NEW YORK -- Putting specialty cheese in focus can sharpen a whole store's sales picture, said cheese guru Steve Jenkins.
Jenkins is general manager of Fairway Markets here, and also the author of "Cheese Primer," a comprehensive guide to cheese and cheese merchandising published late last year.
In an interview earlier this month, Jenkins told SN that the opportunity to buoy storewide sales with cheese is huge -- and also that he thinks most supermarkets are missing the boat.
Jenkins began his food industry career as an employee of Dean & DeLuca, New York, and later helped Balducci's, another New York food legend, revamp its cheese department. He has worked as a consultant to supermarket chains. He was associated with Fairway in the '80s, then started his own consulting business, and rejoined Fairway a year and a half ago, in time for what he considers a cheese boom.
"Right now, in April 1997, cheese is more important than it has been in the last 20 years. People are appreciating the intense, memorable flavors," Jenkins said.
The category is undergoing a renaissance, he reasoned, partially because consumers have abandoned their determination to completely eliminate fat from their diets; instead, they are practicing moderation, which opens a window to greater consumption of cheese, and especially high-quality, full-flavored cheese.
And the continuing publicity about the merits of the Mediterranean diet is helping the category, too. "Restaurateurs, especially in New York, have jumped on the bandwagon. As a consequence, food writers are writing about cheese," Jenkins explained.
This makes the time ripe for supermarkets to get serious about their cheese, too, he stressed.
"Only a tiny fraction of supermarkets understand the importance of having a service cheese department. Most are studying numbers and space management instead of selling cheese, and they're cheating themselves out of a great deal of revenue.
"It's egregious that cheese is treated like a poor relation when a stellar operation can stimulate sales storewide," Jenkins said.
He went on to outline some of the steps necessary to make cheese the sales star it can be. Above all, he said, a service counter with employees dedicated to the cheese program breeds success.
Then, it's necessary to create some excitement -- but without taking such high margins that the retail price scares customers away.
More ingredients in Jenkins' recipe for cheese success are educating customers about different cheeses; making serving suggestions; crafting exciting signs; and sampling cheeses and complementary products aggressively.
The proof that such methods work is in Fairway's own performance numbers. At the company's 35,000-square-foot store in Harlem, cheese is ringing up more than $2 million in sales a year. The cheese department is posting 12% of total store sales.
And it's not a big department.
"What's amazing is that we're able to do the numbers we do in such a small area. We do the whole thing with one 8-foot coffin case and a 12-foot multideck," Jenkins said.
"We have a countertop along the back of the coffin case for full service, and that's the nerve center," he explained, adding that it's particularly important that service be offered by people who are passionate about the product.
"You can't have a deli guy manning the cheese department who's thinking about slicing deli meats."
At Fairway, cheese is a department unto itself, completely separate in operation from the deli or any other section of the store. But even if a supermarket doesn't have the luxury of a separate cheese department, it can still create a cheese program that pulls customers in, Jenkins insisted.
The key is to make that program count, to make it a knowledge center as well as a locus for cheese merchandising. That type of cheese program can easily become a destination and help a store differentiate itself from the competition, he said.
"Whenever you establish yourself as an authority on any product, it gets people's attention and brings them back. It's hard to discern the difference between one deli and another, but you can see the difference right away in cheese departments.
A service counter alone would set a store apart from most, he added.
Jenkins attributes the stellar performance of cheese at Fairway to the way it's merchandised -- but also to attractive prices.
"Most supermarkets work on a 45% margin on precut cheeses, which renders them expensive, and specialty stores are even worse. They take 50%, usually."
By contrast, Fairway takes a 33% to 40% gross margin on self-service and precut cheeses, and an average of 42% on those that are cut fresh.
Some sample retail prices at Fairway are: Parmigiano Reggiano, $9.99 a pound; French brie, $3.99 a pound; and Jarlsberg, $3.89 a pound. According to Jenkins, the retail prices for those products in an average supermarket would likely be $14, $6.99, and $5.99 a pound, respectively.
The right balance of product and prices creates a self-perpetuating success. At Fairway, the fast turn over of cheese stimulates cash register rings, and also ensures that it's super fresh, which in turn keeps the sales rolling in.
"When word gets around that you have a good Parmigiano Reggiano for a great price, they come to you -- and they come back," Jenkins said.
That doesn't mean he's underpricing everything. His strategy is to cover the basic cheeses with a great price, so he can take a higher margin on the more exotic cheeses.
"I couldn't offer the specialty cheeses if I didn't -- but all of them sell well. We sell more cheese at $22.50 a pound than we can get," he said.
