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Progressive Grocer and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board hosted a roundtable discussion of retailers to discuss specialty cheese marketing. Held in New Orleans at the start of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association’s annual trade show in June, the gathering revealed keen insights about how specialty cheese is positioned by major supermarkets as well as smaller grocers and specialty retailers.
The discussion, moderated by PG Editor-in-Chief Jim Dudlicek and The Gourmet Retailer Editor Anna Wolfe, featured James Robson, CEO of the Madison-based WMMB; Gianfranco DiCarlo Jr., specialty cheese category manager for Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle Inc.; Louis “Jack” Treuting, culinary director for Thibodaux, La.-based Rouses Supermarkets; and Reginald Pearson, non-alcohol buyer-perishables of Houston-based Spec’s Wines, Spirits and Finer Foods. The transcript has been edited for clarity:
An abridged version of this roundtable appeared in the August 2012 issue of Progressive Grocer.
Dudlicek: On behalf of Progressive Grocer magazine and Stagnito Media, I’d like to welcome everybody to our roundtable on specialty cheese. I’m Jim Dudlicek, editor-in-chief of Progressive Grocer. Across the table from me is Anna Wolfe, editor of The Gourmet Retailer, and we’ll be moderating today’s session, which I was so bold to dub “The Bold, the Green and the Exotic: How Grocers are Leveraging the Latest Trends in Cheese.”
I would understand if some of you are a little skittish about the use of the word “green” in relation to cheese. I know that, at least from my standpoint, back in my days as editor of Dairy Field, we were dissuaded from using the color green on any of our covers, because it would suggest spoilage. But I think that, at least as far as the food industry is concerned, green is no longer a dirty word. It has come to evolve from an idea of spoilage to an umbrella term encompassing such concepts as sustainability and social responsibility, and an idea of traceability in the origin of food, and something that people want to know more about.
Specialty cheese continues to be a very popular and lucrative category for grocers, and we’d like to take a look at what specialty cheese looks like right now and where it’s going, what the hot areas are, what people are asking for, what flavors, as consumers get more adventurous about their food. So let’s talk a little bit about what are the most significant developments in specialty cheese sales over the past year.
Treuting: What I’m finding, at least in our market, and probably in the markets outside of this exact market that I’m in, from an operational point of view, is an acceptance from owners to allow us, as retailers, to spend a little bit more money and a little bit more time on sampling and the interaction with customers. We’ve been able to grow a category; it’s some really nice numbers in a relatively short amount of time, by putting that piece of cheese in the customer’s mouth. I know it seems like a simple concept, but as retailers, you know actually doing it is the hard part, scheduling the hours to make it happen. So I don’t know if this would be so much of a trend for us, in this market, where we’re a very -- you know, we’ll eat the same po’boy most of our lives and never switch to another flavor. But we’re now taking cheeses, American cheeses, and spending time, dedicating two to three hours a day, with a specific individual, targeting a specific market, either the restaurant market, by participating in events outside of the store, or cheese tastings inside of the store. We’ve gone so far as to open some of our rooftops and teaching centers, in hiring chefs, or allowing chefs to come in and sample wines, with cheese, in our teaching classrooms. And, of course, the result is exactly what you think it would be. They get up, they buy that bottle of wine, and then they go buy that cheese, so on our side, we’re growing the category, and we’re seeing it open up by taking that first step.
Wolfe: Can you tell us a little bit about Rouses and about how many stores you have? And, also, could you tell us about your cheese program?
Treuting: I think we’re No. 10 or No. 9 on the largest independent grocers. We’re a family-owned business from Thibodaux, La., about 60 miles west, and we’ve had a lot of organic growth. We had 14 stores up until about six years ago, and then we had the opportunity to double our size. We’re at 38 stores now. We’ve built some from the ground up, and some we have taken over, so -- I’ve been with the company for about two and a half years now, and when I walked in the door, we had a little bit of everything from the company that we acquired, to who we were, to where we were going. So we had a lot of pre-cut in our stores, but a strong desire to have the ability to cut. The challenge for us down here is cheese isn’t maybe as accepted as it would be on the West Coast, or the East Coast, or in certain areas. So, again, we had to go and take that first step and say, “You know what? We’re going to do this.” My first piece was to consolidate business so that we could understand exactly who we’re playing with, what we’re working with, and in a handful of our stores, about six, which were deemed epicurean, we’re going all out, we’re cutting the cheese. It gives us the opportunity, and every piece you cut, you’re putting at least one or two pieces in a customer’s mouth. That’s our kind of rule of thumb on that. And it gives us the chance to touch it, to feel it, to understand it, as well as the customer, due to the same thing. So at this point, we’re probably 50/50 on a pre-cut/cutting ourselves program.
Pearson: I think that a lot of the growth that we’ve experienced in the specialty cheese department has been helped by all of the cooking shows that we see on television now.
DiCarlo: And Dr. Oz.
Pearson: Let’s not forget him. But I think that a lot of that has that do with that theory, because people now are more willing to try it because they’re seeing recipes that they can apply to everyday life, and so it’s making it easier and it’s not as foreign as it used to be. To piggyback on one of the comments Jack made, it’s very crucial that you have a very strong sampling program. I’m with Spec’s, and we’ve grown tremendously over the past few years, and we’re known for our deli, so to speak, on the food side. We are a wine, spirits and finer-foods retailer, which goes very well, because it’s all entertaining foods, liquor, wine, all of the above, and it pairs well together.
One of the challenges that we faced here recently is we have a limited amount of stores where we actually have a full kitchen where we can do cut and wrap, and so what’s happening now is we have stores that are popping up that we’re building, out in the suburbs, where we don’t necessarily have a full kitchen, so we can’t do cut and wrap. So what my challenge has been, for the company, is to kind of create some synergy where I want that customer that now is shopping at the store that’s closer to their home, maybe on the weekends or later in the week, if they’re planning for an event, or just for everyday shopping, I’m trying to create an environment where they can have as close to that same experience, picking up an exact-weight item, as they would pick up a cut-and-wrap item from our stores where we actually cut the product, and that’s been a challenge. But with all of that, you’ve got to have a very strong sampling program, and I know that I’m about to touch on another topic that we’re going to talk about. But not only do we have to have a very strong sampling program, your staff has to be very knowledgeable about the products, and if they’re not passionate about it, if they don’t have a personal experience with it, they can’t convey that to a customer.
One of the things that I’ve done at the company to enhance the category is, I’ll have an event where I’ll pull people in from Houston and the surrounding areas, for a day, and I’ll have vendors scheduled throughout the day to sample and present their products. Because I believe that if you expose your palate to it, you have a personal relationship with it. I always tell people, if you’re not allergic to it, and I really don’t care if you like it, I just need you to expose your palate to it, because once you do that, you can convey that to a customer and, you know, with us being a wine, spirits and finer-foods retailer, wine pairs very well with cheese.
And so what we do is we’re teaching the staff. At the same time, we’re educating our consumer. We’re doing it a number of ways. Not only are we sampling, but we’re also using social media. Let’s say we have a new item that comes in. We are putting that on Facebook and Twitter. We’re putting it on our page. And what that does is it highlights that item, and we make it plain, on an everyday basis. We’re giving you a recipe.
Now, what we’re also doing is we’re looking at a recipe and we’re trying to highlight the items that we carry in the store, from a finer-food standpoint. That has a huge impact on that category, because you’re using the most recent innovation to touch people, and that is social media. But I think that one of the biggest reasons we’ve had some tremendous growth in the specialty cheese category is because of all of the cooking shows that are out there. And you’re right, Dr. Oz and others in the medical profession that are, you know, talking about those things.
I was reading an article, probably a month or two ago, and it was talking about the benefits of cheese. Most people think cheese is high in cholesterol. You know, I jokingly tell people, well, if you’re going to eat a lot of cheese, drink a lot of red wine.
DiCarlo: You’re just trying to increase sales. Come on now. (laughter)
Pearson: I’m guilty. But it works. But with that being said, that has a tremendous impact and consumers are more educated now. They’re paying attention, they are watching those shows, they are reading things, and if you try to use every venue that you can to expose them to it -- one of the things that we do in our stores, we have an annual cheese festival. We do it in Houston.
Two years ago, I started it in Austin, and we initially started it at one store. I don’t know if anyone’s familiar with Austin, but we did it on Brodie. We did it at our Brodie store. Well, we needed to get the north and the south of Austin, because, you know, you’re competing with a lot of things in Austin. Austin’s kind of a different city. People are more educated, more in tune with what’s going on. So we started last year. We did it in two stores. We did it on Arbor Lane and on Brodie, simultaneously, which is a challenge, because I have to pull from the same vendors, and the more you do it, you know, they can’t be in all the places, so what they want to do is they want to have a demo person. Well, a demo person, to me -- not taking anything away from a demo person -- they can’t actively sell that product. I need someone that’s actively selling it.
But what that has done for us -- and it’s been an event in the Houston market for some time now, and it’s become an event, so we had to redo it, so to speak, and what we did, instead of it continuing to be a feeding frenzy, what we’ve done is I’ve scaled it back, and what I’ve done is I’ve tried to get some exclusive cheeses, items that we carry, and I really want someone from the company to come in to actively sell it, not a demo person.
And what it does is we’re now pairing it with wines more. We’re also giving recipes. So that when a person comes in, it’s just not an event for them to come in and try a bunch of stuff, it’s an opportunity for them to come in and, of course, try products, but also learn, and it’s been quite successful.
Treuting: Let me touch back on you training your staff. I’ve lived in Austin. I’m familiar. Beautiful program you’ve got over there. That training of the staff, what sources do you find to be the most beneficial? Is it the vendor community coming in to teach? Do you have an assigned trainer for the company, or what does that look like?
Pearson: What I do is I utilize the vendor community, and what I do is I will schedule over, depending on who the vendor is and the products, they may have a half an hour, 45 minutes, or an hour. What I most recently did was, I have a program with ANCO. What I did was, their trainer, I had him come in for two hours, and what we did was I gave him the first two hours of the day to train the staff, because it’s such a broad spectrum of the items that I have with them. But then what I also did was I had other vendors that came in. They sampled their product, they did presentations on it. We did pairings on it. We did all of the above.
