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The "Buy American" mantra is boosting sales of everything from California Cabernet to Chevrolets. Better throw in Chevre and Camembert too, for sales of American-made cheeses have taken off like never before. The driving forces are new varieties of artisan cheeses, better educated consumers who learn about cheeses from restaurant menus and TV cooking shows, vastly improved quality, and a renewed sense of patriotism.
The concept of an American cheese is no longer limited to cellophane-wrapped orange slices, or bricks of Velveeta and cheddar. Now it conjures up images of gold-medal winning Asiago, Gorgonzola, and Gruyere. And that is being witnessed not only in the best urban cheese shops, but in the aisles of the local A&P too.
"Large chains are beginning to go to the smaller American cheesemakers and asking them for their product," says Laura Werlin, a Berkeley, Calif.-based authority on cheese and author of the new book The All American Cheese and Wine Book: Pairings, Profiles & Recipes, published by Stewart, Tabori & Change, New York.
"I'm seeing more and more artisan cheeses crowding out the more conventional cheeses on supermarket shelves," Werlin says. "As I talk to more artisan cheesemakers, they are telling me that they are getting more and more requests for their cheeses, and in some cases, the biggest issue for them is how to meet demand."
Another problem is transportation. "Right now there is no efficient transportation system around the U.S. for cheese," Werlin says. "And as a result, cheeses get to market the most expensive ways, either UPS or FedEx. That is what keeps access to these cheeses down in terms of the masses."
But better cheeses are finding their niche. "Processed American cheese varieties are experiencing declines in consumption and consumers are switching over to natural cheese products and trading up a bit in their cheese choices," says Dana Tanyeri, director, national product communications, at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc., a Madison-based trade group supported by local dairy farmers. "I think that is in part because there is so much going on in terms of wonderful domestic-produced cheeses. People are finally discovering them. We sort of laugh here in Wisconsin because we've been making boutique cheeses long before they became cool, and now it is the hottest thing going."
To promote Wisconsin-made cheeses, the WMMB does at least two major national campaigns each year. April's campaign was to kick off the association's new logo, and another promotion is being readied for the fall.
"Cheese has never been more glorious," beams Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, also in Madison. "From small farms to large co-ops, from Vermont to Wisconsin to California and all points in between, cheese is experiencing a rebirth."
A lot of that rebirth is being driven by improved quality. "You only have to look at the competition in the World Championship Cheese Contest to see the level of expertise and exceptional quality in U.S. cheese production," says Christison. "The standards are tough, and the winners are the best in the world."
And that's why American-made cheeses are now pushing their European counterparts off the shelf. "Any store that has a separate cheese case is carrying more and more of these American cheeses," says Werlin. "That means fewer of the generic imports, which in many cases are no different than our generic American cheeses. It is just that because they come from Europe, people just assume that they are going to be better. But when you can get a cheese that's made right here and made on a smaller scale, it is almost certainly going to be better."
A renewed sense of patriotism is also helping. "The large chains are standing up and taking notice about the impact of American cheese, and it certainly, very coincidentally, dovetails with the times where people are much more interested in buying everything domestically," Werlin says. "American cheese not only answers that call, but it answers it in a very flavorful way. It is in no way opting for an inferior product. In fact, it is for the most part superior."
An environment in which fried potatoes are now called Freedom Fries can't help but foster sales of American-produced cheeses, Werlin says. "If people just try these cheeses, chances are they are going to want to go back to them," she says. "The biggest hurdle is trying something new. When it comes to cheese, people are a little bit intimidated, and they want to stick to cheeses that they know. If patriotism is causing them to try cheeses they may not otherwise have tried, my guess is that they will keep going back to them."
But before they spring for that $17.99-a-pound Crottin, most Americans first become acquainted with mainstream cheddars, Colby, and Swiss that they buy in bricks and chunks in the self-service dairy case. But even there, cheeses are changing. "Offering consumers variety has become an absolutely necessary and integral part of the overall cheese category," says Kevin Ponticelli, e.v.p. and general manager, Kraft Cheese Division, at Kraft Foods in Northfield, Ill.
"From sweet to savory, it's the flavor variety that keeps consumers interested and spurs purchase interest at shelf of something they may never have tried before," he says. "Today's consumers are looking for sophisticated, gourmet flavors, so we've created Kraft Chunks in new Roasted Garlic Cheddar, Cheddar Bacon, Smokey Swiss & Cheddar, and Pepper Jack flavors. Our newest flavor of cream cheese, Philadelphia Mixed Whipped Berry, has also been popular."
