It All Started with Cheese
Tucked in the gently rolling hills of beautiful Monroe, Wisconsin, The Swiss Colony began in the entrepreneurial spirit of a young Ray Kubly.
Ray was a senior at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1925 when he drew up an advertising campaign for a marketing class. Since Ray’s hometown is the unofficial cheese capital of the biggest cheese-producing state in the nation, the theoretical company would sell cheese by mail-order.
After graduating in 1926, Ray took his class project and began to mold it into reality from the basement of his home in Monroe. He mailed out handbills, which he himself designed and stamped, that advertised cuts of Wisconsin-made bulk cheeses for the upcoming holidays. As orders came in, he cut the huge wheels of cheese into pieces by hand, then wrapped and shipped them. In his first year of business, he sold all 50 packages of cheese that he had prepared.
By 1941, Ray’s Christmas cheese gift company—The Swiss Colony—had grown to include 100 seasonal employees and a payroll of $19,000. The Swiss Colony’s client list would grow to include Eleanor Roosevelt, Bud Abbott (of Abbott and Costello), Senator J. William Fulbright, James Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and other celebrities wanting to give gourmet cheese gifts. By 1948, the Milwaukee Road had to send an extra boxcar to Monroe daily from early December until Christmas to handle the demand for cheese.
In 1954, Ray Kubly incorporated The Swiss Colony from the enterprise begun in his basement.
During all this time, Ray never quit his day job. He was vice president and general manager of Lakeshire-Marty (a division of Borden) in 1961 when he quit to run his own company.
America’s Christmas Bakery
As The Swiss Colony grew, its product line also grew to include some of Wisconsin’s finest cured hams and sausages, and then Ray’s company made a huge investment. In 1959, The Swiss Colony established its own bakery staffed by a team of master pastry chefs and confectioners brought in from Austria.
The very first product made in the bakery was Dobosh Torte, a classic Hungarian cake. The Swiss Colony’s version consists of 15 layers of cake and cream filling enrobed in pure milk chocolate. The bakery also makes traditional Christmas items like fruitcake and butter stollen.
One day in 1961, the Kubly family was throwing a party. Ray’s wife, Peg, wanted a special bite-sized dessert that would be easy for guests to pick up and eat as they mingled, and asked Horst Hart, one of the Austrian chefs, to come up with something. Hart made hundreds of Petits Fours, tiny layer cakes coated in chocolate. They were so popular with guests that Ray wanted to offer them in the catalog. That year, Hart hand-dipped more than 60,000 Petits Fours. Today the process is far more automated, but our bakery still adds the hand-decorated touch to each one. In fact, The Swiss Colony has the largest hand-decorating bakery in America.
From Cheddar to Sweaters
In 1979 The Swiss Colony began diversifying into non-food gift catalogs with the introduction of the Gift Collection, which evolved into the Seventh Avenue brand, named after the street that is home to the company’s headquarters in Monroe. Other brands were gradually added, including the legendary retailer Montgomery Ward.
Effective June 1, 2010, the corporate name of The Swiss Colony, Inc., was changed to Colony Brands, Inc., to better reflect its position as parent company for its extensive portfolio of food and non-food businesses. The company is still family-owned and is one of the largest direct marketers in the United States, providing customers with furniture and home décor, apparel, entertaining products, gifts and collectibles, and much more. And it all started as a school project.