But then we’ve taken it a step further this year. In conjunction with that, I do it the first three quarters of the year, and then I’ll start, I’ll do the first quarter and I’ll have a group of vendors that come in, and that’s really what works, to answer your question.
Well, then the second two quarters, I’ll change up and have some other vendors. The third quarter, what I do is I have the vendors come in and we talk about holiday items. And so what that does is that gives our staff an opportunity to be exposed to those items that they’re going to receive in November and December.
So, to answer your question, it is the vendor community. Because who can sell that particular product better than the vendor? I can have someone that comes in and does training. Because it would be me that would end up doing it, but with my responsibilities, I couldn’t do that all the time, so I utilize them. It’s just time management. I let them do the work. That’s what they’re there for, to be quite honest with you, so --
Dudlicek: I think that’s a great point. It shows the importance of having those good partnerships with your other trading partners.
Pearson: Absolutely. And they want to do it, absolutely. So to answer your question, it would be the vendor community.
Treuting: That’s actually what I’m using, as we’re integrating the cut program. We’re with AFI. We carry a couple products from ANCO, but I’m trying to build a --
Pearson: They’ve been trying to get my business quite a bit. I’ve been out there.
Pearson: Yes. I went to their -- last year, I went to the, when they do their --
Treuting: Their holiday show?
Pearson: Yes, I went to that.
Treuting: So far, and I’ll speak about them a little bit, their relationship has been good. You know, I’m really trying to drive that vendor -- I’m thinking the same thing along what you’re saying. There is absolutely no way that I can get in and do that myself.
DiCarlo: Yeah, I’m the same way, Jack. You know, I like to keep everything where I’ve got my hands in it, and I run into the same problems you do, where I can’t be the one out there training all the time. But I do find that even better than the vendors is the suppliers, and every year we take a trip up to Wisconsin that the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board funds, and we’ve done it now for four years in a row, and last year we took 18 team members. And I tell you what, when these folks come back, they come back energized. When they taste curd out of the cheddar vat, and it’s squeaky and warm, I mean, there is nothing like that, man. You want to talk about taking -- you know, if you get the people that have the energy and the enthusiasm and you give them an experience like that, it’s funny, because I’ll go at the end of the aisle and I’ll watch them say the same stuff that Kerry, from Henning’s, said to them or -- and I’ll just listen and I’ll be like, “Yeah.”
Pearson: We do the same thing. As a matter of fact, we’re going the second week, we’re coming up. But what it does is when you take -- and that’s what I do. I hand-pick from various stores every year who I think I should take, and one of the things we’re going to do next year is kind of create a program where everybody will have an opportunity, and it will be a fair playing field, even though your store sales may not be where the other stores are, it will be creativity, it will be a number of things. Well, what it does is when you take them there, they come back with a sense of ownership for their department, in their store. And then they see the importance and the relevance of it, and they don’t just see product coming in a case and they’re putting it out, in a cheese case. So that works, also, yes, and it’s an incentive, because a lot of times where they may not be coming up for a raise, but it’s a nice way of showing that you appreciate the job that they’re doing. And then, also, it comes back to giving them an opportunity to gain additional knowledge on the product.
DiCarlo: We actually run a contest. We run a promotion, in July, where we take all the Wisconsin cheeses, and the stores that sell the highest percentage to the customer count are the stores that are selected, and then I let the store manager be the one who selects the team member from the cheese department to go, so I don’t have to worry about that.
Pearson: Unfortunately, for us, what would happen with us is the stores that traditionally sell, do well, their sales are higher, depending on the demographics, so in order to make that contest, for us, we have to not only just base it on sales, but we have to look at creativity and some other things, and so that way, it makes it fair. Because if not, the same people will win every year.
DiCarlo: But we do it by customer count, though, so -- you know, we divide it by customer count, so if we have the customers walking in the door, that’s how we decide, so every year we usually get some of the same participants in a few stores, but there’s usually more than one or two people in those stores. So by the time you get to year four or year five, maybe everybody in the department has gone and I’ll pick somebody else, but right now it hasn’t been a problem. So it worked out really good. It worked out really, really good for us.
The other thing that you were saying, Jack, back in the beginning, and I want to touch on that, is that, you know, we’re in the business, we eat cheese every day, and for us, it’s like, what’s new, what’s new, what’s new. Well, the reality is, this is still very new to customers. I mean, plain goat cheese, you know -- we do an event in May and it’s amazing how many customers have never just tried plain Madame Chevre plain goat cheese, and you give it to them with a little bit of honey or a little bit of preserves on it, and [they say], “Wow, this tastes like cheesecake. This is great.”
I mean, we get ahead of ourselves a little bit. We’re always trying to do the newer thing in the business, but the reality is, there’s a lot of what we would consider mainstream cheeses that the majority of the customers -- that’s the way it is for me in Pittsburgh, anyway -- have never tried. So for us, it’s been a combination of back to basics, too, and like you said, with the sampling, just to --
Dudlicek: There’s always people at that entry level.
DiCarlo: There’s always people at that entry level. If you look at the actual marketing metric -- what’s it called again? The number of people in the store that actually shop the cheese shop regularly as opposed to occasionally, you look at this big iceberg of untapped resource that we probably all have in all of our markets, and we worry about the top of the iceberg, but we forget about the bottom.
We did an event with a Wisconsin company, Spring Green Colby, and Colby is about as everyman as you can get, but when you talk about the fact that they’ve won ACS awards for this cheese and it’s an authentic Colby longhorn, and you do it with an aggressive sampling program at a really good price, you know, we’re buying truckloads now, so that’s just the way to do it, you know. And then the price comes down, everybody wins.
Robson: You’ve mentioned the tours. We’re on track this year to have about 48 different tours, and sometimes we have two or three a week, so that’s just one part of the education. We’ve got two people that are dedicated -- one of them has other responsibilities, but education is his primary responsibility, and then our other person, who is -- you mentioned the Food Network and that sort of thing -- she’s a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and has worked in the cheese industry for many years, and she’s totally education. She has no account responsibilities or anything like that, and she works with culinary schools. She’ll come to your place. If you wanted to pull together a group of your deli managers, or whoever you feel, and we go out and rent a room like this, set it up classroom-style; sometimes she’ll spend two, three, four days in one location to do everybody that they want to put through the training, and even though it’s provided by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the people come away with a general knowledge of cheese. If she’s talking about cheddar, that can be, you know, cheddar cheese from anywhere that cheddar is made, and we also, because of our partnership with the Center for Dairy Research, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, once a year we have a course called Pasture to Plate, and that gets into how cheese is made. It’s a fairly high-level course, but we do that.
And then Reggie mentioned the social media and so forth. With our websites, we have Cheese Cupid, which is a pairing site of cheese with wine, beer and spirits. We have the Cheese and Burger Society, which is a lot of ideas on burgers. And then we’ve had retailers take that and run a promotion where you take the items that are in that recipe and you can run like a 12-week burger promotion, use a different bread, a different meat, a different cheese, different condiments and so forth. And then we have the Grilled Cheese Academy, which is the same type of thing. So I’m glad to hear that education and training and so forth is important, because we’ve invested a lot of dollars into that area, so I’m glad to hear that.
DiCarlo: It’s the only way to sell it.
Pearson: Right. Well, I pegged this when I came on board and started putting the training together. Training improves customer service, which increases sales. It’s very simple, basic-101 mindset, and so that’s very important. You know, I use the scenario -- because, of course, we have wine and spirits, and part of the training, when I’m involved with it, I say, well, let’s say you see a customer that comes in and they have no intent on buying any cheese. You see them when they come in, and they have a bottle of champagne. Well, my first thought is, well, what goes well with champagne? Let me sell them a piece of brie, make a subtle suggestion. Well, if I sell them a piece of brie, they need a vehicle to serve it on, so there you go with the cracker. Well, I’m thinking champagne, brie, cracker, I’m thinking red, well, we have what is called a hibiscus in syrup. It’s an edible hibiscus flower. Well, I present that to them. I usually get them to buy it. While I’m still on the line of red, well, there’s some raspberry chipotle sauce that you could put on the brie. You could go on and on. Well, you think, they’ve got bread, they’ve got a cracker, they’ve got raspberry chipotle sauce, they’ve got a hibiscus in syrup, so my next thought is, piece of meat. But what I’m saying is --
DiCarlo: Pretty soon, you can sell them a house. (laughter)
Pearson: The key is, if you take one item -- and I started with the champagne, but you could have very well started a brie. It all comes back to knowledge. Whether it is customer-based or staff-based in the store, and I think that the next huge growth that we’ll experience in the category will be through knowledgeable staff. I’m a firm believer that if you have knowledgeable staff, what you do is -- because 80 percent of the time a customer comes in a store, they have a mindset of only one item that they want to get. They’re not thinking or aware of other items that pair with it, and so you can very well take that one item and become very knowledgeable of it, and then you bring in all the other components. And if someone comes in and you’re able to -- they come in with the mindset of buying a piece of cheese, but you tie all these other items in, one, you’ve gotten a loyal customer, and two, they’ve had a pleasurable experience. Three, you’ve increased their basket count without them even realizing they’re spending more money, because it’s such a pleasurable experience. And what that does is they come back and they want to try another specialty cheese, because now you’re making it plain, for everyday use. Because normally people associate specialty cheeses with some type of an event. You can go home and eat a piece of cheese every day, if you so choose. It doesn’t have to be for an event.
Treuting: You know, two points to that, if I could back up to the health-conscious piece. I’m the dad of two children and, yeah, while you may hear, you know, it’s high in fat and, you know, maybe sometimes the negative side, so you’re right, the educational piece, at least when I’m talking to my customers, is there is a large amount of protein, obviously, in it. And talking to our customers, talking to the moms and the dads that are making their way through there, with kids in the basket, and I’m going to link the knowledgeable sales associate to what I think is the next level of that: passionate. I put the cheesehead with the chef in the kitchen. Very knowledgeable. They don’t always like to talk to customers, though. You find that one that loves to talk and is passionate about it, and you’ve got that symbiotic relationship that they could sell ice to an Eskimo, so to speak.
