KNOWING CHEESE

Passion, curiosity and just plain knowledge have come together to help build cheese sales to new heights at Super Foodtown/Food Circus. Along the way, additional benefits have piled up benefits like an upscaled image, increased traffic and strengthened customer loyalty. Those are the practical advantages; but, like many cheesemongers, the people most closely involved with the category at Foodtown

Passion, curiosity and just plain knowledge have come together to help build cheese sales to new heights at Super Foodtown/Food Circus.

Along the way, additional benefits have piled up — benefits like an upscaled image, increased traffic and strengthened customer loyalty.

Those are the practical advantages; but, like many cheesemongers, the people most closely involved with the category at Foodtown find a sense of adventure in buying and selling cheese.

“I don't know of any other food category that has so many possibilities. There's always more to learn,” said Patti Rispoli, the 10-unit chain's deli supervisor, who has responsibility for all the chain's delis and cheese departments.

She stressed that expanding the variety is important, and the company does not hold back. Indeed, the chain's Red Bank, N.J., store currently offers 800 varieties, ranging from New York cheddar to Italian Piave to Tarago River Strzelecki, a goat's milk blue from Australia.

“You can't stand still. You have to expand the variety, while listening closely to what customers want,” Rispoli said.

She emphasized that having a knowledgeable person staffing the department is key to growing sales significantly.

“I can easily say that without having a person who's so very knowledgeable there at Red Bank, we'd be selling 15% to 20% less cheese there than we are now.”

Both stores that have staffed cheese departments — at Red Bank and in Ocean, N.J. — have sales that average 6% to 8% above other stores, with self-service cheese displays.

The whole chain may be benefiting from the information given customers at the staffed locations, because total cheese sales keep climbing.

When the Middletown, N.J., independent decided to emphasize cheese, the company's leaders knew they would need their associates to understand the product and be able to discuss it with shoppers. So, deli managers and several associates were sent to cheese seminars sponsored by a distributor. The four-hour sessions were held weekly for eight weeks, and then the company developed a training manual.

Rispoli also encourages all deli associates to make a habit of visiting the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's website, which includes a cheese encyclopedia. She has also made available to them “The Cheese Primer,” an informative text by cheese guru Steven Jenkins.

For now, the growing category remains under the jurisdiction of the company's deli departments, an arrangement that Rispoli said was “working well.”

“For one thing, it gives us flexibility. There's crossover. We can make sure we have knowledgeable, hands-on people available all the time.”

The cheese departments chainwide are racking up at least 16% of deli sales, and the two locations that have the department staffed all day long post a slightly higher percentage.

During the holiday season, those percentages often go as high as 26% or 27% of deli sales.

At Red Bank and Ocean, the cheese islands are staffed from 9 in the morning to 7 at night.

“It's important that someone be there until 7 o'clock,” Rispoli said.

“The store's busy from 3 to 7. People are stopping by after work, and they often have questions.”

As an example, Rispoli described an exchange she recently overheard at the company's Red Bank store.

A customer had approached Jane “The Cheese Lady” Fillomon — a longtime employee now dedicated to Red Bank's cheese department — with a question about a cheese. The only specific detail the customer remembered was that it contained a thin layer of ash.

Fillomon quickly directed the customer to Morbier, and sold her on two or three other varieties as well.

“It's all about selling up,” Rispoli said, noting that associates also encourage shoppers to try complementary items available in the department such as quince paste from Spain and water crackers displayed nearby.

Those efforts are assisted through frequent sampling and demo events.

“One time, we mixed gorgonzola with honey and walnuts and demoed it. We had the honey and walnuts right there, so it made a triple sale.”

That mixture was something Rispoli first tasted at one of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery shows.

“It was at the Bel Gioioso booth. I tried it and liked it, even though I don't normally like blue cheese.”

Actually, Rispoli has come upon her current love of cheese little by little. She said she was brought up on “good old American and maybe some cheddar here and there.”

Although she noted that her mother, a Limburger fan, was never able to win her over with the pungent cheese, Rispoli said she likes so many varieties that she had a hard time pinning down her favorite.

“It's difficult to pick one above the others. But I do particularly like aged Gouda and Edam. Also Parmigiano Reggiano, which is one of our best sellers, and another from Italy, Piave.”

Rispoli hadn't yet become well versed in cheese when she happened to notice it was selling like crazy at a local country specialty store.

Employed by another retailer at the time, Rispoli conferred with her boss and convinced him to test-market a small selection of specialty cheeses. It turned out well, she said.

Rispoli joined Foodtown/Food Circus five years ago as the chain's deli merchandiser and soon was promoted to deli supervisor, which expanded her responsibilities.

Rispoli's enthusiasm for the cheese category got a new boost when Foodtown/Food Circus remodeled its Ocean store in the fall of 2005 and made room for a sizable, staffed International Cheese island.

About a year later, the Red Bank store was remodeled, making space for such an island there as well. Future remodels and new stores also will probably get staffed cheese departments if the demographics are right, Rispoli told SN.

As the company has put more of a focus on cheese, Rispoli said the learning experience has been great.

Taking a WMMB-sponsored tour of farmstead and artisan cheesemaking facilities in Wisconsin, for instance, provided a trove of information, she said.

“We visited farms where they used the milk from their own cows and made cheese right there. That was quite an experience. I was impressed, too, by the huge variety of cheeses made in this country. It used to be that if someone wanted Brie, they figured they'd have to buy one imported from France. Now there are domestic Bries that stand right up there with any import.”

In Rispoli's opinion, the time was right for Foodtown/Food Circus to get serious about cheese, because people are ready for it.

“They want what they've been exposed to in restaurants, and in their travels. People are watching the Food Channel. They'll want a beer cheddar they had on potatoes at their favorite restaurant, or they saw a celebrity chef talking about Parmigiano Reggiano and they want to know if we have it.”

Rispoli noted that Parmigiano Reggiano is currently one of the top sellers at the Red Bank and Ocean stores. She said she was intrigued when shown at a seminar how to crack cheese, and now cheese clerks use specific tools to crack several of the hard cheeses that the store offers.

“We used to cut them with a knife or wire, but cracking them [by pulling the cheese apart along its natural lines] is best. The pieces look more natural.”

Cheddars are also big sellers, and many are offered: Rispoli counted more than 50 cheddars, the largest number of them coming from Vermont, New York and Wisconsin, but with Ireland, England, Canada and Australia also represented.

One of the biggest challenges, Rispoli said, is staying tuned in to what customers want. She rotates some cheeses in and out, often the pricier ones, such as the Tarago River Strzelecki, which commands a retail even higher than premium-priced domestic blues such as Maytag.

“We bring some in just for the holidays. People are looking for something different then, and they spend more.”

This past December, cheese sales at both Red Bank and Ocean rose 4% above the company's projections. Rispoli explained that such success often comes from simply having learned, via experience, what to put on sale when. “We had Parmigiano Reggiano on sale for $14.99, for instance.”

While helping a friend get ready for a holiday party, she noticed that her friend had paid $28.99 at a specialty store for Parmigiano Reggiano. “I told her to come on down to our store next time. She could get it there for half that price.

“People are seeing we have cheeses that are the same or better quality than what they're paying more for somewhere else. And it's a one-stop-shopping experience for them.”