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Improving With Age.

Byline: James Dudlicek

Age is good for cheese, and it's apparently good for retail cheese sales as well, according to a multitude of research confirming its importance as an increasingly important category with grocers each passing year.

Older and more affluent shoppers are more likely to buy cheese, both prepackaged and especially from the service deli counter of their favorite supermarket. "Older respondents are most likely to more regularly frequent mainstream supermarkets for cheese purchases, and both chilled display and deli counters can benefit from wooing these cheese enthusiasts," says Chicago-based market research powerhouse Mintel in its 2010 executive summary on the cheese category.

To be sure, deli cheese is big business for food retailers, accounting for more than 20 percent of all deli department sales for the year ending Sept. 25, 2010, according to recent data from Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen and FreshFacts from The Perishables Group in Chicago. That's more than $2.16 billion in sales, and nearly 320 million pounds of product for the same period, says the Madison, Wis.-based International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA) - down in dollars but up in volume from the same period a year earlier ($2.2 billion, 311 million pounds).

Retail cheese buyers say cheese-savvy consumers looking for something special are driving growth in cheese at the service deli.

"Deli cheeses are selling much better than the prepackaged cheeses," notes Andrew Colton, expert cheese buyer for Norwalk, Conn.-based retailer Stew Leonard's. "Customers are shopping more for parties and entertaining, and love different varieties of cheeses for the table."

President of Stew Leonard's Norwalk store, Colton has been with the iconic retailer for 17 years, during which time he has made the rounds of the many cheesemakers throughout the country that help stock his market's deli counter. "The trends that we are seeing are with United States cheeses from Wisconsin, Vermont and New York," he says. "The local factor is a huge hit at the Stew Leonard's stores. Some other trends are hard cheeses and English cheeses such as Wensleydale."

How it Slices

Specialty varieties dominate deli cheese, accounting for about 60 percent of total sales; service cheese makes up about 30 percent of total share, with the rest coming from pre-sliced cheeses. Of the total storewide cheese category, which approached $10 billion for the year ending Dec. 25, 2010, about 10 percent is specialty cheese: $971 million for that period, up 7.5 percent over the previous year, reports Nielsen.

But despite a growing interest in artisanal and exotic varieties, old favorites continue to dominate deli cheese sales. American leads with more than $533 million and just under 97 million pounds sold for the year ending Sept. 26, 2010, followed by second-place Swiss, with about half the sales ($265 million), and provolone, cheddar and parmesan rounding out the top five, according to IDDBA.

Still, demand remains steady for fancier cheeses. "The desire for foods that are natural, small-batch, fresh and sustainably produced continues to be strong, and cheese is benefiting from these preferences," say the folks at the Madison-based Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). "Consumers place a high value on health and well-being. The trend toward natural and healthy foods continues, fueled by national campaigns to combat obesity. Removing trans fats, sugar and salt from foods is popular. Increases in retail sales of low-fat and reduced-fat cheeses are reported, a fact that may spur further development of these types. At the same time, consumers view cheese in general as a wholesome, nutritious food, one that is simple with little industrial processing."

As such, the proliferation of new specialty and artisan cheeses is expected to continue. In Wisconsin, specialty-cheese production amounted to 477 million pounds in 2009, an increase of 40 million pounds, or 9 percent, over 2008, notes WMMB.

And shoppers are looking for these cheeses at their neighborhood markets. Mainstream supermarkets are a regular go-to for cheese purchases for respondents from the highest-earning households, in particular the deli counter, which, according to Mintel, tends to carry a price premium for the perceived freshness factor that can be better absorbed by those with more disposable income.

In fact, the market researcher finds that 71 percent of shoppers with annual household incomes of $75,000 to $100,000 and 77 percent with incomes exceeding $100,000 regularly or occasionally purchase their cheeses at mainstream supermarket deli counters.

Offering a wide range of cheeses at the deli counter should appeal to well-heeled shoppers in search of, for example, fresh goat cheese or perhaps an overall broader cheese platform. "A small start could include a French Comte and Spanish Iberico to gauge interest among shoppers," Mintel recommends, further urging a customer suggestion box to help guide further deli cheese offerings.

