Cheese Is Having a Big Moment, and Grocers Should Capitalize on It
The heyday of plain old cheese and crackers is long gone. While many consumers still embrace this popular combination, the game has been upped significantly. As consumers have become more willing to experiment with food, what they look for in cheese has changed accordingly.
“A desire to be a little more experimental and adventurous in flavors is driving artisanal cheese as well, because of unique flavor profiles out there, but also variations of cheese,” says Jim Low, EVP of marketing and sales for Fairfield, N.J.-based Schuman Cheese. That means more interest in products like rubbed fontinas or the company’s Copper Kettle, a unique Parmesan-style cheese. “Those unique flavors are appealing to people’s desire to experiment and find something new.”
At Oliver’s Market, which operates four stores in Sonoma County, Calif., customers tend to be highly knowledgeable about food, and cheese is no exception. Its customers are “leaning towards grass-fed milk or raw milk, organic, those kinds of things,” affirms Emily O’Connor, gourmet cheese coordinator for the independent grocer.
- Consumers’ increasing willingness to take an experimental approach to food holds true for cheese, resulting in more shopper interest in artisanal varieties that are grass-fed, organic or made with raw milk, among other attributes.
- Education, messaging and engaging backstories help sell such cheeses at retail, along with dispelling any intimidation shoppers might feel about purchasing unfamiliar cheese varieties.
- Upcoming trends include greater convenience in forms and packaging, providing more usage occasions and ideas, stressing the authenticity of products, and creating greater accessibility to a wider range of cheeses.
The raw-milk trend is driven largely by health concerns, she notes. Customers tend to like raw milk if they’re trying to go gluten-free or need a cheese that’s easier to digest. Milk from Jersey cows (the brown ones) also tends to be popular for that reason, as Jersey cows produce A2 milk, which is claimed to be easier to digest or cause fewer issues than A1 milk, primarily produced by Holstein cows (the spotted ones).
Raw milk has strict federal regulations surrounding its production and importation, and sometimes can have a bad rap, O’Connor acknowledges. Those regulations have also led to some European cheeses disappearing from U.S. shelves, however, as producers haven’t wanted to pay for the FDA-required testing to enable raw-milk cheese to be imported. Oliver’s Market has several local producers that have learned how to properly age their raw-milk cheeses to help fill the demand.
Interestingly, “there are a lot of raw-milk cheeses that we eat every day that a lot of people might not realize are raw,” O’Connor explains. “Gruyere is an AOC-protected [appellation d’origine controlee, or protected designation of origin] cheese and needs to be made from raw milk. Same with Parmigiano-Reggiano — always made with raw milk. It’s funny that you don’t even realize that you’re consuming these raw-milk cheeses.”
Importance of Messaging
This is where education and messaging can play a big role. At the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) recent trade show, the What’s In-store Live installation (formerly Show & Sell Center) focused in large part on messaging and how consumers can use cheese while also giving direction and providing education to consumers, according to Eric Richard, industry relations coordinator for the Madison, Wis.-based trade association. An example at the show was calling out cheeses that are high in protein, such as gouda, provolone and gruyere, as consumers are looking to beef up their protein consumption right now.
Retailers themselves also need to know more about cheeses as consumers become more interested in the foods they’re consuming, and often look to retailers for more information.
“Customers are being more mindful about products as a whole,” Low says. “[There’s a] desire to understand a little bit more about where products are coming from and what their ingredients are. For that, artisan cheese — essentially, cheese as a whole — is really well positioned because it’s inherently a natural product with good things in it.”
What’s the Story?
Like almost every other product, customers want to know the “story” behind the cheese they buy. Transparency on how the product is made and knowing the backstory are becoming increasingly important to customers.
“When you take a piece of cheese home, or you take it to a friend’s house, and you sit down and open it up, sure, you could just eat that piece of cheese and drink your wine and talk about whatever happened that day,” O’Connor says. “But if you can have that little story to share, it just enriches the experience.”
Low agrees that ensuring people understand what’s special about a cheese is important. For example, he notes that Cello Copper Kettle cheese is the only parmesan-style cheese produced in commercial quantities out of copper kettles in the United States. The manufacturing process is what gives it its unique color and flavor profile. “That’s the kind of thing we would tell a retailer, and we would want to make sure that the monger knew that they could pass [that information] on.”