But you’re right -- finding that knowledgeable team member is tough, and when you get them, you’ve got to hold onto them and cradle that, do the classes. I’m learning a lot from you right there. These options, I know, are all out there, and, you know, we’ve got to make that happen and develop these individuals.
Dudlicek: It’s so fascinating to me how really deep and multifaceted the educational process is, from the retailers to the industry associations, to the vendors, to the suppliers, to the manufacturers. Education will bring the sales, because it’s not just about sales. I just love it when I see these stories online or in the mass media, saying the tricks that retailers use to get you to buy things -- like it’s a surprise that retailers want to sell you something -- that it’s all a big scam. The education is not about trying to get people to buy something that they don’t want or you’re trying to get rid of. It’s trying to teach them about what is there that they might not know about, and if they’re happy, everybody’s happy. And they will come back for more, because they’ll be able to look to their neighborhood retailer as someone who can help them enjoy life a little bit more.
DiCarlo: Absolutely. I call it culinary credibility. So every time you suggest something -- like we have a wine-and-cheese unit that we just built that has cheese on the top and wine cases on the bottom and on the top of it, so it’s refrigerated, so we don’t have to mess with the out-of-refrigeration stuff, which I hope we get a chance to talk about. And then we do the pairing cards with each of the three items. So every time a customer buys that wine and that cheese, goes home and tries it, their trust level in you goes up, just like you were saying, Reginald. And it’s culinary credibility, because that transfers to the rest of the store, too. I try and tell that to the store managers, which is funny. You know, the more wine and cheese you sell, the more culinary credibility you get with these categories, the more you’re going to be able to sell your prime beef program, the more you’re going to be able to sell your fresh pasta program, your exotic mushroom program, all the things that require that special level of knowledge.
And we have, at our store we’re building, we call it our cheese monitoring certification course, where we have, through some online pieces and some brick-and-mortar pieces, more like an on-the-job structured training, where the team member goes through that training program, and at the end of it, participates in a one-day certification class, where they’ve been through the whole program. I think that is really going to be a big step up for us. Before, we’ve done it where it’s just the certification program without the structured on-the-job training. We used -- IDDBA has a cheese basics course that we use as just an entry-level, “Hey, I’m interested in cheese.” OK, well, take this CPT and let’s see if you like it. Let’s see if you learn some new things or some new ways to engage customers about cheese, and then we kind of progress them through the training. But that’s so key. And as Jack was saying, you’ve got to find the right people, too.
We do full cut and wrap in most of our stores, and a lot of our team members are production-oriented. They want to put their head down and crank it out and make sure the walls look nice. We have some people who are really wonderful merchandisers, but not great with customers, and then we have some people who are just fantastic with customers and not the best merchandisers. So it’s really kind of creating a team within each store and having the right people in the right role to do the volume and to get the cheese in the customer’s mouth.
And the other thing you mentioned was, you being at Spec’s, when customers are coming in, they’re coming in probably for a celebration, for the most part. I know you guys have other stuff, too. But in a large multiformat store like we are, it’s harder to get a customer to buy a piece of Petit Frère [when they’re] coming in to buy Tide and diapers. And they may be a customer of the cheese shop during an event, but how do you get them to buy cheese on a Tuesday? And both of you guys hit it: with recipes. If you can get -- I mean, even something as simple as macaroni and cheese.
Robson: Which we’ve got [on] another third site, too: 30 Days, 30 Ways, Mac and Cheese.
DiCarlo: We had that Spring Green Colby, and I did a quick macaroni-and-cheese recipe, and some of our stores just really got inspired and ran with it, and we brought in a truckload and said, OK, let’s see how fast we sell this truckload. In a week and a half, we were out of cheese. And that was the big driver of it. The people kept [asking], “Can we print more of those recipes?”
Treuting: We started, in the store, if you get a chance to go over to our new store, it was --
Wolfe: Where is your new store?
Treuting: It’s on Baronne [Street in downtown New Orleans]. It’s about five blocks away from here. In fact, we’re having a little get-together tomorrow night, and everyone here is invited.
Treuting: Well, we’ve got some cheesemakers coming out, and we’re going to have some good New Orleans food.
But what we tried to do, on the recipe piece, if you walk the store, on our end caps we put blackboards, and what I did was, I’ll take current issues of magazines, and we’ll take these recipes and we’ll incorporate our products into those recipes in a 5-foot-by-3-foot menu format, and it just so happens, you’ll be able to find those items on that aisle, or they’ll tell you right where it is as well. So I guess it’s a blend of a couple of different programs that have been out there, but what we’re finding is, there are quite a few customers that actually are looking at that product. When we take our cheese and put it next to that recipe, we’re seeing those products sell on that aisle, so back to basics. Just telling them, you know, hey, here’s another way to make macaroni and cheese. It’s easy. You can do it yourself. Here’s the recipe. Five ingredients, 20 minutes of your time.
DiCarlo: And specialty retailers are better at it than, I believe, the bigger grocers, but we are getting better at cross-merchandising, and it’s just -- I know it’s back to basics, but you do a simple display. You do some Parmigiano-Reggiano, some asparagus, some lemons, with a quick three-ingredient recipe for roasted asparagus, and they both sell. You do a macaroni-and-cheese recipe, you do -- in my opinion, you’ve got to keep it simple. If the customer’s looking for that next level, they can engage with the team member and get, you know, how to make -- maybe it’s a fondue or maybe it’s, you know, whatever other recipe they want to make, but --
Treuting: In 10 minutes or less.
DiCarlo: Yeah. And the simple ones are fine. You can do the complicated ones, too. But the majority of people, you’ve got to get them with like the real easy stuff, how to bake a brie. And we had so much traction on how to bake a brie, mostly because the only person who was selling baking bries went out of business last year.
DiCarlo: Yes. So when Kintyre went out of business, there was nobody to buy a full ready-made baked brie from, so we said, OK, let’s go crazy with this as a promotion, to get people to do it themselves. We sold more that way than we did selling the already baked ones.
Pearson: You know, one of the biggest challenges, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but, you know, we are wine, spirits and finer foods, and one of the biggest issues we’ve had internally is the wine department, they get premiums on certain wines. They get an incentive to sell it, and so what the issue was, there was kind of a wall between the wine and the cheese side. And so what I had to do to kind of break the wall down and bridge the two together was when I would do the training, I would have some of the wine people come in and they would see how it all ties in together, and they started having a better appreciation of it, because it’s basic Cross-merchandising 101 for us, because it works well. We are the type of a retailer where you want to bring the two together, and so it broke that wall. But once again, it came all down. I think we probably can all agree on one fundamental element here, and that’s education. I mean, that’s truly what really impacts the whole category, and making it plain for customers, like you said. You know, most people associate a specialty cheese with an event. And now you can go home and cook mac and cheese.
DiCarlo: And getting the right people to do that -- the thing about training is, though, sometimes is that you have to find the people who want to seek out the extra level of knowledge. So we’re trying to establish a baseline. So we’re going to say everybody who’s in the department has to have a baseline of cheese understanding on how to sell these cheeses, and we teach them really simple selling concepts. Like one we always talk about is, we call it the “go-to cheese.” So when a customer is looking at that wall of 250-plus cheeses and they don’t know what they want, and you come up and you say, “Hey, would you like to try some cheese?” And they say, “I’m just looking.” And you say, “Well, what do you like?” “I don’t know.” When you get to that stalemate where they’re not helping you find the cheese, I always tell each team member to have a go-to cheese, right? Simple sales technique. Pick a go-to cheese in each category and try that one first, and pick a go-to cheese based on what you know the most and what you like the most and you can talk the most passionately about. And if I can get every one of my team members to pick three or four cheeses, that is a huge leg up.
Now, the extra level is to have at least one person in the department who can really talk about pairings, who can really understand a little bit of basic information about wine, basic information about cooking, and at least have one of those people, that we’ll call our cheesemonger, in the shop to really be there and be a resource for the whole store, for entertaining, recipes and everything else. But you’ve got to have the right person for that.
Treuting: That depends on how many people you can all dedicate to a medium-sized store, or selling cheese.
DiCarlo: Depends on if you ask me or if you ask the store manager, but I would --
Pearson: So true.
DiCarlo: You know, at the end of the day, single coverage does not work because of the production --
Treuting: You can’t produce and you can’t sell.
DiCarlo: We have a lot of production. I mean, we have, some of our big shops, they sell a lot of cheese, it’s a lot of cutting and, you know, you’ve got to -- if you’re cracking a wheel of Reggiano, you’re committed for about an hour and a half, at least, you know, to get that going. So single coverage only works at the slowest of times, so we try and have double coverage on all the busy hours and especially in the evenings. You know, the evenings are huge. It’s just at that 3 o’clock, or 2:30 really, when the moms are rushing home to pick up the kids is just a huge time, and right there, in the past, has always been, like, the drop-off point. Like, we always used to put our best people in the early shift, and they’re going home at 3 o’clock. Meanwhile, this is the time when you really need to be there to talk about the cheeses. So, yeah, you’ve got to overlap.
Treuting: You know, you’re talking times, and I think one of the questions on here was something about merchandising. We’re learning that this store here, in the center of New Orleans, brings in a large number of local chefs, and where they’ve decided, because of our rapid movement through the cheese, they’re comfortable, they’ve got that culinary confidence to come in and buy, so we’re merchandising certainly some smaller pieces that Mom and Dad can take home, but we’re leaving half-wheels sometimes or full wheels out, and we’re seeing the chefs come in and drive that program for us as well.
Dudlicek: And considering the culinary community you have around the store, that’s a nice claim to be able to make.
Treuting: It’s absolutely beautiful to see Tory McPhail or John Besh come in and do their morning shopping in your grocery store. But, you know, we’re also seeing in the afternoon, because of where we are downtown -- we don’t have a lot of people that actually live downtown. There’s a couple of medium -- not high-rises, but condominiums. But we’re getting, I guess, the yuppie, you know, 30- to 60-year-old, two-people household, come in. And, you know, we’ve got increased --
DiCarlo: Small-basket shopper?