For its part, WMMB sees no end in sight for growth in Hispanic cheeses, particularly with Mexican-style cheeses, which are expected to see continued growth, while Central and South American cuisines will further foster broader application.

Michael Evan Blum, sales and marketing manager for Beemster Cheese, a Dutch company with U.S. headquarters in Jersey City, N.J., says consumers are looking for value and quality. "More than ever, people care about where their food comes from and what goes into it," Blum says. "Traceability from the grass to the shelf is something that Beemster is very proud of, as we are the only Dutch cheese cooperative that is in control of our product throughout its production, maturation and distribution. People are also showing more interest than ever in our sustainability. We are partners with Ben and Jerry's in the 'Caring Dairy' program to ensure we do everything in the most sustainable methods possible without sacrificing the price or quality of our product." (See the related sidebar below.)

Wheels of Fortune

Many leading supermarket retailers, meanwhile, are working with cheese companies to develop private label cheese lines, which often are perceived as lower-priced and a greater value than brands. Still others are spinning off cheese from their deli departments into standalone counters, separate rooms or climate-controlled "caves" where cheeses share space with paired wines.

Colton says the most important promotion that happens at Stew Leonard's is demoing the product. "Stew's has demos of cheese every day," he notes. "Another promotion is to have the cheesemaker come into the store to demo the product. This gets the customers very excited because they can learn a lot of information about the cheeses."

Vernon, Calif.-based food distributor Albert's Organics serves primarily smaller retailers with a two-pronged deli cheese program: commodity cheese (including popular varieties such as cheddar, Swiss and jack, both organic and certified antibiotic-free) and specialty cheese.

"While there is a 25- to 30-percent price difference between organic and antibiotic-free cheeses, both sell very well," says Simcha Weinstein, Albert's director of marketing. "Almost all of our natural/organic food retailers carry a variety of these cheeses, with merchandising typically done in wall deli cases with sliced meat items. The antibiotic-free cheeses appeal to those consumers looking for a clean product without the higher price tag of an organic cheese."

The Albert's specialty cheese program was designed for smaller retailers with limited space that seek a basic selection of higher-end specialty cheeses. "Our first criterion was that all cheeses meet our standard of being antibiotic-free," Weinstein explains. "We did not want to make these cheeses too eclectic or unapproachable in their appeal, as not every shopper is a student of specialty cheeses."

Varieties include gruyere, feta, blue, chevre, brie, fontina, cotija and queso fresco. "Our current selection of 45 specialty cheeses covering 14 brands allows a retailer with limited shelf space to cherry-pick the varieties they feel would work well for their store," Weinstein says. "Our typical retailer might carry anywhere from six to 20 varieties."

Despite lingering economic unease, WMMB insists the future is bright for further development of specialty and artisan cheeses, which many people see as an affordable luxury as they cut back in other areas.

Beemster offers a seasonal cheese called Graskaas, which is made with milk from the company's suppliers' first spring milkings. Aged for a month before release, this cheese promises to deliver deep flavors and a rich, creamy texture.

Wisconsin-based newcomers headed for supermarket deli cheese departments include Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese, a spoonable Vacherin-style variety; Eagle Cave Reserve, a cloth-bound aged cheddar from Meister Cheese Co.; Pave Henri, a brine-washed assertive Trappist style from Brunkow Cheese's Fayette Creamery; and Meadow Melody, a creamy, smooth sheep and cow's milk cheese from Hidden Springs Creamery.

Still other Dairy State cheeses are arriving at supermarket cheesemongers' doorsteps, with impressive pedigrees. Two of Richfield-based DCI Cheese Co.'s offerings - Black River Gorgonzola and El Cortijo Murcia al Vino - were granted bronze awards at the World Cheese Awards held last month in the United Kingdom. The winner of a whole shelf of awards over the past decade, Black River Gorgonzola is recommended as an enhancer for mashed potatoes, dips and sauces - a tip savvy grocers should jump to offer to shoppers, or use as the basis for cross-promotions.

Meanwhile, the folks at Monroe-based Emmi-Roth Kase USA are suggesting grocers promote more healthful pairings of their cheeses with vegetables. The cheesemaker says home chefs could easily prepare dishes such as a dill havarti-farfalle salad with braised fennel, sun-dried tomatoes and saffron, or a gruyere puff pastry tart made with winter onions. Other options include dipping roasted root vegetables, potatoes, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts into a melted cheese fondue.

