LOUISVILLE -- Chutney and Persian melon, not to mention balsamic vinegar, can sustain cheese sales during a time when new cheese varieties are not crowding the horizon, cheese-minded retailers said.
While the sheep and goat cheese trends continue to mount, creative ways to present already-existing varieties can keep customers interested, panelists said.
"We've had such success lately showing customers new ways to serve well-chosen cheeses. The rock n' roll is in how you serve the stuff, not in your curatorial capacity to amass a collection," said Steven Jenkins, manager of Fairway Market's unit in upper Manhattan, and author of "The Cheese Primer."
Jenkins and Barbara Hoover, food-service director and former cheese manager at H.E. Butt's Central Market Westgate in Austin, Texas, represented the supermarket industry on a panel that was part of the Delavan, Wis.-based American Cheese Society's 18th annual conference.
Hoover agreed with Jenkins that the variations for serving are endless and that most retailers aren't latching onto that sales opportunity.
"We have to show customers new things to do with the products we already have, or rediscover products that have been around and get them into our mix. It doesn't have to be a new creation. There are millions of things you can do with the things that are out there," Hoover said.
Jenkins lamented the fact that retailers spend their time and energy looking for another new product rather than really selling what they already have.
"Part of your job is to thrill your customers. How? Offer them something new every time they come in? That's nonsense. We have 450 cheeses. There's no way they know 100 of them. You could thrill them for the next 16 years by turning them onto a cheese they haven't been introduced to."
Italian pecorinos or one of the great American sheep cheeses may be new as far as some customers are concerned. He suggested slicing thin wafers or fingers of the cheese, and fanning them out on plates.
"Drizzle a top-quality honey over one and a white truffle or porcini paste over another. It's a great cocktail treat. You can show people how to do these things and they'll not only buy the fabulous cheese, they'll buy some of the expensive stuff to go with it."
He added that while cheese afficionados may find balsamic vinegar splashed on parmigiana reggiano rather hackneyed, an awful lot of people have never thought of it.
"I bet they haven't served it that way with cocktails or a bottle of wine. They'll be dazzled. Something like that can thrill your customers and what's more, they'll have a sense of well-being because they'll look hip to their friends. All because of you and your cheese shop. It elevates the whole cheese experience."
But it can be even easier than that, Jenkins said. Melons that are in season are "a natural" with sheep and goat cheeses, he said.
"I'll bring two or three crates of Persian melons up to the cheese department and cut them up. The guy who walks away with cheese is going to walk away with a melon, too. Have you brought bottles of great chutney up to go with all the blues?"
Simplicity was urged by all the panelists, and they emphasized it's not necessary to spend a lot of money to sell cheese. In fact, such attention-getters as aging rooms were frowned upon because there's so little return on the investment.
Jenkins called aging rooms bells-and-whistles nonsense.
"I don't need an aging room," said Jenkins, who's respected internationally as a cheese expert. "I've got walk-in boxes and ship containers that come across the sea. Those are my aging rooms."
And Hoover at Central Market said her company built an aging room, got a lot of press and then got out of it "because it wasn't making us a nickel. We're using it now as a prep room for the restaurant."
Panel moderator Robert Kaufelt, the proprietor of Murray's Cheese Shop in New York, pointed to the emergence of the cheese course or cheese board in restaurants as a new opportunity for retailers.
"One thing that's new is the arrival of the restaurant cheese course. Some of the better restaurants have always had one, but they've taken off in the last two years and we've found a little adjunct business selling the kinds of cheese we offer to restaurants," Kaufelt said.
But he also sees the trend as a big opportunity for retailers to educate chefs about artisan cheeses and thus increase consumers' awareness of good cheese. So does Hoover at H.E. Butt's Central Market.
"It's important that this new idea, a cheese course in America, not be presented in a poor light. If it is, the consumer won't be inspired to serve a cheese course at home and that's what we want," said Hoover.
"I've found the selections chefs make are determined pretty much by what their food-service distributor is offering and they're really mundane. I'm so happy when [the chefs] come to my store and give me the opportunity to work with them to pick out really wonderful things."