Treuting: Yeah. It’s 5:30 to 7:30, and that ticket time is 17, 20 minutes, something like that. The experience is a lot different than the 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. experience. So that may take, well, give me your go-to cheese, pick that go-to cheese. Well, the guy coming in at 7 o’clock is going to spend 20 minutes with you and you need about six go-to cheeses. But the pretty side of that is we picked up -- we didn’t create the program, but AFI had a passport program similar to what you were talking about, so we’re offering this to the customers and to the team members, and it gives them a couple of cheeses from a couple of different places around the world, and in our case, we talk about it, they put their notes down and, you know, carry the book with you or leave it with us, and when you come back, get to know me -- my name’s Jack, and, you know, I’ll pull your book out of the back and we’ll talk about what you tried, what you liked, what you didn’t like, and then, “Here, now try this one.” So you’ve got to have that knowledge base. And sometimes you have to be able to have that one individual that can go deep.
DiCarlo: And here’s the thing. Some customers want to be engaged and some customers don’t want to be engaged. Because you have to have ways in your store to engage with customers that don’t require the team members. So we just did this thing, and I was against it, but I think it’s actually awesome. We did cheese flights, these little boxes. We have these little, like, almost like bento boxes. We put three different cheeses in it. We have five different recipes. One is a world, one’s a Spanish, Italian, French -- Italian, French, world, English. And they just have little, tiny -- I think it’s 2 ounces of each cheese, or a little less, depending on the price -- I kind of finagle that a little bit -- with some dried fruit, and they’re about six bucks.
Treuting: Total box or each piece?
DiCarlo: Total box. You know, they’re about six bucks. And customers are taking them -- the customer that doesn’t want to be engaged with, they’re buying these, they’re taking them home, trying them on their own time, and it’s really a great way to kind of have that silent salesman. ... This was actually a Market District program, where there were just tiny, little pieces of cheese, and it’s almost like a treasure hunt, because basically what the teams were doing was, when you’re cutting that wheel of Reggiano and a little piece breaks off, don’t break it off. Wrap it up, put it in the box. And we have this area in the case where, at Market District, where there will be random, little, tiny cuts, and they’re like three bucks, two bucks, and customers just loved that. You know who really loves that is the college kids, because they want to engage in the category, but they don’t have a lot of dough. So they want to feel smart. “Oh, look, wow, Petit Frère, I never -- what is that? That means “little brother” in French. What is that?” You know, and they take that home, it’s two bucks. It’s not a big commitment. They try it, and, you know, they get credibility from their friends, I guess. But they loved it. I mean, it’s a great program.
Dudlicek: Better than some of the things that age group could be consuming.
DiCarlo: Yeah, absolutely.
Wolfe: Gianfranco, I did want to ask you, and we had all talked about the importance of hiring enthusiastic staff and having good vendors come and help train the staff, but when those vendors come to your store and do those events, are you documenting that? Do you have someone in your staff writing about it for an internal blog, or an internal newsletter, or are you gathering information into a binder to help train your staff about that information, so that there’s some kind of documentation that you could help train new employees?
DiCarlo: It’s difficult. I mean, we have 230 stores, so it’s very difficult to -- those vendors, it’s very difficult for me to bring a vendor in to, say, Pittsburgh, and have 70 stores, 80 stores come to one location. We do that with our holiday food show, where we’ll bring vendors into our holiday food show, and that’s a great way for the -- it’s kind of set up like a regular food show, you know, where our team members walk around. Sometimes they actually buy, but, for the most part, they’re just tasting and interacting with the vendors, at least one time a year, and this way, everybody gets the same experience. I really have a hard time with the Market Districts I do, because I only have five of those. But with the regular Giant Eagle, it’s very difficult to get one vendor there to give a one-on-one presentation. So we try and reach out more regionally with some of the materials that Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board provides, with some other different ways of training, and myself, I wind up doing a lot of that as well. But the vendor piece is difficult for us to coordinate on more than a once-a-year basis. But we do talk about it.
Robson: One thing I might mention is that two weeks ago, our Cheesecyclopedia went online, and you don’t have to come to Wisconsin. You can now go online. It covers everything you ever needed to know about cheese, and the person that’s doing that can work at their rate, and then at the end, there’s an exam that’s like 140 questions, 160 questions, and then it’s graded, and they get a certificate from us, saying that they’ve taken this course and passed and so forth, and that certificate can be printed off right there, wherever they’re on the computer, and that’s just been in the last couple of weeks.
Treuting: That’s beautiful. Question: How many gallons of milk does it take to make 1 pound of cheese? You’d be amazed at how many people don’t know that.
Robson: And, you know, those kind of things, that’s what is always said about the -- yes, we’re the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, but what we want to see is the category grow, and that’s where the education comes in, is we want to see the category grow. Because we’ll get our share. We’re going to work -- I mean, we make 48 percent of the specialty cheese in the U.S.
DiCarlo: That’s about my ratio, too.
Robson: So we’re going to do things to get our share, but we want to see that per capita consumption continue to grow for cheese, and we also -- you mentioned goat cheese. Wisconsin leads the nation in the production of goat cheese, and while we’re funded by the cow’s milk producers, we try to help the goat and sheep guys in Wisconsin as well.
Dudlicek: Well, within the last few years, there was a significant dairy goat operation opened in Wisconsin, I seem to recall.
Robson: Yeah, in Woolwich, yeah. That originated in South America, then to Canada, and now to the U.S., so everything we do can be used in a generic or category way to help build the whole category. And then, like, our toolbox promotions are really designed to not just sell the cheese, but to sell things throughout the store, and, you know, get that bigger ring at the cash register, and you’d be amazed -- I mean, the potential, I think, is -- I don’t want to say unlimited -- there’s always a limit to something, but I get phone calls from people in Wisconsin who say, “Well, I spent the winter down in Florida and they didn’t have any Wisconsin cheese in the store.” I said, “Were you over at the dairy case? Were you by the deli? Were you at the specialty cheese?” There’s still a lot of people that have not discovered that specialty cheese department over by the deli. They’re going in there, the cheese is next to the milk, between the milk and the yogurt, and that’s the only place they look.
DiCarlo: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
Robson: So we’re trying to do things to help retailers.
Dudlicek: Not all cheese hangs on pegs.
Pearson: And not all cheese necessarily has to be just a limited amount, has to be refrigerated, when you can sit out a Grana Padano, and a lot of people don’t, you know, they associate no refrigeration to that’s not a good thing with cheese. So, once again, it comes back to education.
DiCarlo: Well, let’s talk about that, because I have a lot of competitors that merchandise a lot of cheese out of refrigeration, and then I try and merchandise -- I don’t merchandise a lot of cheese out of refrigeration because the water activity levels are not there. I mean, if you look at Table A and Table B, it’s not there. But there’s a lot of people out there that don’t follow the rules the way I follow the rules. And, to me, being a large supermarket, it’s almost like a competitive disadvantage, you know, when the shop down the street or the chain down the street is merchandising Manchego, six-month Manchego, out of refrigeration, and the acidity is not there, the water activity is not low enough, and I can’t do it.
Pearson: But that’s where, when you start educating your customers, they’ll be able to distinguish the difference in the taste of your Manchego versus one that’s been sitting out that hasn’t been refrigerated. So it all comes back to that.
Anna, I wanted to touch on the part you were asking about, the vendor training. You know, we have 130 stores, and out of 130 stores, we have about 50 stores that have cheese in them, and out of the 50, give or take a few stores, we have -- don’t quote me accurately -- but about 10 to 12 stores that have a full deli in them, where we can cut and wrap. What I have done is, I’ve gone back to the basics. Now, on the other hand, I’ve talked about social media and how we send information out that way, but for the staff, what I’ve done is, I’ve gone back from when I first started in this industry, 20-plus years ago. I’ve taken a five-inch binder, and what I’ve done is, I’ve put different sections in there. Then I get on the phone and I call that vendor, and I say, “Well, do you have Paese? Do you have color brochures on this item, that item, that item?” “Yes, I do.” “Well, I need 50 of them for each one of those items.” And what I do is I take that, and in conjunction with that, I do pairing information with it, and so -- because we’ve had a tremendous spurt of growth over the past couple of years, what I want is when -- I want something in the store that’s a reference point, so if we have turnover in personnel, we still have that reference point, because we need that, and people are visual, and so when you have someone that may not be as knowledgeable --
DiCarlo: Right, they’ve got a place to go.
Pearson: -- but may have some passion, they’ve got a place to go. They don’t have to pick up the phone and call me. You know, I’m not saying, don’t call me, but I get enough calls, so, you know –
DiCarlo: So, I mean, we do a lot of that, too, but our program is kind of like an archeological dig, because there’s layers on top of layers on top of layers.
Pearson: But you have so many stores. Your format’s different. You’re a supermarket, where I’m a specialty retailer. Where I can pull people in to the Houston downtown store, or I go to Austin, and right now I use those two locations, demographically, to pull people in from the areas around it, but it’s even becoming a problem with us, because now we’re in El Paso. I can’t pull someone from El Paso to come to Austin. We’re going to Lubbock, you know, we’re in Dallas. So it’s becoming a challenge, but I think that that manual will help it quite a bit.
DiCarlo: I would recommend this. I would say, take those manuals and put them on a tablet device. Because one of my biggest jobs is getting rid of old information. Because I cycle probably 16 to 17 percent of my variety every year; I mean, and some years, it’s more, and it’s such a challenge, because the old system that we had, none of the -- we have a product information form, and every time we get a new item, it’s got a product information form and it goes in the database, but that database is not connected to the POS system or the RP system. So when an item is deleted, that information still lives there, and it might not be right. So I come up with these -- I have team members saying, telling me that, you know, Parmigiano-Reggiano was only made six months or eight months out of the year. I say, “Wow.” Okay. In 1972, that was true, but it’s not true anymore. But they’re telling customers that, you know, and I have customers telling other people the story of Morbier and how it’s the morning milk in England. Not any more, not for a long time. But erroneous information is still out there. So I’m trying to automate it all together, because when I discontinue an item, when I add an item, I want it to be in an electronic file so that -- there’s so much waste. I had one girl in the office, and what she would do, she would probably spend four to six hours a week just managing old information, and that’s just not sustainable, so that’s -- you’ve got to start somewhere.
