Cottage cheese is coming back, and single-serving sizes that appeal to today's health-conscious and busy consumers are helping the category's rejuvenation.According to marketing data from ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., the cottage-cheese category, which hadn't grown in more than a decade, experienced a 1.7% surge in pound sales for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 31 -- and climbed 3.1% for the 52-week period

Cottage cheese is coming back, and single-serving sizes that appeal to today's health-conscious and busy consumers are helping the category's rejuvenation.

According to marketing data from ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., the cottage-cheese category, which hadn't grown in more than a decade, experienced a 1.7% surge in pound sales for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 31 -- and climbed 3.1% for the 52-week period ended April 25.

Dollar sales for the 52-week period ended April 25 showed an increase of 4% -- up $28.4 million for a total of $746.6 million. Year-to-date figures as of April 25 showed a 3.3% increase in pound sales and a 3.8% increase in dollar sales.

Sources from the supermarket and supply ends of the business said that in part the surge is due to the successful marketing of single-serve multipacks. That subsegment, they said, may help cottage cheese dig itself out from a rut associated mostly with die-hard dieters and grandmotherly types, and into a brisk business as a convenient and healthy product.

At White Rose Dairy, a $300 million grocery wholesaler based in Woodbridge, N.J., cottage-cheese sales are up 4% to 5% from a year ago, and climbing rapidly, according to Rich Rosin, director of sales and marketing.

Rosin told SN he thinks what was recently "dying category" is being reinvented thanks to the strong performance of 4-ounce, single-serving multipacks.

Rosin, whose company services 1,400 to 1,500 retail accounts throughout New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, said he began offering the product last summer. He said it is one of the few cottage-cheese items that have injected incremental volume into increased -- rather than cannibalized -- existing category sales.

"We're selling 500 to 600 cases a week, which is pretty good business," said Rosin, adding that the company expects those figures, which are up from the previous week, to increase by about 100 in the following week and to continue growing.

Sales are also up at Food Circus Supermarkets, an 11-store retailer in Middletown, N.J., according to Louis Scaduto Jr., dairy supervisor, who said the product is the only part of the category that has been exhibiting any type of sales growth.

A&P, Montvale, N.J., is seeing double-digit growth in its cottage-cheese category in its New York- and New Jersey-area stores, according to John Kirk, vice president of sales.

Kirk said the single-serving multipacks are performing "pretty well" and seem to be part of what is driving category growth. A&P is currently carrying the product in about 180 of its stores in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut tri-state area, but plans further rollouts within the next few months.

At Pioneer Supermarket in Jamaica, N.Y., repeated customer requests for the single-serving multipacks prompted Miguel Abinader, the general manager, to introduce the product in late April.

"We've only carried the product for a short time, but it's an excellent seller," said Abinader, who added that he believes overall convenience is behind the product's success.

One retailer at a large Western chain said he wasn't aware of single-serving multipacks being offered in his area, but said he would "definitely consider" carrying such a product, based on the "great" sales performance of cottage cheese in his dairy departments.

Rosin of White Rose said category sales started sparking after he began carrying single-serving multipacks from Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill., rolled out under Kraft's Breakstone's brand name in the summer of 1997.

Called Breakstone's Snack Size, the line is available in a 4%-fat and a 2%-low-fat version, in addition to a fat-free version that is currently being tested in the Tampa, Fla., and Chicago markets. It carries a suggested retail of $1.99.

Michael Pellegrino, category business director for Kraft cultured products, said he thinks the Snack Size segment is responsible for 24% of the 3.5% nationwide growth in the cottage cheese business reported by ACNielsen. He added that the line is responsible for 40% of total category growth within Eastern, Southern and Central states, Breakstone's distribution area.

Kraft isn't the first to offer cottage cheese in single-serving multipacks, but it seems to have broken through the barrier that kept others from fueling explosive category growth.

Equally important, the new product is not cannibalizing -- and may actually be growing -- tub sales, according to Anne Marie Johnson, Kraft's brand manager of cottage cheese.