WMMB makes additional cases for cross-promotions of deli cheeses with other items around the market to create unique dishes for special events or everyday eating: toaster waffles cut into bite-sized pieces and topped with blue cheese and a drizzle of maple syrup; dried Medjool dates stuffed with feta and almonds or pistachios; a salad of shaved fennel, parmesan, olive oil, lemon and black pepper; puff pastry or tart shells with mascarpone cheese and pomegranate seeds; or pickled cherry peppers stuffed with squares of provolone and wrapped in salami.

The board further suggests pairing cheeses with wines, ales and root beers, opening up additional opportunities for cross-promotions between the deli and the beverage aisle.

Aggressive grocers looking to enrich deli cheese sales can help motivate curious consumers by helping to educate shoppers on the various uses and presentations of unique cheeses. The desire appears to be there, just waiting for strategic cross-merchandising campaigns, recipe cards and sampling opportunities to draw them out.

Stew Leonard's Colton has a "very positive and growing outlook for deli cheese," he says. "The customer would rather have their cheese sliced than to do it themselves. They are more willing to experiment with new tastes and flavor, and this is really putting a jump on the cheese business."

Cheese From Caring Dairies

Beemster Cheese, a Dutch cheesemaker with U.S. headquarters in Jersey City, N.J., is an active member of an international program that promotes sustainable milk production.

Developed in 2003 by Unilever-owned ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's, in collaboration with academics and animal welfare advocates, the "Caring Dairy" program works with dairy farmers to create a balance among four elements: economically sound farming, a healthy balance between work and private life for the farmer, healthy cows, and an eye for landscape and the environment in and around dairy farms.

Caring Dairy purports to distinguish itself from other dairy sustainability initiatives in two key ways: the participation of farmers and the integrated approach. In this program, the farmers themselves determine where, when and how they're going to improve. Not only aspects of sustainability per se are considered, but also how these aspects are interrelated. Farmers take part in interactive workshops in which they analyze their operations and discuss possibilities for improvement.

Beemster's products are sold under the Caring Dairy logo in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom, China and Japan.

Sell No Rind Before Its Time

As consumers continue to expand their culinary knowledge and seek new and interesting tastes, many cheesemakers are working from the outside in to create flavor.

To increase buyer confidence in cheeses with unique rinds, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) suggests that grocers use signage to describe the flavors of these cheeses and explain how to approach their rinds. With these complex cheeses, sampling is a must.

Madison-based WMMB reports that its native cheesemakers are leading the way with innovative rinds. For example, Carr Valley's Apple Smoked Cheddar, hand-rubbed with paprika to give the cheese a complex and balanced flavor, won first place at the 2005 American Cheese Society Competition.

Sartori Reserve offers a paprika-rubbed cheese called Pastorale Blend, made with both cow and sheep milk, and featuring an eye-popping color sure to attract attention in the deli case. Plymouth-based Sartori also soaks several of its BellaVitano cheeses to create appealing rinds with unique flavors, including cognac, raspberry, merlot and balsamic vinegar.

Even rinds that aren't meant to be eaten can enhance the flavor of the cheese within, thanks to the affinage process. Bleu Mont Dairy created Earth Schmear cheese with a filtered brew made from the soil around Blue Mounds, Wis. Washed rinds also flavor cheeses during the affinage process, and some of them are edible. Les Freres and Petit Freres from Waterloo-based Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese are semi-soft washed rind cheeses with an earthy, fruity flavor. The edible rind is light tan in color and the interior is creamy, with an almost brie-like texture and a nutty aftertaste.

Upland Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodgeville is washed several times a week throughout the aging process, developing flavors that become more complex and concentrated as the cheese ages. This cheese won the Best of Show prize at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition. Pave Henri is a new washed-rind, Trappist-style cheese from Fayette Creamery, a line of artisan cheeses from Darlington-based Brunkow Cheese. Its scent has drawn comparisons to Limburger, but the taste is milder, with a buttery texture.
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Author:Dudlicek, James
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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