Pearson: But unfortunately, for us -- I mean, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but unfortunately, we’ve experienced a lot of growth, but we’re still working on our infrastructure, so our system is not there yet. Of course, I’d love to sit in my office and be able to send out new information, and then at the same time update information, delete stuff, so what I have to do is, we have merchandisers that are responsible for a certain group of stores. I lean on them a tremendous amount to make sure that that information’s disseminated. I do send out e-mails, but I also lean on them quite a bit to say, “I need you to work with your stores so that they can try to keep as updated of information as possible.” And that’s just the basics. When we get to the point where we can do that, I would love to be able to do it. Unfortunately, our computer system just isn’t there yet.
DiCarlo: The other thing is, like, if you buy -- say you buy Taleggio, right, and you buy it from Cas Arrigoni, and you get a better price from Forever Cheese, and you change, the information on that vendor supply thing is going to say such-and-such a vendor -- you know, such-and-such a manufacturer, and I got -- oh, I’ve got so -- I’ve got companies that have been out of business for 10 years, you know, that they’re still labeled on the cheese.
Pearson: Yeah, I can go in and change that in the system and send an e-mail out, because I can do that. That’s just in product maintenance, changing who the supplier is or the vendor is.
DiCarlo: But it’s hard. When you have a lot of cheeses in a lot of stores, it’s hard to wrangle all that stuff together, so, I mean, if somebody out there in the trades would create a nice program we could all use --
Pearson: I’ll write that down.
Treuting: I’m not sure we’re any closer to getting to the top of that mountain at all. I mean, I’m listening to where your system is, and mine sounds just like yours. I’ve still got that little wire thing where you push the bags across.
Pearson: We’re a little more advanced, but I --
Treuting: I feel that way. We’re not really there. You know, it’s -- when you’re experiencing that amount of growth and your internal system is, you know, giving it all it’s absolutely got, I’m finding the best tool is, again, that individual, and not so much focusing on who makes it or what it is, and understanding the core of the essence of what it should be. You know, here’s the mother sauces, you understand that. You understand the mother sauces? OK. Now we can talk about something else.
DiCarlo: But the problem with that, Jack, is that you could do that 10 years ago, when you were talking about the difference between his Taleggio and his Taleggio, and his Gruyere and his Gruyere, but now, how do you categorize Saxony Pastures? How do you categorize Petit Frère? How do you --
Treuting: Well, I think that’s that passionate, knowledgeable individual that can --
DiCarlo: It’s rough.
Treuting: At the end of the day, we are selling the product, and at the end of the day, we need to regurgitate -- you know, I’m hearing you, but we’ve got to be able to regurgitate some sort of information on any cheese, if not all --
DiCarlo: That’s a horrible word to hear, by the way. Don’t use that.
Treuting: Is that on the mic? Turn that off. (laughter)
Wolfe: He did not say “regurgitate.”
Dudlicek: Cows do it all the time. There’s no harm in that.
Treuting: But you get what I’m saying. I think -- you know, I’m looking at it, and I don’t know if we talked about it recently, but Kahn Academy, on TED, you know -- we’ve got something going on in our world of education right now where we might not have universities in 10 years, you know. We’re going to be learning from the basics. And people learn differently now. So if we’re able to put in place maybe how the cheese is made, maybe not, I don’t know -- there’s a lot to discuss there in how we’re going to teach people, but I think the basics of it needs to still be in the person that wants to self-educate, wants to take the next step, and say, “OK, yeah, I get it. This is the basics, but, you know, here’s what you do when you put orange with red.” This is what happens, so -- because we’re growing so fast, you’re growing fast, you’re growing fast, but also things are changing, so as we’re doing this, we’re doing that. And I can’t see our computer systems keeping up with where we’re at. I mean, I’ve got two phones, an e-mail, a girl at the desk sending me messages, and I don’t know what to answer, and I know my team members feel that way, too. Because I’m hitting them with e-mails, and here’s the vendor talking about this. But, you know, often I go in and I say, “Just slow down, you know, stop.” Put something in your mouth, chew on it. Now, let’s just talk about what we’re doing today. What’s the top three things? What’s the most important? And I want it to be clean. I want you to sell some product and I want it to be fresh. How do we get everything else in there? So while it sounds simple, it’s --
DiCarlo: It’s not simple at all.
Treuting: If it works --
DiCarlo: It’s not simple.
Treuting: It’s not. No, it’s one of the hardest things in the world to stop someone that’s moving at 3,000 miles an hour and say, “Understand this.”
Pearson: I tell them, clean, pretty and priced.
Treuting: Clean, pretty and priced -- yeah, exactly.
Pearson: It can be clean, but if it’s not merchandised well, it doesn’t look inviting.
Treuting: It isn’t going anywhere.
Pearson: It’s not going anywhere. And then if it’s not priced, customers -- you know, they want to look and instantly make a decision. They don’t want to have to go ask someone, “What is the price?” Because nine times out of 10, you’ll lose that customer. And they won’t buy it. So I just tell them, clean, pretty and priced. That’s it.
Wolfe: I did want to mention, in case you didn’t -- I wasn’t aware of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board program, but I know that the American Cheese Society, on their website, has the whole industry body of knowledge, which is free and accessible, so that might be a training tool, in addition to the wonderful materials at WMMB.
DiCarlo: That’s some high-level stuff.
Wolfe: Yes. But there is also the basic -- a cheese dictionary out there that could help people who are enthusiastic and --
DiCarlo: I’m taking the test this year.
Wolfe: Are you?
Treuting: That thing’s full, so --
Wolfe: And there’s almost a waiting list for next year, too.
Treuting: I think my teams are going to jump on your encyclopedia. You know, we’re a brand-new program.
DiCarlo: We use it. It’s real good.
Robson: You need to spend some time up there.
Treuting: Yeah. No, I need to get up there, and Linda’s, believe me, offered numerous times, that I’ve just got to make it happen. But I want to get my team members up there, that’s the important part. Because the reality is, they’re selling it.
Robson: And we could sit down with you and map out a program, how many people you are talking about, maybe what the first step would be, and then a step-by-step program for you.
DiCarlo: Don’t forget your store managers.
Treuting: Yeah, they need to be a part of it.
DiCarlo: Those guys are kings of their castles, and getting them to believe in what you’re doing with specialty cheese is -- well, in my environment, it’s huge. We have fresh leads in our stores, and those guys can drive a lot of sales, if they believe in it.
Treuting: We learned a lot with a new salumi program we just brought in, and we went from a pre-cut program, where the team member opens the box, puts it in the case, makes it into a pretty shape and puts a sign on it, and then the customer does everything else. And they were a little bit afraid to touch the cheese and talk about it and sell it. Well, as we’ve gone to a cut-and-wrap program, now you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Well, our store managers are a little bit nervous on this, you know. “What is it? How do you do it? Where do you put it? Where does it go? And how come there’s so much?” You know, “why did you cut eight pieces? Can you leave it all wrapped up?” And there’s a lot of nuances there. So with this salumi program, I took a step back and said, you know, I need my fresh department director to be in every single training that was there. You wouldn’t believe the response in the sales that we’ve got, on a brand-new program, because they’re walking through and they understand it. And I happened to see one selling the product the other day. You’ve got to have involvement on a couple of different levels there, so that the buy-in is complete.
Pearson: Yeah, we take it a step further. We also get the DMs to come in and buy in on it, because, you know, it’s foreign to them, and my retailer -- you know, most of those people are liquor people, and the specialty cheese and the specialty foods, it’s foreign to them, and so what I’ve been doing is pulling them in there, and they are coming out with a much better appreciation of those products. And so what they do is, now that they have a better appreciation of it, they convey that to their staff and show them. Because, you know, I tell them all the time, we may not turn as many bottles of bourbon, but our margin, our gross margin is a lot fatter, and if we sell 10 pieces of this, it’s the equivalent of you selling a whole lot more because of your margin, and so, I mean, it’s -- we’re in the business, so we may as well sell it.
DiCarlo: I’m actually leaving early to go talk to a store manager group. When our store managers go through training, we have a piece where the LOBs are involved. But the difference in the store -- I was just at a store and I put in my merchandising plan to put in rows of Saint Agur Blue, smoked blue -- the new smoked blue is really good -- in line with this lighter Birch, and -- in the meat department -- and before, that could be very difficult to do, but you go into the stores where I know the fresh leads, and they’ve been through my program, and I look up and there it is, right there. And you go to another store where you don’t necessarily know the guy, well, maybe it’s there, maybe it’s not. So, I mean, that’s huge, because how many customers have already passed the cheese shop, are going to buy burgers – “Oh, look, smoked -- I didn’t know they had smoked blue cheese,” and boom, there it is, you know. That makes so much difference, and everybody getting along and cross-merchandising the right way.
Pearson: So, for me, it’s coming into an exact way, for me, so I’m excited about that. I’ll have to push that in the other stores.
DiCarlo: So we were talking about the fact that it’s not just the classic and the DOP cheeses any more. There’s a lot of weird cheeses coming out. I mean, there’s a lot of cheeses that defy, you know, the conventional description. And how do you sell them? I mean, like Petit Frère. I mean, say you go sit down with George and his wife, and they make it for you and they -- with the mushrooms, and it’s amazing, everyone’s really into it. But how do you get your team members to understand that? How do you get the customer to understand these products that are popping up? And they’re so good. That Peppercorn Cheddar that Henning’s makes. It’s more like a parmigiana than a cheddar, but it’s just so delicious. So you have to have that sampling going.
Robson: Yeah, that’s one of the things that we’re working with some of the manufacturers on that have created some of these cheeses. Sid Cook.
Pearson: I mean, you can’t hardly keep up with this guy. He’s just incredible.
DiCarlo: He’s just incredible.
Pearson: That’s a genius --
Robson: He wakes up and he’s got a new idea for a cheese, though, is what it is. I mean, you’ve got to -- with Saxon, you know, what is Big Ed’s?
And we’ve talked to them about, you know, what is this? Because we need to know that when Linda goes in to -- well, she works with both of them, and Sue works with them. What is this cheese? Because so many of them now are just -- I mean, Bruce Workman talks about how he wanted to be a chef, and somewhere he got off into making cheese, and he says, “I really am a chef. I’m just using different tools to create these cheeses,” and, you know, he’s another one that comes up with something and it’s not in the book. But we’ve got to find a way to identify those cheeses and what are they, because the consumer -- you know, so many consumers, they can even see, well, this is a gouda -- they have a pretty good understanding of --
DiCarlo: Of the basics.