While educating customers is important, it’s equally important to know your customer. Oliver’s Market, due to its location in Sonoma County, has an extremely well-educated foodie customer base to begin with, and its cheesemongers, many with 30-plus years of experience, know what their customers are looking for and that they can be more experimental than in other regions.
Cheese Boards Made Easy
Cheese boards have boomed in popularity, but they can be daunting for customers to put together on their own. The International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s (IDDBA) What’s In-store Live installation at its recent trade show in Orlando, Fla., offered a few ideas for retailers to help customers create perfectly paired cheese boards.
The first, and easiest for the customers, is to prepare cheese boards (including the board) with a variety of cheeses, charcuterie, nuts, olives, fruits and breads/crackers already paired and packaged for easy grab-and-go convenience. You can offer a variety of price points, from the type of board used to the products packaged on it, to meet all levels of customers. (Producers also are getting into this game, which makes it even easier for retailers to offer that perfectly paired board.)
For customers who want a more hands-on approach, but still need a little guidance, you can create a build-your-own-board display. The display is created to be as easy as 1-2-3. Further, the customer can be guided through the experience by the cheesemonger, or not. (The display can be stocked so that all offerings on it pair well with each other, no matter what combinations the customer chooses.)
To begin, the customer chooses the board in the style and price she wants. Then the journey begins. First, the customer chooses three cheeses, then she chooses three accompaniments like nuts or fruit, and finally, she chooses one meat. The display is also a perfect place to merchandise all of the other accouterments, like cheese knives or even wine, that a customer may need to properly serve the products on the board.
“Sometimes, we will bring in a really obscure cheese that is astronomically priced, and we will take almost no margin on it, just so we can give the experience and share the experience with our customer,” O’Connor says. “We have regular customers that we save special varieties for, because we know they get so excited.”
Schuman Cheese also knows that its core customers tend to be food-aware people, Low notes. “They tend to be really creative in terms of their culinary outlook,” he observes. “They are a little bit more adventurous, they tend to lead, or they’re creative in the sense that they’re storytellers and they want to share a wonderful story about what food they’re sharing with their family and friends.”
As for where cheese is heading in the future, Low sees several trends that retailers will need to address. First is convenience. That includes both making cheese available in the most convenient form for consumers, such as having it already cut into whatever shapes they need, but also providing usage occasions and ideas. For instance, keep customers interested in the department by rotating new flavors into the department and telling consumers what they can do with them.
Going a step further, Issaquah, Wash.-based Costco has introduced its private label Kirkland Cheese Flight, which packages five wedges of a variety of cheeses together, with the packaging providing a brief description of each variety, as well as suggesting wine pairings for each.
Some new flavors or varieties that might garner some attention could be small-production alpine styles, O’Connor adds, which are receiving increasing attention at Oliver’s Market.
“Obscure cheeses from obscure places are becoming more and more fun for us to find,” she notes. “The more fun the mongers have with it, the more they will pass that along to our customers.”
Another trend will be continued authenticity. “Specialty cheese has a great backstory as well as great product attributes like flavor, color and texture,” Low says. “Make that more accessible to people, as more and more people are interested in specialty cheese. It’s our job to make the whole cheese area more inviting and more welcoming to people who appreciate the stories and the great cheese that’s there that’s so different from what you can find in other parts of the store.”
Remove the Mystique
Specialty cheese can be intimidating to some consumers, so it’s up to retailers to remove that mystique from the department. Producers like Schuman can help. For example, the company recently introduced Chisels, which offers convenient bite-size cheese pieces, but also introduces customers to the idea that “fancy” cheese doesn’t have to be for a special occasion.
“The idea that you don’t have to reserve this amazing cheese for anything other than an ordinary occasion is a great thing for the case and a great thing for people who love good food,” Low notes.
“Food is a way that I can participate in the good life,” he continues. “Not all of us can go on really expensive vacations or buy amazing cars, but the vast majority of us can afford that little treat that’s involved in buying a special piece of cheese.
“Because even though it may be expensive relative to other things or other types of cheese, it’s not, in an absolute sense, expensive. It’s accessible to a lot of the people. If you have price points that are within reach of most people to treat themselves, the only barrier you have is making it more welcoming and broadening the number of occasions. That’s a lot of opportunity for people who love cheese and want people to enjoy it.”