GROWTH OF HISPANIC CHEESES SURGES

MADISON, Wis. -- When cheese production numbers for 2002 are released this month, officials at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board expect to see continued growth in the Hispanic cheese category -- the hottest category for producers in 2001 here in the country's top cheese producing state.Production of such common Hispanic varieties, including Asadero, Anejo Enchilado and queso fresco, increased by

MADISON, Wis. -- When cheese production numbers for 2002 are released this month, officials at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board expect to see continued growth in the Hispanic cheese category -- the hottest category for producers in 2001 here in the country's top cheese producing state.

Production of such common Hispanic varieties, including Asadero, Anejo Enchilado and queso fresco, increased by 38% in 2001, the largest jump in any single cheese category, the WMMB reported. Nationally, Hispanic cheeses are one of the fastest-growing food markets. Production jumped about 52% from 1996 to 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Officials told SN the increase mirrors the growth of Hispanics in this country. Numbering more than 38 million, Hispanics in 2001 surpassed African Americans in population. Furthermore, the interest in Hispanic cheeses is another sign of the growing acceptance of Hispanic foods in mainstream society.

Demand for Hispanic cheeses has always been strong at Carnival Food Stores, the Hispanic format operated by Coppell, Texas-based Minyard Food Stores. What is new is the growing interest in the cheeses at Minyard's mainstream supermarkets. Minyard operates 29 Minyard, 26 Carnival and 19 Sack'n Save warehouse stores.

Interestingly, while Hispanic consumers who shop the mainstream Minyard stores demand the Hispanic-style cheeses, they're not the only ones buying the specialty products. Greater availability of product created a market among white, non-Hispanic consumers, too, an official with the chain told SN.

"The first-generation Hispanics shop Carnival stores and expect that product," said John Highbaugh, vice president of food service for Minyard. "When you get into the second- and third-generation Hispanics, they will shop the traditional [Minyard] stores and demand those products. [Non-Hispanic] shoppers are buying the products, too. Their curiosity gets the best of them."

The Carnival stores sell the most product, though all Minyard stores stock the same 11 varieties of Hispanic cheeses in the delis. Unlike many popular American and European cheeses, which tend to be firm and more convenient for snacking, the soft, mild Hispanic cheeses are more appropriate for melting, cooking and grating.