Robson: Blue cheese is called that for a reason, but you get beyond trying to teach them, this is gouda, this is cheddar, this is whatever. And then you get off into those creations.
DiCarlo: What’s Cocoa Cardona?
Robson: Yeah, exactly.
DiCarlo: So let me ask you guys this: How do you -- my merchandising used to be done mostly by country, with some bigger categories, so I have a blue category, I have a cheddar category, I have a Swiss category, and the rest are pretty much divided by country. That seems to work, as kind of like a hybrid between doing it both ways, but I know some -- I think ANCO goes by level of -- degree of -- or how it’s made. Like, they have a cooked, pressed section, which is just --
Pearson: Well, what they’ll do is they’ll have a cooked, pressed section. I don’t use their category management style. I benefit from some of their pre-cut products, but I still do it in the outside stores. When I say outside stores, [I mean] stores that we can’t cut and wrap. I do some of it by country of origin. You know, I’ll still have an Italian section. I’ll have an English section, a French section, a blue section. I’ll have goat adjacent to the blue, you know, those types of things. But then there are some that I put them together, and they are just kind of specialty cheeses. Now, in the stores where I can do cut and wrap, I still do things [by] country of origin, but then I also have an area where all of those specialty cheeses, regardless to where it comes from, that are extremely short shelf -- they go in one area and they’re highlighted. And so I’ve trained the customer to [know] that area right there is kind of like the specialty, the new. If I’m looking for something that I can go and buy and take back and impress my friends, that’s where I’m going to go. And so you kind of have a focal point there for that. Because if not, it will get lost and blended in with all the other stuff.
DiCarlo: So the dairy guys are lucky, right? So they can pull Nielsen data and they can have a marketing MBA and they can pull from that data, a decision tree, that says the customer is buying cheese first by this, then by this and then by this. It’s all UPC data. The industry is extremely poor in the amount of data that we have. I mean, FreshLook has some, right? But the amount of marketing data that we have to make these decisions, it’s more art than science, and that’s not sustainable. You know, you have to have somebody who’s really knowing what they’re -- or has a better guess than the next guy, I guess. Because you don’t really know. It’s very difficult to plot out a decision tree, so --
Pearson: That’s why they have us.
DiCarlo: Well, yeah, that’s true. I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job here, but somebody needs to figure out a way to use some of the marketing practices and marketing analysis practices that are used in the other categories in the supermarket to help the cheese buyer, because I want to know, why are customers -- I mean, I can ask them, and I’ve done focus groups. They’re expensive and not always accurate. But it seems to me like a lot of the other category managers have a lot more information to pull from.
Robson: Yeah, they do. They do.
DiCarlo: So how do we fix that? How do we, as an industry, fix that? I think that’s important, going forward.
Treuting: You know, for somebody that’s coming from the kitchen --
Pearson: That’s a big challenge for you, I can imagine.
Treuting: And that’s the same world that I’m in, but it’s directly in the world that I’m in right now, but to both of your points, I think I’m seeing a little success, based on that, just trying to be an artist with it, and putting my interpretation into what’s there. But you’re right. This sort of group, a shared group or a collection of people that can facilitate real trends, or maybe not trends, but actual dot-to-dot sort of graphs. And we may have to create that.
Pearson: Well, yeah, because, you know, comparing sliced Kraft cheese to a specialty cheese --
DiCarlo: It’s not the same customer.
Pearson: It’s not the same customer. And the frequency of those customers shopping and buying those items, there’s no comparison.
Treuting: And they’re kind of commodity-driven, as well.
Treuting: I mean, we’re looking at, you know -- my event season is a lot longer than some other cities might be. I mean, from the end of September to when the Saints win the Super Bowl this year, we’ve got six months of event season. Did you get that? Was that on? But seriously, it’s different.
Robson: I heard it mentioned a few minutes ago of some of the information that IDDBA has, and then we have information, and ACS has information, and then some of the distributors, like ANCO and others. Let me kind of noodle that question a little bit, and it might be something that we could maybe take a lead role in, because we have a pretty extensive market research department. And maybe it could be coordinated with some of these others that are also gathering information and providing it to retailers and so forth, instead of there being six studies going on. Maybe there’s a way to pull it together and there be one, to figure out who the customer is and why they buy the way that they do, what are the drivers and so forth.
DiCarlo: You know, I asked the big companies, like Vitalis and Vondran and -- I mean, I asked everybody, and a lot of people tried, but what came back at the end was kind of incomplete. So when doing the category plans for a market analysis approach, it was very difficult. You know, I felt like the little stepbrother. Everyone else had bar graphs and stuff and all that. And where it comes into play is I’ll pick a cheese, like I just -- an example was a Sicilian Pecorino. My boss says, “Well, why do we need this?” “Because it’s good.”
Pearson: You’ve got to say, “Because my competition” --
DiCarlo: Yeah, it’s a great cheese. It’s a nice eating cheese. It’s a reasonable price point. And we don’t have a lot of eating Pecorinos. In Italy, they eat Pecorino all the time. Here, we grate it up and put it on pasta. So we need a Pecorino. We have Pecorino Toscanos, but they’re expensive. This is the same. Pecorino’s cheaper. But, you see, that’s me trying to use my information that I have about what I think people might like and what some other people in some other places like. But I don’t feel like --
Robson: Well, let me work on that, because I spent a lot of years in the ice cream business before moving more towards cheese, and the person buying Häagen-Dazs is not the person buying the 5-gallon pail. And you look at the ice cream category, and they’re all selling. And in some cases, I know, when my kids were little, I bought the Häagen-Dazs and hid it in the back, behind the 5-gallon pail.
DiCarlo: I have to do that with cheese, for my daughter.
Robson: So you’ve got different drivers for different products, and in order to properly merchandise and reach out to those different consumers, one-size-fits-all doesn’t work, and that’s a lot of what’s happening, is you’re doing this broad merchandising and trying to segment it. When I was with Frito-Lay, we did a lot of segmentation studies, because the Doritos buyer might not necessarily be the Lay’s potato chip buyer.
DiCarlo: And these guys -- I was jealous, because these guys had such great information, and I was like, I don’t -- I mean, space on shelf even. I mean, not just variety, but how about space on shelf?
Treuting: Position on shelf.
DiCarlo: Yeah, position on shelf, all these things. I mean, they have that information to where they know, you know. As a cheese buyer, I could just guess.
Treuting: But our drivers are different, though, and it goes back to No. 1. You said Giuseppe and I think you said the Food Network. Those are our drivers. And I think that’s how, collectively, our buyer is buying sometimes, and dead on. I mean, my boss, the owner of the company, the other day, shoots me an e-mail, “Are we carrying raw-milk cheese?” I took a picture of it, sent it to him. How did he get this? Food Network. I got an e-mail a couple of months before that, “Cannata’s, down the street, has this. Do we have that?” So --
DiCarlo: But you can’t do that, because then you’re swinging in the wind, you know, because there’s so many different things coming up with the media. Somebody says raw-milk cheese is good, someone says raw milk-cheese -- if you go to an ACS conference, you will probably get raw-milked to death, because some people love it and some people -- but, I mean, I agree with you, you have to follow the trends, and that’s what they need us for, but, you know, at some point, when you get to 200-and-some stores, you have to --
Robson: It’s difficult.
DiCarlo: If everyone else is using market analysis and you won’t have any information to base those decisions on, you need to reach out to somebody bigger than just yourself to help you get that stuff.
Treuting: And the true challenge is if you’re purging 16 or more percent annually --
DiCarlo: Oh, yeah, way more.
Treuting: With 200 stores, it’s tough; 40 is also tough. And so it’s a different show, but, you know, it’s a little different, and I’ve got to purge by a lot more than 16 percent, because I’m hitting that moving target, because I don’t have 240 stores to collect that information from. I collect it on 38, which is really 30, in my world, and my target is a lot smaller, so it’s a lot of variables.
Pearson: And then, for me, you throw in the growth, so that skews my numbers also. You know, I’m either anticipating for the new stores or I’m trying to factor in the ones that just recently opened. So, you know, when I’m trying to do my forecast -- I mean, it’s just -- and then there are so many variations where, you know, the size of the store, the size of the case is different, so I have so many different variables, and unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. And so, yes, I appreciate it, because, you know, I’ve been exposed to that data, but for us in specialty foods, our customers are totally different. They may shop and buy that today. They may not buy it again for two months. So it’s not -- it just depends on the season, it depends on the customer. There’s so many variables that come into play, where someone that’s buying cheese to make sandwiches, because school is in, that’s totally different. You know, not comparing the two. But the reality of it is, you know, you’ve got a commodity item versus --
Treuting: There’s got to be something there.
Pearson: But there’s some people --
DiCarlo: Well, look, I don’t think they will ever replace the intuitive nature of the category, because you really do have to know those things and, you know, it’s even more than at the store level. Like, there may be a store, you know, where that is great for back-to-school, and there be another store that’s -- like your Baronne Street store is not going to be good for back-to-school.
Pearson: That’s not your clientele.
Treuting: No kids anywhere in the neighborhood.
DiCarlo: But I have to have the mix that they can pull from, and I’ve just got to think that there’s some data that we’re not getting that might help us make our jobs easier or grow our sales.
Pearson: Well, what I always ask for, because I can’t get that information, what I try to do is I try to get a feel of the demographics of what the clientele and the income is in that area to kind of get a feel of -- you know, kind of anticipate, well, is this going to be more of a specialty or is it going to be the basics? So I try to utilize, you know, that information to help me. But then I’ve got to tell you, I go back to the fundamentals. I’ll give you an example. We’re opening another store in San Antonio. You know what I had to do? I had to take a day, drive up there, go see what competition they had in the area. And kind of make some decisions based on that, you know.
DiCarlo: And maybe take a look at how much they’re charging for Cotija.
Pearson: Oh, absolutely, all of that. Absolutely. You know, to make sure, you know, your pricing is in line or you’re doing better than them. But until there is some information that we have access to, I mean, you just kind of stick with the basics, and that’s -- once again, that’s why they have us, whether it’s five stores or 250 stores. It keeps us in a job.
