They haven't quite made it into the mainstream shopping cart yet, but Hispanic-style cheeses such as queso blanco and queso fresco offer important customer convenience in many conventional supermarkets, and continue to be must-have items for grocers that primarily serve Hispanic shoppers.
Retailers told SN that, over the last two or three years, they've either brought in Hispanic cheese for the first time, or have added stockkeeping units at selected sites. The idea is to have it there for Hispanic customers who do the rest of their shopping at the store.
Unlike some other ethnic cheeses that have become sought-after specialty items, Hispanic cheeses remain everyday fare — for Hispanic customers.
“Based on sales in the tristate area — that is, for supermarkets and specialty stores — Hispanic cheeses are hardly worth mentioning,” said Steven Jenkins, author of “The Cheese Primer” and managing partner at Fairway Markets, New York.
“Our four Fairway Markets carry Hispanic cheese as a convenience — but sales are far from remarkable.”
That may seem surprising, since metro New York is home to a burgeoning Hispanic population. But the metro area also has countless bodegas and neighborhood groceries where first- and second-generation Hispanics do most of their shopping, industry sources said.
In border states, such as Texas, and in rural areas that attract seasonal migrant workers, it's a much different story.
At United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, for example, sales are growing enough that officials are ready to put more Hispanic cheeses into more of their stores.
“Although the product has been in test mode, we are now ready to roll it out to more of our delis,” said Juan Enchinton, United's business manager for innovation. “We see a growing trend in our Mexican cheese line, and we're also seeing that more brands are becoming available, making the cost to our guests more affordable.”
Enchinton said United also has recently expanded its selection of other fresh Hispanic items, such as cremas and Mexican yogurts, merchandising them with the cheese, to create a destination.
Getting Anglos to try the cheeses and get hooked on them is a matter of consistently scheduling demos and events, said Eddie Owens, United's spokesman.
“You can get anyone to buy these cheeses if you demo them and make sure you have recipes available,” Owens said.
The full line of Hispanic cheeses, about a dozen SKUs, is offered in all the company's higher-dollar-volume stores.
Back in Vidalia onion country, a Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. unit has seen a gradual increase in sales of Hispanic cheeses over the last two or three years, officials said.
“Sales are best during April, May and June, when migrant workers are here picking and processing Vidalia onions,” said Ed Stanford, meat market manager at the Glennville, Ga., Piggly Wiggly store.
“Our biggest sellers are queso Cotija, en polvo and queso fresco, sold through the meat department.”
Stanford said he'd like to increase the number of varieties during those spring months but is hampered by limited space.
“I have asked my supplier to provide me with a list of cheeses and to suggest some more that we may somehow work into that section.”
At this point, the 113-unit Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co., Charleston, S.C., with stores in South Carolina and coastal Georgia, carries a small variety of Hispanic cheese in several selected areas, chain spokeswoman Rita Postell told SN.
Supermarket retailers agreed that sales of Hispanic cheeses are, for the most part, limited to Hispanic customers.
“I could easily say 99% of sales in that category are to Hispanics,” said one former East Coast retailer.
“Until one of the celebrity chefs gets on television and starts talking about how wonderful queso fresco or queso blanco is, gourmet cooks aren't going to be looking for it.
“I've been hearing for at least a year now that Hispanic cheese is going to be the next big pop, but it hasn't happened. They're not going to get out of their niche, mostly because they're just not very exciting.”
For that matter, he added, the Hispanic cheese makers and manufacturers of other Hispanic products don't appear to be doing much to grow the category.
Since they are not seen as specialty cheeses, Hispanic cheeses usually are merchandised in the meat department or the dairy department rather than in deli or specialty cheese sections.
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Zingerman's, the deli-turned-specialty-store, with a huge collection of coveted cheeses from around the world, doesn't carry any Mexican-style or Caribbean-style Hispanic cheeses at all.
In a spot check of supermarket retailers around the United States, SN learned how supermarkets are handling the category — if they are handling it at all.
“We merchandise those cheeses — just four SKUs — next to the tortilla set, which is right at the end of the meat case, where we also have chorizo,” said Vern Staker, meat/deli manager at Day's Market, Heber City, Utah, which is supplied by Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City.
“Our Hispanic customers always shop the meat case, especially for tripe and hearts and chorizo.”
Staker said he keeps the most popular Hispanic cheeses, and then rotates some different varieties in and out to see if they'll sell. His take on the category is that sales will continue to grow because the Hispanic population in his market area is growing steadily.
At Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore., Tanney Staffenson, advisor at Lamb's Thriftway Stores, said Lamb's has expanded the category slightly over the last year, but still carries only five SKUs.
“Even though it's slow, it is a growing category. You just have to keep your eye on your customer base to see what they want, see if it changes,” Staffenson said.