Fairway offers 300 varieties of cheeses. But in Jenkins' view, the number of varieties is not important.
"I could beat the brains out of someone down the street with 50 varieties. I'd make it look like 300. It's all in the merchandising," he said.
"I'd take three wheels of Parmigiano, cut some of it, build a cathedral of it. It wouldn't be beautiful, but it would be considerable. You need quantity in displays to attract attention," Jenkins said.
Theater helps, too.
"All the rousting about, the rolling of wheels out front, and all the cutting and wrapping is out in the open. All the hoopla is part of it," Jenkins said.
Here is Jenkins' prescription for how a supermarket can quickly get into the cheese act. "First, I'd advise them to get their hands on my primer -- then grab themselves some counter space, whatever they have to do to get it, get it. Get that cheese out from behind the glass, and put it in front of the customers' noses," he said. "They could build a display with some bulk cheeses and cut some super-size pieces.
"Then, I'd advise them to execute a great sign, laminate it, staple it to a stake, and drive that stake deep into the heart of a great wheel of cheese," Jenkins said.
He'd then post an interested person slicing tastes of the cheeses from the big blocks, and talking to customers about them.
"Get yourself a cheese monger and then empower him. He should do the buying, merchandising, staffing, and then oversee the execution."
The manpower needed is not as great as one would think, Jenkins added. He, for instance, has one person cutting and wrapping at each of Fairway's two stores, and two people staffing the service counter.
By contrast, "Most supermarkets, in an attempt to keep labor costs down, use deli people for the cheese display and they try to get away with a precut, self-service program," he said. The display, meanwhile, is almost always low on the deli's priority list, accounting for the jumbled presentation displays and chronic over-ripes often seen in supermarket cheese cases.
"Cheeses are ill-served when they're brought in precut. It's only the hearty types that can take that abuse. If [supermarkets] limit themselves to that, they're not happening," he added.
He also decried the lack of information in supermarkets' self-service displays.
"It's foolish to think that a customer doesn't need help deciding which [cheese] he wants, or to think that he's traveled enough to be familiar with all the products and how to use them."
Even at Fairway, where service is key and where associates constantly communicate with customers, signage is still an indispensable part of the selling strategy.
"The signs are a big part of it; it's impossible to talk to every customer," he said.
Designed by Jenkins, the signs at Fairway extol some cheeses' virtues. But sometimes, they do just the opposite.
"I'm so contemptuous of boring cheeses that sell like crazy, and we have the temerity to tell customers our opinion. I think customers respect that," he said.
An example is German Cambozola. Fairway has planted a big sign on it that says: "A ludicrous cheese. As if being German weren't bad enough, this is a knock-off of two other cheeses -- Camembert and Gorgonzola. And it doesn't deserve to be called either one."
Despite such a protestation -- or perhaps because of it -- the store sells huge amounts of German Cambozola.
"We also sell tons of hoop cheese. We tell people, on signage, and verbally, that it's an intriguing cheese with a texture that falls somewhere between wet cotton and library paste."
Aggressive sampling and demonstrations are a routine part of the customers' cheese experience at Fairway. "We constantly offer tastes of cheeses. It's ongoing."
But Jenkins stresses the aggressive or active part of the process.
"I loathe passive sampling; those little cubes sitting by themselves with toothpicks in them. It's useless. You're feeding scraps to the masses. You might as well dump them out the window."
And Fairway's demos in the cheese department often involve go-together products.
"For example, today we brought down a tray of New Zealand green-lipped mussels, still warm from the smokehouse, and offered them in the cheese department. We'll sometimes do the same with five pounds of sauteed Burgundy snails, for example, and suggest that three or four of the little snails with a wedge of Catalan Garrotxa would be lovely with a dry sherry and a good loaf of bread."
The cheese department crew, with its merchandising savvy, also urges customers into the grocery aisles for complementary items.
"For instance, we tell people that Mrs. Kirkham's Farmhouse Lancashire must be served with Jamaican banana chutney. We tell customers they must prove they're going to buy some of the chutney, or that they have some at home, before we'll sell them the cheese," Jenkins said.
Naturally, signs also direct customers to the aisle where the chutney is merchandised.
Jenkins acknowledged that Fairway's format is unique. "We offer specialty products at warehouse prices, but unlike most specialty stores, we can take care of the whole household," he said, referring to the store's more complete mix of products.
But while his store's format may be different, Jenkins remains convinced that its merchandising strategies for the cheese section would translate well to most supermarkets.