After initially reacting to hard times by cutting variety and service, retailers now are giving specialty cheese its due.
Putting the brakes on didn't work so well, so they're reconnoitering, looking to make the most of the category.
They're doing even more sampling, seeking support from vendors like never before, trying some unusual pairings — like bleus with dark chocolate — and ramping up training, customer service and customer education.
“We realized we'd better start selling,” said one retailer. “We had tightened up so much, we did more harm than good. Our customers weren't getting what they wanted.”
Others said much the same thing.
Piggly Wiggly Carolina has not only replenished its variety and is beginning to do more sampling, but the chain also has increased its advertising significantly.
“We've had to do more advertising of volume items like mozzarella and cheddar and Parmesan just to get people into the cheese cases,” Craig Inabinett, director of deli/bakery operations at the 112-unit, Charleston, S.C.-based chain, told SN.
And, he's zeroing in — with ads and merchandising — on a signature, secret-ingredient Piggly Wiggly cheese spread that's been a customer favorite for nearly 50 years.
“We've doubled overall cheese advertising in the last six months and have run buy-one, get-one-free deals on familiar items. I noticed we were trending down, and knew we'd have to do something.”
Inabinett said that with his about-face move, he's getting strong support from his distributor.
“The psychology for a while was to tighten down when things got tough, but we're doing a lot now — increasing variety; starting up small-group training again to keep our cheese cutters educated and ready to talk to customers.”
Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis., is another regional retailer that saw no positive results from putting a clamp on its specialty cheese variety late last year.
“We're going back to more variety,” said Tony Doering, deli director for the eight-unit independent. “I watch the Food Channel and read about what's new, and I know consumers are doing the same. Boy, you'd better have that cheese Paula Deen or Rachael Ray was talking about last week. Your specialty cheese customers want those.”
Doering also credits aggressive pairing with pumping up specialty cheese sales. Just a little.
“Specialty cheese can be a tough sell right now if you don't do things with it. Pairings are key. If customers are familiar with a beer, they'll try the cheese [demoed with it],” Doering said.
“Also, you just don't realize how a good cheese and a good shiraz, or a good beer, enhance each other until you've tried them together.”
SN noticed that Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets — a pacesetter closely watched by the industry — pairs four cheeses with beers in its Menu Magazine this month.
And, some seemingly far-out pairings have served Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn., well.
At Kowalski's flagship Woodbury store, the clientele is loyal and dedicated, so even in this past year, specialty cheese sales haven't faltered, said Scott Zeinert, cheese specialist there.
“I've continued to bring in new cheeses,” Zeinert said. “My customers have looked at quality, not price. They're more apt to ask questions about whether the variety is pasteurized or unpasteurized or if the animals were given chemicals or hormones.”
While Kowalski's Woodbury store lies in the midst of a well-to-do residential area, Zeinert aims to capture customers from all demographics, he said. One of the ways he does that is to make up mini-trays that he calls “cheese flights.”
Small wedges, no more than 2 ounces each, of three or four cheddars, or three or four Goudas, or a mixture of different bleus, give customers different tastes and enable them to make comparisons. The flights, with a tiny mound of nuts, dried fruit or dark chocolate, all retail for $14.99.
Dark chocolate complements bleu cheese nicely, Zeinert said. Indeed, cheese and chocolate are the subject of an in-store seminar he has scheduled.
“We'll do blue-veined cheeses with bittersweet chocolate and a triple-cream Brie with a chocolate-raspberry truffle.”
Salted caramels and Prosecco will also be partnered with an appropriate cheese, Zeinert told SN.
“We have a nice selection of European cheeses and American artisanal cheeses. We always have something new.”
Consultant Terry Roberts, formerly part of the management team at Wegmans, pointed out that specialty cheese customers are the least price-sensitive customers that can be found.
“They are also the easiest to get to trade up to additional cheese purchases,” said Roberts, who is founder and president of Merchandising By Design/The Design Associates, Carrollton, Texas.
“All it takes is a knowledgeable associate and some sampling.”
Roberts suggested, too, that a commodity cheddar fan can be coaxed to trade up.
“Just do a blind taste test using the ‘dairy cheddar’ alongside a really fine specialty cheddar. It would be shocking if the customer didn't trade up.”
Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore., aimed to get the dairy customer to do just that by strategically locating the dairy cheese case near the specialty cheese case in a store it remodeled last fall.
“It's tough to upsell a customer in this economy, but that was our goal. Those cases together are the focal point of the store,” Tanney Staffenson, advisor to Lamb's Thriftway, told SN.
“It's hard to make comparisons, because it can't be an apple-to-apple comparison [with too many variables], but cheese sales there are good and we have confidence in the future of specialty cheese.”
At Vista Supermarkets in El Paso, Texas, Mike Pina, president of the eight-unit independent, said Vista attempts to get its customers to try something different all the time.
“Our clientele is primarily Hispanic and they use cheese as a cooking ingredient more than for anything else,” Pina said. “Muenster [Vista's No. 1 seller] is it for most of them, for cooking. It makes up about 60% of our [cheese] sales. It used to be 80% before we brought in a greater variety.”
Four or five years ago, Vista took on Cacique-brand cheeses, a pricier line that retails for 25% to 30% more than its Muenster.
Right away, when it brought in the higher-priced cheese, the retailer scheduled regular demos where an associate would cook a familiar Mexican entree, using a Cacique Manchego or mozzarella instead of Muenster.
“Tacos, quesadillas, enchiladas. We made them with Cacique and it worked. Sales have grown dramatically,” Pina said, adding that Cacique has given Vista advertising and marketing support.
To keep sales up, Middletown, N.J.-based Food Circus, which operates 10 stores under the Foodtown and Super Foodtown banners, has kept a large variety of specialty cheeses that run the gamut in retail price.
Patti Rispoli, deli specialist, who oversees specialty cheese buying for the chain, said she never thought of cutting variety as some other retailers did last year.
“Honestly, we've just listened to the needs of our customers,” Rispoli told SN. “Some customers may not want a Gruyere at $22.99 a pound, so we suggest something else that's top quality, but a little cheaper just to keep the sale.”
Rispoli said she spends quite a bit of time searching for more deals, and has succeeded in getting strong support from her vendors.
“I'd say I have 80% more support now than I did two years ago.”
She's doing more sampling and demoing, but rather than getting people to trade up, she's just happy they're still buying, she said.
Other retailers said they've begun to cut smaller wedges of cheese to enable customers to try some new varieties without getting sticker-shocked. Manufacturers, who prepack specialty cheeses, are complying with smaller packages.
Roth Kase, Monroe, Wis., was one of the first artisanal cheesemakers to package several of its varieties in 4-ounce wedges.
While selling up for some retailers was a plus this past year, others were just looking to sell at a time when customers were watching their budgets.
Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's David Leonhardi said he doesn't like the terminology “trading up” because it implies the customer is leaving something behind.
“I want them to continue to do what they're doing, and build on that,” Leonhardi, who is WMMB's director of education and food service, told SN.
“But if you're going to build sales by selling additional varieties, then you have to show customers how to use them.”
Leonhardi said a well-trained staff can do wonders when it comes to selling cheese.
“Just telling customers how to use Asiago can sell it. And how about suggesting Havarti on a cheeseburger?”
Leonhardi pointed out that WMMB has a website, cheeseandburgersociety.com , that offers ideas on how to use specialty cheeses in everyday ways.
He said, too, that even commonplace cheeses can be made exciting by using them in new ways.
“Everybody knows, for instance, that you can use feta in salad, but fry some, and let customers watch it not melt. It caramelizes nicely.”
Whatever retailers' experience has been with specialty cheese this past year, they all said they see a bright future for the category.
In fact, part of the category — artisanal cheese — seems somewhat recession-proof. WMMB spokeswoman Marilyn Wilkinson said she has talked to individual specialty cheesemakers who haven't been hurt by previous recessions.
“They've actually said past recessions haven't hit them, and we see specialty still leading the category,” she said.
Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm, shows natural cheese sales up. For the 52 weeks ending Jan. 24, IRI figures show unit sales up 6.02% and dollar sales up 3.5%.
Certainly, the country's largest grocery chain, Kroger Co., shows confidence in the specialty cheese category by its commitment to rolling out Murray's Cheese Shops to an additional 50 units. That deal was made as recently as last November.