“We do our best to cover the basics for the convenience of our Hispanic customers. It's mostly Hispanics buying, but there are some others who may be trying a recipe that calls for these.”
Even Rudy's Newport Market, Bend, Ore. — a high-end, mainstream grocery/specialty store — carries three SKUs of Hispanic cheese in its cheese department, and the cheese manager there said they're usually purchased by shoppers who are experimenting with a recipe.
Eclectic, single-unit Jungle Jim's International Market merchandises Hispanic cheeses in more than one place in the store.
“We have a Mexican section in our specialty cheese department,” said Paul Fischesser, international buyer at Jungle Jim's.
“It's easier now for us to get it. We're getting Cacique brand through a distributor, and we've added varieties.”
Fischesser pointed out that Jungle Jim's is in an area that has a high concentration of Hispanics. Even so, unlike other retailers SN talked to, Fischesser estimates that only about 60% of his customers who buy Hispanic cheese are Hispanic. The other 40% may have been introduced to the cheeses at restaurants, he said, or may just want to try something different.
That's not surprising, since with the unusual atmosphere at Jungle Jim's, many consumers consider a shopping trip there an adventure.
That there will be continued growth in the Hispanic cheese category is borne out by what's happening on the supplier side. Many U.S.-based dairies have been launching new products in order to meet growing demand.
For example, Land O'Lakes introduced its own queso blanco at Expo Comido Latino last fall.
And even as competition heats up, with more brands arriving, a Denver-based, longtime maker of Mexican-style cheese, Queso Campesino Mexican Cheese/Colorado Ranchers Dairy, has seen steady growth over the last few years and, thanks to recently expanded distribution, is poised for double-digit increases in 2008, said Linda Jensen, the company's director of sales and marketing.
“Queso Campesino [with 80% of its sales to retail] has chosen to go to market in [supermarket] delis with a random-weight cheese,” Jensen said.
The California Milk Advisory Board, in a border state that produces most of the Hispanic cheese made in the U.S., is seeing continued growth in the category as well.
What's quite attention-getting is the number of Wisconsin cheese makers who have got into production of Hispanic cheese.
Twenty-nine out of 48 Wisconsin cheese makers are now producing Hispanic cheese, according to Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board officials.
“Wisconsin cheese makers have lots of trend data that has enabled them to get ready for the future,” said Marilyn Wilkinson, WMMB's director, national product communications.
“The university provides a lot of information, and then they've been supplying foodservice for a long, long time, and we know that is where trends usually start.”
Wilkinson pointed out that WMMB's analysis of research figures from different sources shows that from 2003 to 2007, Hispanic cheese sales averaged 9.2% annual growth while sales in the cheese category as a whole declined slightly.
Another WMMB representative told SN that while sales of the most popular Hispanic cheese, queso blanco, have tripled in five years, he emphasized that the strongest retail sales are still at bodegas and other Hispanic outlets.
“Without question, there's continuing growth, but it continues to require an educational process from manufacturer to consumer,” WMMB's director of foodservice and cheese education, David Leonhardi, said.
“The single most important thing to teach Anglo customers is what to do with these cheeses.”
More sampling and demos, such as frying queso blanco, a soft, mild cheese that lends itself to frying, could attract lots of attention to the category, Leonhardi said, and others agreed.
While most mainstream supermarkets offering Hispanic cheese may be thinking about attracting the Anglo market to the Hispanic products they offer, one West Coast retailer saw such potential in his small town's Hispanic population that he took a more aggressive approach.
Tom Evans, an executive at two Thriftway stores near Portland, Ore., decided to refit one of the stores to make it a destination for the large concentration of Hispanics in his market area. In effect, he made it into a 35,000-square-foot Hispanic supermarket with an emphasis on perishables.
Part of his endeavor included stocking a 12-foot section of his meat case with Hispanic cheeses — a large variety that turns at a tremendous rate, Evans said.
Cacique brand, the largest manufacturer of Hispanic cheeses in the United States, is a standout at the redone Grande Foods store in Cornelius, Ore.
“Just recently, my supplier, Unified Grocers, took on Cacique products, and that has helped us increase sales of the Hispanic cheeses in a very short time,” Evans said.
Indeed, just last month, Evans doubled space for them by taking 12 feet away from self-service meat. Now the cheeses, numbering 40 SKUs, occupy a 24-foot run of five-shelf case. Sales as well as space have doubled, Evans told SN.
He said that Hispanic cheeses at the remodeled Grande Foods now outsell Tillamook brand cheeses “by huge numbers.” Tillamook is by far the most dominant and fast-moving mainstream brand on the West Coast.
Yet Evans has weathered the dilemma of how much Hispanic cheese to carry in a mainstream grocery store — at his other Thriftway store, three miles away — and he still believes the category will not emerge as anything bigger than a small niche in mainstream supermarkets, at selected locations.
“Not in the near future, anyway,” he said.