Kraft has offered a similar product since 1991 under its Knudsen brand name, which is distributed in the states west of Denver; but sales have been sparse beyond the Los Angeles area.

Calls to more than half a dozen dairies across the country uncovered only two that carried single-serving cottage-cheese products -- one in a 5.5-ounce container and another in an 8-ounce container; and none that offered multipack versions.

One of the dairies, Old Home Foods, St. Paul, Minn., which services supermarkets throughout its state, introduced 5.5-ounce containers in August of 1996 under its brand name of "Old Home Cottage Cheese," according to Matthew Kopyar, vice president of marketing and sales.

Kopyar said that product has enjoyed favorable customer response due to its "portability and convenience," and he described it as a niche item that he'd like to see grow in sales. Old Home Foods' product carries a suggested retail of 75 cents to 79 cents.

At Springfield Creamery in Eugene, Ore., single-serving sizes of cottage cheese in 8-ounce containers have been around for about 20 years, according to Susan Kesey, who owns the company with her husband, Chuck. When the decision was made to offer the single-serving sizes, there were no other dairies carrying such a product, she said. They currently account for about 10% of total cottage-cheese poundage sales for Springfield.

The product, which is sold under the Nancy's brand, is available in a low-fat and an organic low-fat version and retails for about 89 cents to 99 cents, said Kesey.

The company's cottage cheese, which is cultured for 14 hours -- many times the typical two- to four-hour set -- has always appealed to a more health-conscious market, said Kesey. She listed Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas, as a major client.

"It's great for lunches, it allows consumers to try the product before buying a larger size, and it gives singles just enough to eat in two seatings," she said.

Springfield went to single-serve cottage cheese after seeing sales take off of single-serve yogurt. But Peter Menard, vice president of sales for Fairmont Products, Belleville, Pa., a division of Dean Foods, Franklin Park, Ill., said offering single-serving sizes of cottage cheese alongside yogurt has its drawbacks.

His company, which packed 6-ounce containers of cottage cheese for another company for about 10 years before discontinuing the product several years ago, found the single-serving sizes to be a tough sell, according to Menard.

"They were competing with the single-size servings of yogurt, and there was a big difference in price, as well as variety," said Menard. The cottage cheese -- because of its high ingredient costs and labor intensiveness -- was retailing for about $1.19 on the shelves, while yogurt was often selling at four-for-$1.

Although the cottage cheese attracted a "loyal, but niche following," Menard said it may have been ahead of its time.

All in all, none of the dairies contacted reported vigorous sales of single-serving cottage cheese. What, then, explains the reported success of the Breakstone's Snack Size -- and does it herald the beginning of a revitalized category?

According to Pellegrino at Kraft, the success is a direct result of Kraft's decision to focus on a category that had been "undermarketed for a long time"

Pellegrino said the recent surge in sales could have occurred five years ago, had single-serving multipacks been properly marketed then.

The company's Knudsen brand of cottage cheese may be a case in point. Although Knudsen offered a single-serving, multipack called On the Go since 1991, advertising focused on the category in general, and not on the On the Go product. Sales remained mediocre and only began to "grow substantially" in 1997 when the company began tagging television advertisements of Knudsen products with On the Go promotions.

The promotional effort behind Snack Size's introduction involved a television and print campaign featuring brand spokesman Sam Breakstone emphasizing the convenience and increased freshness that comes with the single-serving packaging.

After the promotion, Breakstone's overall cottage-cheese sales increased 15% in 1997, and are up 34% this year to date, according to Johnson.

Now, Kraft plans to test market a new product called Cottage Doubles, starting in July. The product, sold in single-serving, 5.5-ounce containers, features a top that pulls off to reveal two compartments, the main one containing cottage cheese and the smaller one containing real fruit toppings to be mixed with the cottage cheese.

Rosin of White Rose Dairy said he expected the new product will be a welcome addition to his newly growing cottage-cheese category.

"We'll be really excited to carry them," he said. "I think they'll attract new users, and that would be great."