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FRESH FOOD: The big cheese

What does it take to create one of the finest supermarket specialty cheese departments in the country? What are the most effective ways to impart cheese information to customers and to put them at ease when confronted with unfamiliar varieties?

These are just a few of the questions that retailers face when they contemplate their opportunities in the gourmet cheese market.

Mark Jezo-Sywulka, resident cheesemonger and manager of the cheese department at Brookfield, Wis.-based Sendik's Fine Foods, seems to have found the answers.

Under Jezo-Sywulka's guidance the 52,000-square-foot supermarket has made a big commitment to the category, merchandising about 600 varieties on any given day in a unique, fully enclosed, walk-in refrigerated chamber measuring 25 feet wide by 12 feet deep. Combining knowledgeable staff, educational signage, and aggressive promotions, Jezo-Sywulka has crafted a model supermarket gourmet cheese operation that he says is a strong contributor to the store's performance; without revealing specifics, he claims his department "does quite a high volume overall."

A chef by trade and a 32-year hospitality industry veteran, Jezo-Sywulka pioneered Sendik's gourmet cheese shop three years ago. Even though the store is in the heart of cheese country, he found himself faced with the same challenge any supermarket cheese manager faces: how to sell specialty cheese in a way that will encourage trial and optimize profits.

Wooing customers

With cheese now serving as a key ingredient in many of today's food trends, American consumers are primed for more experimentation, and that spells opportunity for supermarkets. Cheese czar Jezo-Sywulka says successfully merchandising and marketing specialty cheese begins with an abiding commitment to communicate the romance and excitement of the category to consumers.

While many supermarkets have been steadily building up cheese departments, Jezo-Sywulka says their activities have amounted to flirtation rather than full-blown romance.

Not so with Sendik's. "We have an enclosed cheese case that functions like a large refrigerated chamber with sliding doors, where consumers can walk right in, browse at their leisure, and select cheeses from over 30 countries, as well as from master cheesemakers based here in Wisconsin," says Jezo-Sywulka. "At any one given time, we have between 580 and 600 varieties on display."

At present he's concentrating on wooing Sendik's customers with some 140 varieties of Wisconsin farmhouse and artisanal-style cheeses, which he says have become one of the most exciting things happening on the American food scene today.

The cheese expert says goat and sheep cheeses are hot right now, attributable largely to their great flavor, digestibility, and health attributes. "There's a lot of different variables, but right now many artisanal and farmhouse cheesemakers are doing so much more with goat milk cheeses -- not just in Wisconsin, but also in Kentucky, Indiana, Colorado, California, Vermont, and the Carolinas," notes Jezo-Sywulka. "They are coming up with absolutely fantastic combinations," including an "absolutely phenomenal" chocolate goat cheese with a Belgian chocolate liqueur and bourbon mixed with raisins and walnuts, which he has recently tried.

To be sure, this cheesemonger is in good company at a store where expertise is prized. "A very unique thing about our store is the fact that we have six culinary school graduates working in our key departments, all of which are treated as their own operations," he says. "We have found that people with food backgrounds have been a big asset to our overall operation, since they can help shoppers with so many things. People really like to have an expert to turn to, and it makes our job a lot more fun while also making it fun for our customers."

A staff of visible, knowledgeable, well-trained professionals is imperative to running a profitable specialty cheese department, even in Dairy Land, observes Jezo-Sywulka.

The department supplements its staff resources with informative signage, which provides clear descriptions of the cheese varieties in the display case. The signage is also crucial to encouraging otherwise intimidated customers to inquire about a cheese, he says. Just as important are samples, which help clarify a customer's taste preferences, he adds.

"The most important merchandising tool I use is to work with my purveyors to offer free samples of whatever varieties customers would like to try in our cheese shop. Regardless of the price or size of the particular cheese -- or cheeses -- they have in mind, we'll cut it open and let them try it."

Jezo-Sywulka also makes a point of sampling a variety of cheeses outside the case all day long, a tactic that has also proved fruitful for luring would-be customers. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, 'If it wasn't for that sample, I would not have tried half the cheeses I've purchased here and elsewhere.'"

When the weekends roll around, Jezo-Sywulka is truly in his element. "On Saturdays and Sundays I try to take a cart out into the store in front of the case, and I'll select and demo out seven or eight cheeses, and it usually increases my sales $600 to $800 a day."

Mammoth promotions

Another priceless component to marketing the department is promotion. Much like the traditional service deli department, Sendik's boutique approach with specialty cheese "lends itself especially well to unique displays, special events, and promotions like Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's (WMMB) Cheese of the Month program," explains Jezo-Sywulka.

"As far as promotions are concerned, you just can't say enough about them. I do quite a lot with WMMB, and I also do an awful lot with mammoth cheeses. For instance, for a recent store anniversary celebration, we brought in a 2,200-pound piece of cheese from Henning Cheese, along with one of their master cheesemakers, who came down to help me demonstrate and serve it."

That event generated considerable local media attention "and was lots of fun for everyone," adds Jezo-Sywulka. All in all, he says, special events work wonders. "We just did a Monterey jack promotion with Country Connection, for which I brought in 140 pounds for a weekly sale that ran from Wednesday to Tuesday and which completely sold out."

Aside from native Wisconsin producers, Jezo-Sywulka also collaborates with cheesemakers from Switzerland and the Irish Dairy Board, among others, to do "guess-the-weight programs, where I will bring in full wheels of Gruyere and Emmental and award prizes like Swiss watches to customers who come closest to [guessing the] actual weight."

Like his manager peers in other departments, Jezo-Sywulka promotes different cheeses weekly, in conjunction with a full-page Sendik's ad in the local Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

"I advertise about three or four cheeses each week, with an average sale price anywhere from $1.50 to $4 off per pound, and I always try to put a domestic Wisconsin cheese in the ad. Any time I get a new cheese in, I try to advertise it. We also do a great deal of cross-merchandising with bakery, meat, grocery, and especially our wine department."

Although he currently has his ad schedule set through the end of the year, Jezo-Sywulka normally sets ads monthly, "depending on the season, what's available, and pricing." Lately that last factor "has been very restrictive, especially this past summer, when milk prices skyrocketed."

According to industry experts, retailers relish specialty cheese promotions because of the category's potential for high margins, which average from 27 percent to 30 percent. In addition, retailers see the category as a perfect opportunity for tie-ins.

Says Nick DeRose, director of retail grocery channel sales for Madison, Wis.-based WMMB: "Aside from our two large national programs that occur each year in October and April, we also include interim promotional tie-in programs throughout the year that have done a really good job of incorporating 'Wisconsin positioning,' which is not to be confused with traditional 'retail positioning.'

"Wisconsin positioning signifies a brand promise that speaks to the favorable agricultural climate that our cows are raised in, the good grasses they eat, and the good care our cheesemakers give their herds," which DeRose says embodies the farmers' passion for what they produce.

DeRose tips his hat to the fine job Sendik's does with specialty cheeses, and also cites Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Lowes Foods as "an outstanding retailer that incorporates Wisconsin cheese positioning in both their deli and dairy departments, which I think is a very key point. Lowes recognizes the benefits of promoting Wisconsin cheese, and the net results of their support are more sales, great margins, and profits that are difficult to come by."

Lack of proper identification of different products and insufficient utilization of comprehensible directions for various items are what DeRose considers to be the biggest wedges taken out of potentially big cheese profits. "There's a real simple path that follows a successful specialty cheese program, which is awareness, education, and utilization. Once you arrive at utilization, a retailer establishes a customer that in time will become very loyal."

And there's nothing cheesy about that.
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