"Like in any food category today, everybody is looking for more flavor," says Tanyeri. "In terms of using cheese as an ingredient, adding something like a peppered cheese can change the nature of a dish or give it a little more kick. Aged cheeses are another trend we're seeing come on very strong. Our cheesemakers are reporting much more demand for older, aged cheese products that have more intense flavor. The longer it ages, the more intense the flavor gets."
Aging aside, time—or rather a shortage of—is also driving sales. "One clear trend we've witnessed in packaged cheeses is the need for convenience, and Kraft is constantly creating new products to reflect this trend," says Ponticelli, citing the company's new Philadelphia To-Go Bagel and Cream Cheese Spread line and Kraft Party To Go trays that combine pre-cut Kraft cheese slices, smoked salami, and Nabisco Stoned Wheat Thins crackers on one tray.
Retailers are also seeking convenience, and to that end, Swissrose has introduced a line of exact-weight chunks. The cheeses are packed in eight-ounce bricks or wedges and come in nine varieties: Baby Swiss, Colby, Colby Jack, Hot Pepper, Mild Cheddar, Monterrey Jack, Pepper Jack, Muenster, and Sharp Cheddar. "These have the benefit of being already weighed, packaged, and ready to go. There is no labor involved," says Dana Solomon, brand manager at County Line Foods, Swissrose, a division of ConAgra Deli Foods, in Moonachie, N.J.
Naturally, convenience has also found its way to private label, where store-brand chunks, shreds, and flavored tubs of whipped cream cheese are gaining in popularity. "Private label continues to be an excellent choice for consumers looking for high quality and a competitively priced product," says Deborah Van Dyk, v.p., industry and regulatory affairs, at Schreiber Foods in Green Bay, Wis. "We tailor our merchandising to the needs of the customer, i.e., store."
While most private label cheeses are merchandised in the dairy case, Swissrose prefers to see its products in the deli case. "We are really moving toward the deli section for lots of reasons," says Solomon. "One of them is that there is a consumer perception of freshness, and there are better profits for the retailer in the deli section."
Solomon concedes that cheese is still largely a commodity item and pricing is still a key factor. "We offer good pricing, but we offer what a lot of unknown small brands don't, which is POS materials and promotions," she says, noting that Swissrose uses instantly redeemable coupons, sweepstakes, and recipe cards to increase sales in-store. Outside the store, Swissrose dropped its first FSI coupon in November, and this year the company will be running a radio campaign.
In April, Swissrose launched its www.countylinecheese.com Web site offering consumers recipes, sweepstakes, and details on various varieties of cheese.
Some of the fastest growing varieties are those modeled after European imports. In Union, N.J., Lioni Latticini churns out Ricotta and fresh and smoked mozzarella that is delivered to major supermarkets across the country, including A&P, Kings, Kroger, Central Market, ShopRite, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods, using production wrapping equipment imported from Italy. Run by fifth-generation cheesemakers from Avellino, Italy, Lioni Latticini began making mozzarella in Brooklyn in 1980 with two machines. In its new 45,000-square-foot plant it operates six.
"We used to have to wait for one mold to be finished before we could put another one in," says Jeff Silver, director of sales and marketing in the firm's Vero Beach, Fla. office. "Now with six machines we can run everything at once: dry, smoked, and fresh water. So we've been able to increase our production, but at the same time we've been able to create a much better product because there is less handling. We've also been able to increase the longevity of the natural shelf life without using any additives or preservatives."
While smoked mozzarella lasts seven weeks, fresh only has a three-week shelf life, which limits product that can be imported from the Old Country. "The pasteurization process is also better here," Silver says. "We get many requests to ship our curd to Italy."
Nonetheless, in Italy mozzarella is traditionally made with water buffalo milk, and Lioni Latticini imports buffalo milk mozzarella into the U.S. because there are not enough herds here to supply sufficient milk.
In Denmark, Wis., BelGioioso has been producing Italian-style cheeses for 25 years. "We started off making Provolone, and now we manufacture 13 different varieties in four different manufacturing plants in Wisconsin," says Jamie Rauscher, marketing manager. BelGioioso's product line includes American Grana, Asiago, Parmesan, Fontina, Gorgonzola, and Mascarpone. "We have come out with new types of packaging, such as our sliced Asiago and sliced sharp Provolone," she says. "Our advantage is that Wisconsin has a great, quality milk supply for making very high-quality cheeses."
