Curd Nurd taps into Ozaukee’s love of cheese

Self-proclaimed curdologist James Lightner has made a career out of distributing fresh cheese curds by the ton
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

 

James Lightner has found a cheesy way to make a living.

Lightner — a self-proclaimed curdologist whose motto is “Seek the Squeak” — has made a name for himself as the Curd Nurd, selling fresh cheese curds to residents and visitors in Ozaukee County for the past 10 years.

“It’s just so fun,” Lightner said. “Everyone loves fresh cheese curds.

“It’s a good business. You make people smile every day.”

Lightner, who lives in the Town of Belgium, said he has to be “the biggest independent curd distributor in southeast Wisconsin.”

“I go through a ton,” he said.

Make that tons. Lightner operates his business from May to November, and in that time he sells an average of 15 tons, or 30,000 pounds, of Wisconsin’s unofficial favorite treat — plain and flavored cheese curds.

“Ozaukee County in my 10 years is responsible for eating well over a quarter-million pounds of cheese curds,” Lightner said.

That said, Lightner admits that a few of those curds end up being consumed by him.

“I’m good for a half-pound a day,” he joked. “It’s called quality assurance. You have to test the cheese curds.”

His customers appreciate his attention to detail, he said, adding he’s gotten to know many of them well through the years.

“Sheri gets three bags because one goes to her son, one to her other son and one to her grandchildren,” he said.

And he recalled being pulled over by a Cedarburg police officer for a broken tail light.

“He was looking for cheese curds for his wife,” Lightner said joking.

Lightner’s route to cheese curd fame wasn’t a direct one. He started out as a professional chef, absorbing some of his business know-how at his parents’ restaurant in Oconto and having started cooking when in first grade.

He owned and operated restaurants for  years, including a 20-plus year stint at his own restaurant in Green Bay.

But after a time he realized he was burned out.

“It was the hours, working every day,” Lightner said.

His brother, Father Mike Lightner, was the associate pastor at St. Francis Borgia Parish in Cedarburg, and in 2002 Lightner sold his house and moved to the area to be near him. He put together a DVD of his brother’s story and accompanied his brother on a speaking tour.

“I was kind of his publicist,” Lightner said.

But during a 2007 trip to Bosnia while on a pilgrimage, Lightner was seriously injured in a bus accident. As he healed, he realized he was bored and began to ponder his future.

“I said, ‘What can’t I get in Ozaukee County that I could get before?’” Lightner said. “The answer was fresh cheese curds. Back home (in Oconto), you can go to any convenience store and get fresh cheese curds six, seven days a week.

“I thought, why can’t I do that in Ozaukee County?”

His brother Mike suggested the name Curd Nurd, and a business was born.

Lightner established a relationship with Springside Cheese in Spruce, just outside of Oconto Falls, and its owner Wayne Hintz.

“I know the people who run it and the farmers who supply the milk,” Lightner said, noting the cows are grass fed. “They’re my friends.”

He bought the Curd Nurd van with a loan from his brother Mel, a former Grafton school superintendent who also came up with the Seek the Squeak slogan.

His first customer, in 2012, was Mike’s Citgo in Grafton.

“I bought a basket and started putting them in there,” Lightner recalled. “They started selling.”

He also began selling out of his van at farmers markets and similar venues.

The next year, Lightner said, a couple of gas stations called him to place curds in their stores, and eventually he expanded into every corner of the county.

Along the way, he did an internship at a creamery to learn everything he could about curds, Lightner said, noting it led to his title of curdologist.

“It was my training,” he said. “People ask questions. I need to be able to answer them.”

Getting along with people is a big part of the job, Lightner said.

“You have to be able to talk to people,” he said. “They come for the curds, but they also come to BS with you.”

Lightner’s day has a rhythm. Every day except Sunday, when the creamery is closed, a rotating crew of four or five drivers pick up fresh curds at Springside. They text him about 3:30 a.m. to let him know they’re on their way, and he meets them in Manitowoc, where he loads up the Curd Nurd van and heads to Ozaukee County to distribute them to eight convenience stores and Witte’s Vegetable Farm in Cedarburg.

“You want to get the cheese curds in early in the morning,” he said. “It’s like bakery. You don’t buy fresh doughnuts at 7 at night. You buy them in the morning.”

There are places closer to Ozaukee County where he could get cheese curds, Lightner said, but Springside’s are the best and freshest, made from cows that are milked at 4:30 p.m. daily.

“I get them direct from the creamery. They’re still warm,” he said. “This is milk to cheese within five hours of milking the cow.”

Lightner sells plain curds at the convenience stores — except at the Citgo Supersales on Port Washington Road in Grafton, which has a “Flavorful Friday” special that features flavored curds. At farmers markets, he offers plain and four or five flavors of curds.

Among the favorite flavors are dill and garlic, Cajun, bacon chipotle and taco.

Some people have asked him why he doesn’t expand into grocery stores. In addition to being highly perishable with a one-day shelf life, he said, cheese curds are an impulse buy.

“People aren’t going to walk through Pick ‘N Save for cheese curds,” he said. “I have to go to high volume convenience stores.”

In addition to the stores, Lightner sells his curds at the Port, Thiensville and Menomonee Falls farmers markets.

What’s the appeal of the curd? Lightner said it’s the fact that it’s nutritious and delicious.

“I sell to a lot of soccer moms. The kids love fresh cheese curds. The parents pick them up as a nutritious snack,” he said.

“And people love the squeak. They’re always amazed by the squeakiness.”

Curds can be frozen — many customers will buy 10 to 15 bags near the end of the season and freeze them for the winter months — and thawed on the counter, Lightner added, noting they’ll still squeak.

There is a trick to getting the squeak back, Lightner said. Just microwave the curds for about 15 seconds.

That’s a trick only a curdologist can tell you, he said.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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