DiCarlo: Let’s go back to that single selection. So, let’s take a good cheese. Like, let’s take -- what’s the last cheese you bought?
Pearson: Last cheese I bought? Some product from BelGioioso. What is it …
DiCarlo: The Burrata?
Pearson: No, not the Burrata. It begins with an “S.”
Pearson: Yeah, that was it.
DiCarlo: I love that cheese.
Pearson: Crescenza. But to my staff, it’s --
DiCarlo: So how do you say to -- if someone would ask you, “Reginald, why did you buy this BelGioioso Crescenza-Stracchino,” why did you buy that? I mean, is the answer “Because, well, this is really new and it’s good?” I mean, is it going to be -- or is there any hard data that says --
Pearson: There is no real hard data, to be quite honest with you. I had an opportunity, I was exposed to it. I thought it was an awesome cheese. And, you know, they trust my judgment on making those decisions. Now, I’m the first to say, if it doesn’t work, well, we tried that one and it didn’t work, but I can’t go and tie my hands and be afraid. Because what I attempt to do is, I’d like for us to be the first. If we establish a customer base and we make them aware that we have it, yes, people are going to jump on the bandwagon, but I’ve got those customers that expect and look to us to have those things. So when I do decide I’m going to bring an item like that in, I strategically will bring it in, but I may not necessarily apply it in all the stores. You know, there’s a rhyme to my reasoning and the madness to what I do. Unfortunately, a lot of it is personal knowledge, experience, over the years. I’m not a babe in this industry, so when I make those decisions -- and I’ve got to go with my gut, but I also have to apply the business aspect of it. There are some stores, I may say, well, absolutely, I’m not going to put that in there.
DiCarlo: So how do you teach that to your replacement?
Pearson: That’s the problem. How do I teach it to, not my replacement, but how do you get people in the store that are dealing with customers on a regular basis. My problem is, I have all these great ideas and things that I want to truly implement, but a lot of it requires me to be hands-on, and at the end of the day, I can only do so much. And so it’s a level of frustration that you cope with. Just because, I mean, it comes from personal knowledge and experience, and that’s why I harp on exposing staff and customers, expose their palate to the product.
DiCarlo: So it’s like, how do you train a category buyer or a category manager to be a cheese category manager? It’s difficult. And the reason I say that is because, you know, you want to be successful, you want to make sure that there’s somebody behind you that can take your job when you move onto the next one, or when you move onto the next rung on the ladder, or however it works, but you find that in this category, you can’t take a category manager from cereal and move them over, because they’re not going to speak the same language, because there’s not that data pool.
Pearson: But what you do is, you pull someone that has been a cheese person for your company for quite some time that -- and I have two buyers that work for me, and I shouldn’t say this, but I’m going to say it: I have a great deal of respect for one of them’s knowledge when it comes to the product itself. But from a business aspect of terms and profits and all of that, they’re not as knowledgeable, as sharp on that, so that’s where I fine-tune them on that. What you do is, in our industry, you find someone that has been exposed to the product, they’re familiar with it, their palate has been exposed to it, they’re a person that can go and sell the product to the customer, regardless of what it is, whatever type of cheese it is, but may not be able to do a presentation. That’s the person that you get, because they have the level of enthusiasm. You can teach them the business aspect of it. You can’t do it vice versa. You can’t teach them that personal knowledge, from a taste standpoint of view.
DiCarlo: Unless they actually taste it.
Pearson: Exactly. So that’s kind of how I feel. You know, if I’m grooming someone, I’m always looking for that person that has been there, that is committed, that takes ownership of their department. That’s the person that we want to get, because, you know, it takes time to be exposed to those items, to develop that knowledge, and it’s not something that you can read in a book and get.
Dudlicek: We’ve crisscrossed so many of the topics that we had in the lineup today. This has been a fantastic discussion. And I want to make sure everybody has an opportunity to enjoy more of the wines and cheeses we have. But I did want to discuss for a little bit the significance of social responsibility and sustainability in consumers’ cheese selections. Are the folks coming in for specialty cheeses, are they asking these questions about where the cheese comes from, how it’s made, and are your staffs knowledgeable on that end, and are your suppliers providing that story?
Pearson: Well, I can only speak for my company. I am requiring involvement from the vendor/manufacturer to provide that information, not only in a written form, but also by doing the staff training, by having them come and share those things. Because the more someone hears that, the easier it becomes for them to repeat it. Because that’s what’s needed. Now, from a customer standpoint of view, are they coming in and asking about sustainability? That’s kind of a yes or no. You have some customers that, if they’re coming in and they’re already willing to spend $15 a pound and 20 bucks a pound on some cheese, they already have a pretty good idea of most of that stuff. And this is what I told my staff. I said, if someone comes in and they’re willing or they’ve told themselves, “I’m coming in and it’s OK if I see the price and I’m not, you know, scared away from it and I’m willing to buy that product,” they are expecting for you to know about this product. Because if you’re unfamiliar with it, the likelihood of them still buying that $20 a pound piece of cheese, they’re not going to do it.
So to answer your question, one, are customers coming in and asking about sustainability, I can’t say so much in reference to the cheese part. I can speak, because I’m also responsible for the caviar, they do ask about it on that, because nine times out of 10, people that are buying caviar, their level of expertise in the food aspect is a little higher. So my experience has been that, no, they’re not asking so much for the sustainability, but they will ask things -- for example, a lot of them are aware of the fact that -- it’s not scientifically documented, but people that are lactose intolerant, I’ve sold people and they’ve had quite success in digesting the Woolwich Goat Cheddar. So they’re asking those types of questions. They’re asking about the flavor of a goat cheese, or what’s the difference between a 2-year-old cheddar or a 2-year-old gouda, what’s the difference between some processed smoked -- you know, I have an example. I carry an exact-weight item, a Tillamook Smoked Cheddar. Well, the way they smoke their cheese, it causes it to sweat, and most people see that calcium on there and they think that that’s mold. So I’ve had customers inquire. I’ve had to teach the staff that that’s not mold. That’s actually salt that’s coming out of the product. But not understanding the process, they didn’t know that before. The customers are asking that kind of stuff. They’re not automatically jumping and thinking that it’s mold on it. So not so much about sustainability, but they are asking questions, and it’s because of the Food Network and all of these other cooking shows that are pointing these things out.
Treuting: On my side, I’m going to agree with those, but I’m also going to influence my customer on what I feel is an industry trend and it isn’t going to go anywhere. It’s a slow-food movement, the customer that wants to know where the food comes from, traceability. So in the last year, we’ve really redirected our program away from outside-country cheeses. Good or bad, I don’t know yet, and I’m in a -- I’ll take that when it comes to me and give that knowledge back to you guys. But we’re going to focus on Wisconsin. We’re going to focus on the American cheesemakers, and so farm it’s been very well received. The culinary community is jumping right in, and I’m watching the cheeses on the Food Network, and they’re talking about specifically where it comes from. Because the reality is the chef that works seven days a week only gets a chance to go visit the guy in his backyard, and they’re not really getting over to Italy anymore, and I’m not sure that -- and I’m going to -- where the French wine snobs were, I’m the American snob, and pardon me if I’m going off a ledge right now, but I’m very passionate about what we do, and I think we’re doing it better or as good as anyone else in the world, in cheese, food and wine, and all that it is, and we can stand behind the product. And our customers, when we give that story to them, that we’ve got a master cheesemaker making this cheese, they gobble that up. They don’t really --“Really? I didn’t even know about that.” And now we’re selling them, not a product, but a piece of history and a piece of feel-good, and that’s the repeat customer for us.
Pearson: We do that at our cheese festival where we have -- Kerry comes in from Henning’s Cheese, and he does that. They at that point have a great appreciation of the product, and that’s what that’s all about, is teaching the customer about where it comes from, what it’s about, and what’s the difference between this one versus another, similar cheese. So from that standpoint of view, yes. You know, and what I hear from you is you have a lot of chefs that come in and are buying products, and I can appreciate and understand --
Treuting: Well, my market is very food-rich, yeah.
Pearson: So your level, it’s different from what I experience in Houston, so --
Treuting: Yeah, yeah. But, you know, it’s doing well. And, again, I invite everybody in the group to the little event. We’ve got an aeroponics garden on top. And we’re the first in the country to do this, and we kicked it off with a local board group, people that have committed to eating foods only 200 miles in radius from where we’re at, and we expected 50, 75 people. Well, we ended up with 200-and-something people, and the commissioner of agriculture was, “Boy, this is the future. We need to know where our food comes from.”
So to answer the question, in green, and agreeing with Reginald there, they may not be coming in asking for it, but if they know you’ve got it, they’re excited about it.
DiCarlo: Right. It’s a great way to layer the story. Because what were we saying? Sell the story, right? So a layer of the story could be the 800-year-old tradition from, you know, in Collecchio, in Emilia-Romagna, or it could be about, you the Hennings and that family and how they have been making this cheese for the last hundred-and-something years. I mean, it’s about layering the story to get the customer to add value. Because really, the question that comes down to me is, why is cheese so expensive, right? The question is, there’s always going to be a faster pussycat over in the dairy section, for me, OK. There’s always going to be cheap cheddar over there. Why is my cheddar $3, $4, $6 a pound more than that cheddar? Let me tell you why. Because this is done with generational artisans. Master cheesemakers have made this cheddar. Or this comes from -- this is hand-selected, or this particular Curado-style cheese is from here or there. You have to layer the story, and I believe that that sustainability is not going away, and that’s just another layer that we can glom onto, and especially for the American artisan cheeses.
I think, 10 years ago, if you would have said, you’re going to an American cheese convention, they would have thought that everything would be individually wrapped, you know. But now it’s much more -- people are understanding that we do make really great cheeses in a lot of areas in this country.
Dudlicek: From my personal experience, it’s the difference between Glanbia’s giant plant out there in Idaho and the pole barn behind Fiscalini’s cowshed.
Dudlicek: Where the bandage-wrapped cheddar is made by their one master cheesemaker.
