But one of the biggest changes was the slicer. Now, she could slice her customers’ cheeses and lunchmeats. (But, if you get the Isaly’s chopped ham, make sure to get it chipped!)
She also supplies some area establishments such as Later Alligator, Wheeling Brewing Co. and Casa di Vino with cheese. On this particular day in July, she was slicing 80 pounds of provolone for Thomas Gilson’s The Cheese Melt food truck.
With the slicer came the sandwiches. “And then, all the soups and salads came along with that,” she said.
She makes homemade soup on a “little, tiny cooktop that plugs in, and in Crockpots, too.”
On Mondays, there is Wisconsin cheese soup she makes with little bits of ham, celery and carrots. “I grind up some Amish smoked cheddar in there and Velveeta.” On Tuesdays, there is broccoli cheese soup, chicken noodle on Wednesday and chili on Thursday. On Friday, she sells Amish-made potato soup, and on Saturdays, customers get potluck.
There’s a hot special every day — such as gyros, hot Italian sausage, kielbasa and sauerkraut, and Isaly’s chopped ham sandwiches with barbecue sauce. In the winter, customers can warm up with comfort food selections such as open-face roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes and gravy, and cabbage and noodles.
“We ask, ‘what do you want, what are you craving?’ Because some of my customers come back every day. It’s affordable. You can buy a good meal pretty much for under $8 … a sandwich, bag of chips, a beverage … well, under $10, because everyone wants a cookie, too,” Janet said.
The hot roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy is an economical $6.50. The Isaly’s chopped ham sandwich with barbecue sauce is $3.75 — served on an oversized bun, “and we don’t skimp on the chopped ham,” she added.
“Market prices” — rather than specialty store prices — are what she offers to keep things affordable for all.
Her best-sellers are the Italian sub, chicken salad sandwiches — which she says are “amazing” — and turkey sandwiches, salads and wraps.
“There are times we’re 20-30 deep in line for lunch, and we get through them as quick as we can. They’re on their lunch break. 12:05 rolls around, and there’s all these people, and we need to get them in and out efficiently. And we really work hard at that,” she said.
They get everything prepped early, but sandwiches are made fresh.
But back to cheese. Cheese is what started it all. And she sells about 60 to 70 varieties. “And it’s probably the only place in town for chocolate cheese,” she said.
She’s happy to give samples of cheese every day — except for Limburger. “I don’t like to handle it or smell it or touch it … but we sell a ton of it!” And she tells her customers it “smells like dirty feet.”
Janet’s favorite cheese is smoked cheddar, and paired with her favorite meat, the off-the-bone ham, and a dab or two of mayo, well, “that’s the ultimate sandwich,” for her.
Looking back on her childhood, she remembers never being without cheese in the house. “But I would sneak to my neighbor’s house to get a bite of Velveeta cheese. That was something we never had in the house because it wasn’t ‘real’ cheese. … My dad would never have Velveeta in the house. … Always our sliced American. Always.”
Her mom, Carol, passed away when Janet was just 7, so she was never involved in the business. “That’s why my dad worked so hard. Because he raised six children somehow with a Catholic education, by selling cheese,” she said and giggled just thinking about it. “I don’t know how in the world he did it.”
Owning the business is a 24/7 life for Janet. She’s always thinking about menus or employees or something she forgot to do — “Customer service is tough sometimes.”
“I like working here though, I really do. … When I take a day off, my customers always ask if I’m OK. If I take a day off or a week even, they think I’m sick or in the hospital … or dead … not just taking a vacation — because that’s something I don’t do very often.”
She said she forces herself to take one or two Sundays off a month for a break from anything work-related.
“Working for my dad was the best. It really was. … Nice to have the family run the place. … Good help is hard to find, and I tend to think that he had pretty darn good help! … I think he would be proud, because we did expand a lot, honestly. I wish he were alive to see it.”
Valley Cheese is still a family business — her niece works there, as do her goddaughter and a pair of sisters, though they are not related to her. And while she has no children, she does have tons of nieces and nephews.
“Maybe one of them will want to take over some day. Who knows!”
Valley Cheese Co., 2200 Market St., Wheeling, is open six days a week, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., 7 p.m. on Fridays. You can reach them by calling 304-232-0882 or find them on Facebook. A website is coming in the near future. Listen to Janet Hedinger and Corey Manning, manager of Casa di Vino, on “The Wine and Cheese Show” with Bill DiFabio at 1 p.m. Tuesdays on 1600 WKKX radio.
• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts
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