American cheeses aren't limited to Old World European varieties. Cheeses from other cultures are gaining a foothold. Specialty Cheese Co. of Lowell, Wis. has introduced new Bharatma brand Paneer and Chenna cheeses, which are common ingredients in dishes from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and surrounding Asian countries. Paneer is a fresh, white cheese with no salt added that is often cubed and fried, while Chenna is a moist, crumbly form of Paneer often used in desserts. Traditionally, consumers and chefs have been forced to make these fresh cheeses at home or in their restaurants.
"Our primary target is consumers that are already familiar with the product," says Paul Scharfman, president. "However, more and more consumers are becoming familiar with Indian cuisine, and to such consumers Paneer appeals regardless of their ethnicity."
Mexican cooking is also appealing to consumers of all ethnicities, and so are Mexican-style cheeses. Cacique is celebrating its 30th anniversary making Mexican cheeses in the United States. Today it has a product line encompassing over 20 items, including Queso Fresco, Cotija, and Manchego. "Traditionally, Manchego is made out of goats' milk. We make it out of cows' milk, but try to keep the formulation as authentic as possible," says Tirso Iglesias, marketing manager at Cacique in City of Industry, Calif.
Manchego has become so popular that Kraft has come up with its own version. "We recently launched Kraft Singles Manchego processed cheese slices that offer bilingual packaging," says Kraft's Ponticelli. "The Manchego variety is a white cheese with a mild and buttery taste ideal for making quesadillas and hot and cold sandwiches."
Cacique's first target customer is the immigrant Hispanic. "You would think that as immigrants come over they would only want to buy cheeses from their homeland. But we found that as long as the product is authentic to the way they remember it, they are very receptive to it," Iglesias says.
But the company's cheeses are gaining popularity with the mainstream population as well. "The way Italian food became popular 20 years ago, we're now finding the same thing with Mexican food in the general market," Iglesias says. "As more restaurants implement authentic cheeses into their recipes, the consumers want to try those cheeses at home, so the crossover is beginning to occur. Now instead of cheddar and Monterrey Jack, they want to buy Manchego, Cotijas, and Queso Fresco to use on their plates because they want to be authentic."
Cacique has 100 percent distribution in Hispanic supermarkets, and is gaining a presence with big chains, including Kroger and Safeway. The company also operates 11 direct store delivery centers across the country, allowing it to better service retailers. "We are able to guarantee our shelf life from the day it is packaged to the day it expires," Iglesias says. "We have a very extensive quality-control department."
While Cacique's Manchego is made from cows' milk, cheeses made with goats' milk and sheep's milk are becoming more popular. "That's in large part due to the fact that chefs use goat cheese in so many ways, and so consumers are exposed to it and know how to use it at home," says author Werlin. "It's not just confined to fine dining establishments anymore. You're finding goat cheese salads at just about every level. When it gets into McDonald's then we'll know it's arrived," she jokes. "Sheep's milk cheeses are rarer because there aren't many made in this country. You'll find more of them in Spain, southwest France, and Italy."
Of course, a retailer can have cheese from every country on the globe in its case, but if a customer asks where a blue cheese hails from and the clerk says, "I don't know. The moon?" there goes the sale. That is why education is of the utmost importance. "One good cheesemonger is worth 10 warm bodies," says IDDBA's Christison. She recalls her visit to an H-E-B Central Market where a clerk asked her if she wanted to sample something and eagerly opened up a wedge of cheese that was $13 a half-pound. He talked about how good the cheese was, gave several other customers samples, and sold several packages. "If the store is serious about selling cheese, they need to have a serious cheese seller in the department," says Christison. "There's an art to cutting and wrapping cheese, not to mention merchandising, signing, and selling."
Signage can also work wonders in the self-service case, where signs should not only sport the name and price, but also the country of origin, kind of milk, age, serving suggestions, and wine and beer suggestions. They should also say to serve at room temperature.
"For best flavor we recommend that cheese is left out, covered, at room temperature for 45 minutes to an hour," says Tanyeri. "That can be a challenge for retailers trying to get into cheeses and educate their customers about them, but a simple serving suggestion like that can make a big difference."
To further aid in education, Christison suggests retailers send their clerks to culinary schools, and use materials available to them from marketing agencies like the WMMB and California Milk Advisory Board, manufacturers, and brokers. "But don't think a one-day course or a video is going to turn an associate into a cheesemonger. They have to have the desire, commitment, and the corporate culture that's going to reward them for learning," she says. "Any type of training, certification, or related programs can be used to a store's advantage."
For instance, some stores that have participated in the IDDBA's program have a wall of fame covered with certificates of associates who have passed the organization's training program. "You better believe that makes an impact on the consumer shopping that store," Christison says. "They don't have to wonder if the associate is smart--they see the evidence on the wall."