DiCarlo: Right, right. But you know what? It’s, like, for example, I buy my Parmigiano-Reggiano from a single source. I buy it from Caseificio. Every piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano at Giant Eagle is from Caseificio, at 2400. There’s a father, Luigi, and his son, Marco. They’re the cheesemakers. They put their hands in every single vat of cheese, at all 230 of my stores, and they adjust, when the time is right, to cut the curd mass, because it changes, seasonally. When I was there in 2010 or 2009, I asked Marco when his next day off was, and he said to me, “February 11, 2011.” And I said, “Marco, how do you know that date?” And he said, “I’m getting married, my sister’s getting married, and my parents are celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, so we only have to close the cheese plant for one day.”
Dudlicek: Those are the kinds of stories that people want to know.
Pearson: And he’s telling the truth. So many of them are that way.
DiCarlo: And I have a picture on my screensaver, of Luigi looking at his son, and Luigi learned from his father, who learned from his uncle, so that makes Marco the fourth generation, looking at his son, and he’s got this smile. I call it pride, you know. And telling that story, trying to tell that story is so difficult, to get that out to the customer, but when you do get a chance to talk to the customers about that, they’re not going to ever buy a green can of sawdust ever again. It’s hard to tell. And that’s a sustainability story, too, right?
DiCarlo: That’s about knowing where your food is from. So even though it’s from Italy, it’s --
DiCarlo: And they have a new system now. They’re putting QR codes in every wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, starting about six months ago. So every wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano, you’ll have a QR code on the bottom of it, and you can hit it, and it will come up in Italian, and it will go back to the specific field where that milk was collected for that Caseificio. I mean, talk about being ahead of the curve in traceability.
Pearson: Absolutely. Well, I mean, you don’t even have to go that far with sustainability. I mean, look at, you know, a master cheesemaker. Look at Sid. I think, when Sid goes on, he should donate his brain to science, seriously. I mean --
Dudlicek: That would make it head cheese. (laughter/groans)
DiCarlo: Joe Widmer is the same way. When Joe talks about cheese, I just get goosebumps, man. I’m like, really, seriously? That’s awesome. And everybody now -- I don’t want to make this about Wisconsin, but everybody in Wisconsin, when we go up there, they get it. They understand that I’m the retailer, I’m the last person to touch that cheese before it goes in the customer’s hands, and they get it. They understand. We field our team members, and sometimes it’s a team member that has only been with us for a year or, you know, they were part-time, they just got a full-time position, and they leave, thinking, hey, I really am important. I’m not just selling cheese. I am -- it’s like a sacred trust, because everybody along that food chain, from field to fork, you know, and, man, they come back energized.
Pearson: It’s a family.
Dudlicek: And talk about bringing the story to where the people are, at Carr Valley, in particular. You have all these wonderful cheese companies in Wisconsin that are open to the public, people can go visit them, but they’re not necessarily on the beaten track. Carr Valley opens a retail store on the strip in Wisconsin Dells, so you can get your Minnetonka moccasins, your tickets to the Tommy Bartlett Water Show and some awesome specialty cheese on the same block.
DiCarlo: I love that. I like the little test kitchen back there. It’s cool. But, you know, here’s a question, I guess, for the wider group, is, with what other vehicles, can you get the story out? Because it’s a high-tech world, and you have this much attention span, and what I just said about Marco and Luigi, I can’t physically say to everybody, and I’ve tried to do it. I have a QR code on my signage, so when they come by, you can scan the QR code, it brings up Marco and Mario making the cheese, but that’s only going to touch so many people. You know, how do you really get the story out of why it’s so good, or why, you know, the Crave Brothers and their sustainable digester that powers the whole town, and, you know, all these great stories. How do you get it out to the customer on an accessible level?
Treuting: I think you have to, and it’s hard to do. You need to get those stories to -- if you eliminate the team members completely, because I’m listening to you, and I’m going over in my head and I’m thinking back to this other company we used to work for, they collected it and put it on the Internet site, so team members could go to it, and every team member listened to Sid Cook, and the story and how this happened. And if you were hired on the day where the store trainer wasn’t there, so what? You still had a computer, and you were still able to look at it.
But reaching out personally, there are a handful of cheesemakers that are in town right now, I met them in Denver, and they don’t go to the IDDBA, but they said, you know what? I’ll come down. You’re selling my product, you’re trying to do the right thing. And they did. And I can’t imagine they’ll make that trip a lot of times, but looking back at it, this little event should have been a lot bigger. We should have maybe not even used that invitation for IDDBA, because we all know who they are and we all know that story. Maybe I should have said, hey, Allison, why don’t you come down here and let me cook dinner for you and 50 people, and it’s on us. And you come in and you tell some handpicked people the story, great customers, you know. You’re right. If you remove the team member piece, it’s hard to get that passion in that story. You went to Italy to get it.
Pearson: Yeah. How do you convey that to everybody else?
Treuting: How do you get it to your customer? That’s tough.
Wolfe: But I think what you’re touching on is, and from the specialty retail side, which I cover in The Gourmet Retailer magazine, we’re seeing a lot of cheese festivals, like the one that Spec’s is organizing, throughout the country, and we’re also seeing more retailer events, like a Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread and Wine in Chicago. They just had their second annual producer festival at the French Market, and the attendance doubled. Last year, it was 5,000. This year, it was over 12,000 people that went to that, and it was a free event, and they had producers come, of course, from Wisconsin.
We’re seeing more and more events like that, that are putting producers in direct contact with consumers. You know, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival that Allison Hooper started, up in Vermont, sells out every year. There’s people begging to get in to that thing the day of, so there’s a lot of enthusiasm.
Pearson: One of the things that we’re doing, one of the things that I’m finding now, is there are a lot more of the cheese companies, because we are a wine retailer also, they’re coming to me and they’re saying, well, I got with this wine company and we’re going to do a demo together, and they bring it to me, as opposed to me having to coordinate it myself. And what we’re also doing is, we do a lot of tastings, on the liquor side, so what I’m doing now is, once again, once a quarter, what I’m also doing now is, I’ll do a beer-and-cheese class, for customers to come in. I’m doing a wine-and-cheese class, for customers to come in.
DiCarlo: That’s grass-roots is what I’m hearing.
Pearson: Yeah, and it’s working, because they’re coming in. And also, you’ve got to understand the clientele, and I like to use Houston -- they are accustomed to coming in for those liquor tastings, so they’re kind of getting to kill two birds with one stone, because we are now doing [what] we’ve always done, depending on what city, Tasting Tuesdays, Wine Wednesdays or whatever the case may be, so we’ve always had a following on that side. But what I’m now doing is, I’m bringing in the fold with the liquor side, I’m bringing in the cheese and the other foods and pairing them together, and it’s working.
So you’ve got to do those events. It’s no different than pieces of art on the wall. You’ve got to have a gallery. What do you do? You have a showing. So that’s what you’ve got to do is, you’ve kind of got to have a showing periodically, to get people in, to do all those things. You’ve got to look at it that way. Because our specialty cheese, it’s an art. It really is, and that’s why it costs more than a commodity item, because it’s truly an art. And I’ve just got to say, from my experience over the years, in dealing with people that are in the cheese business, and I’m talking about the farm to the plant, those people are truly committed to that industry. It’s a unique art, and my concern is the sustainability of it. It’s no different in the state of Texas. There are not a lot of people coming out of college that are going into the farming business. They’re not going and raising cattle, and I just think that, because you’re talking generations of people, their father and their grandfather, and now they’re working in those plants, doing the same thing, and so it’s kind of --
DiCarlo: I think it’s up to us really, to keep that market. I mean, you have artisan producers today, when you didn’t have that 15 years ago. So it really has kind of gone backwards a little bit, away from the centralization, to being able to be more sustainable for the small guy, if we have the market for it. So we’ve got to be able to price it right and we’ve got to be able to sell it right, so that those people can make money and we can keep doing it, because -- and I think the ACS is just great. The ACS is just awesome. And you see those -- the cheese tasting, at the end, is open to the public, and it’s a madhouse. I’m not even going this year to that part, because you can’t even get up --
Pearson: It’s in North Carolina this year.
DiCarlo: You’re like, “I got one, I got a piece. I’m excited.” You know, because so many people are in that thing. You can’t even get to -- but as that goes to different cities, I mean, that’s another kind of way of exposing it. But I’m hearing from you guys, grass-roots is the only way to really --
Pearson: Right now, yeah, for sure.
DiCarlo: I mean, tech is coming along, but you know, I just -- I feel like I’ve done a crummy job -- I have such a great story to tell on my Parmigiano, and what percentage of my customers buying that cheese and what percentage of my total customers that don’t buy that cheese that don’t know that story, and how do I get it to them, and how do I sell the story? So I’m always --that’s a question that’s always coming up in our daily lives.
Wolfe: I think of social media is great, especially if you have a wealth of followers on Facebook and Twitter. You know, sharing that through -- I mean, that’s a perfect story to -- you know, in a little condensed blurb. It’s a great little Facebook post.
Treuting: And what about Vimeo? I mean, you’re able to --
DiCarlo: What’s that?
Treuting: Vimeo is self-produced videos, basically, so you ask a cheesemaker to talk to an audience of 50 people, but they’re not even there. Or you talk to a cheesemaker, and they’re not even there, but you field those questions, I guess, like a reporter would. You sit and you have that conference with them, and then, hey, come in tonight, we’re going to taste this cheese. No. 1 is this. No. 2 is this. And you match your wine or your liquor or your beer with it, put it on a big screen. Social media is definitely the way it’s going to happen. There’s no doubt. It’s impossible, with the hours, that these people that are so passionate about --
Pearson: Yeah, it’s hard for them to get away.
Treuting: And I’m not even sure they have to leave their home.
Pearson: They really don’t want to. They don’t. In the meantime, keep it clean, pretty and priced.
Dudlicek: Well, with that, I think that’s a good stopping point. I hate to cut it short, because it sounds like we can go on forever. But I want to make sure everybody has time to enjoy [the cheese samples] behind us. So I just want to give a big “thank you” to our retailers who participated today, and a big “thank you” to the WMMB for participating and for coordinating the wine-and-cheese tasting, [and] a big “thank you” to Linda [the court reporter] for keeping up with all our ramblings this afternoon.