Price Chopper Supermarkets sent three of its front-line cheese clerks to Wisconsin to learn firsthand how cheese is made.
The goal was to bolster staffers' knowledge about cheese so they can interact with customers with greater confidence. That worked, officials said. And that, along with renewed team spirit, will undoubtedly curry additional sales just as the holiday season gets into swing.
The Price Chopper staffers actually made Fontina, tasted Limburger in all its stages of aging, watched other cheese-making processes and talked at length to master cheese makers during the trek, which took them from Madison to Green Bay and back.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” said Jill Petitti, a longtime Price Chopper employee, who is specialty cheese lead clerk at a store near the 116-unit chain's Schenectady, N.Y., headquarters. “I've always loved my job, but now I have new respect for my job and for my product.”
Her fellow specialty cheese clerks on the tour — Kathy Linehan, from a Price Chopper unit in Glens Falls, N.Y., and Stephanie Carnevale, from the chain's Bristol, Conn., store — expressed similar sentiments, Petitti told SN.
Petitti talked to SN about the four-day tour, which had been arranged by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Madison, and was led by WMMB representatives.
While Petitti has some familiarity with the state of Wisconsin, because she has relatives there, she said she'd never been exposed close-up to the art of cheese making. At a Roth Kase facility in Monroe, Petitti and her colleagues got more than a close-up. They got fully immersed in the process of making Fontina.
They donned the proper garb and set about making a vat of the cheese. From 5 a.m. to noon, the Price Chopper team — which included Michel Bray, the chain's cheese specialist and merchandiser, and Tim Fink, deli director, as well as the front-line clerks — worked every phase of the process, making the cheese step-by-step, until it was ready for the aging room.
“It has to age, but it'll be ready just before Christmas, and we'll make it Price Chopper's chainwide Cheese of the Week for Christmas week,” Bray told SN.
Roth Kase's cheese-making staff broke the Price Chopper group into three teams that rotated duties.
“It was all hands-on,” Bray said. “We did the work, everything that's involved, including flipping forms and cleaning them.”
Bray spoke of the value of such team activity.
“This tour did everything we wanted it to do. That was to ignite or to reignite a passion for cheese and for their jobs, and to build teamwork.”
“It was good for morale, and for communication. When the clerks look across a vat of cheese and see Tim Fink, our deli director, working away with a hair net on his head, some barriers come down. They won't be afraid to talk to him.”
Petitti told SN she was impressed that they all actually got to make the cheese themselves.
“Everybody got to do every aspect of it, from the time the starter went in to taking it out of forms,” she said. “It was interesting to see all the steps that go into the process — and it sure doesn't wait for you. It's fast. When the curd came down, we pushed it into forms, then they have to be flipped.”
Petitti also was impressed by the cleanliness of everything.
“With all that goes into making cheese, it's amazing that they can keep their places so absolutely clean and shiny. Everywhere we went on the tour, the production facilities were so clean, so spotless — the room, all the equipment — I just keep thinking about that,” she added.
At noon, after a morning of cheese making, the tour attendees were treated to a fondue luncheon in Roth Kase's modern, pine-paneled teaching kitchen, overlooking the aging rooms.
Over the four days, the Price Chopper front-liners also got to sample several cheeses they'd never tried before.
“We all tasted Limburger at Chalet, which is the only producer of Limburger in the United States,” Petitti said.
WMMB's Northeast regional manager, Sue Keenan, who was with the group from start to finish, commented on the group's obvious interest as they learned about making cheese, tasted cheeses new to them and discovered how to use them in different ways.
“It was great. They were so completely involved, and enjoying it, too. They were real troupers when it came to tasting Limburger. Most had never tried it before, but every one of them did at Chalet,” said Keenan.
Chalet Cheese Cooperative, a dairy farmers' cooperative founded in the mid-1800s, has its small, Alpine-style production plant just outside Monroe, Wis. While the plant also makes other varieties — including Swiss, Baby Swiss, brick, German brick, Muenster and cheddar — Myron Olson, Chalet's general manager and a master cheese maker, is committed to carrying on the Limburger tradition, he said.
“Some on the tour were surprised that it [Limburger] is so mild when it's young,” Olson said. “I explained how it changes flavor, getting stronger as it ages. A lot of people like it best when it's very aged.”
Olson has been with Chalet since the '70s, when he became a licensed cheese maker. “When I was a senior in high school, I'd come here after school and wrap Limburger from 5 till 9 in the evening.”
Olson said he enjoys telling people about how different cheeses are made.
“I particularly like the groups of businesspeople like this one,” Olson told SN. “They're really interested. They want to hear everything. It's a good educational experience — for me, as well as for them.”
Price Chopper's Petitti marveled at how friendly and cooperative all the cheese makers and their staffs were.
“Everybody was so friendly and so willing to answer any questions. There wasn't one place that wasn't welcoming, and you could see in their faces they love what they're doing.”
The tour stopped at several Wisconsin spots of interest to cheese makers: Carr Valley Cheese Cooking School, Sauk City; Meister Cheese, Muscoda; Klondike Cheese, Monroe; and ended with a tour of one of BelGioioso's plants in Chase.
Petitti spoke about the different cheese-making processes she saw at all the stops, and also about new ways she saw particular cheeses used.
“For instance, BelGioioso made a pizza with fresh, mild provolone on it,” she said. “That was the best pizza I've ever had. I'd have never thought of using that cheese that way. It's normally a slicing cheese, but they shredded it and put it on pizza, and it melted beautifully. I'm definitely going to do that at the store.”
BelGioioso topped off a tour of one of their plants with a “sampling luncheon,” at which they served every cheese variety they make, and items like the pizza that included them as ingredients.
Petitti told SN that she and her colleagues also were shown how to pair cheeses against each other and with particular fruits — ideas, she said, that they can apply at their respective stores.
She said the four days were more jam-packed with information than she could have imagined, and what's more, she noted that the cheese makers themselves, and their associates, all seemed happy to share their knowledge.
“We enjoyed having them here,” said Francesca Auricchio Elfner, director of sales and marketing at Denmark, Wis.-based BelGioioso.
“I do think they were surprised at how much work goes into making some of our cheeses. We are, too, sometimes,” Elfner said jokingly. “Some of the more artisan cheeses we do just because we love them and love making them.”
For example, the newest BelGioioso product, Burrata, got a lot of attention. It is a fresh mozzarella filled with cream and shredded mozzarella curd.
Elfner told SN that the product is immensely labor-intensive, and she briefly described the process.
“A fresh mozzarella ball is made, then shaped by hand into a little pouch so the filling can be put in it. Then it is filled and sealed delicately by hand before it goes into the water to cool down.”
Price Chopper hopes to be offering BelGioioso Burrata in most of its stores by the time the holiday rush begins, Bray told SN.
A very enthusiastic Petitti said she can't wait till the holidays arrive.
“We'll be able to tell our customers so much about all these products. We can make suggestions about pairing, and compare a particular cheese to another. I'll tell them I was out in Wisconsin, that I was right there, talking to the cheese makers, and making some cheese.”
WMMB arranges several tours a year of cheese makers' facilities for retailers and others, but the Price Chopper tour, in October, was one of its last this year. As winter comes to Wisconsin, bad weather can stand in the way of such projects, a WMMB official told SN.