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The Big Cheese

The Big Cheese

Elvis, elephants, giraffes and Coney Island bumper cars may catch customers' attention first, but the Big Cheese sign towers over all, guiding shoppers to what many are looking for the immense selection of specialty cheese at Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio. Even through the darkest days of the recession, the cheese shop's sales continued to grow, up a little each week. The cheese

Elvis, elephants, giraffes and Coney Island bumper cars may catch customers' attention first, but the “Big Cheese” sign towers over all, guiding shoppers to what many are looking for — the immense selection of specialty cheese at Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield, Ohio.

Even through the darkest days of the recession, the cheese shop's sales continued to grow, up a little each week.

“The cheese shop's sales have shown double-digit growth each of the past two years,” Debby Hartinger, the single-unit store's public relations and marketing coordinator, told SN last week.

In the midst of this unusual market's legendary performing animatronics, just the cheese shop's sheer volume of product and variety — 1,400 SKUs of cheese from 70 countries, and an expansive charcuterie selection — could make it a standout, but there's more to it than that.

Excellent customer service plays a major role, officials said. Indeed, exceptional customer service is seen as an absolute necessity for selling such a huge volume — at least 5,000 pounds of cheese per week — as Jungle Jim's does.

“Saturday is showtime,” said Hartinger. “We have weekly traffic of at least 82,000, and 25,000 to 30,000 of those shoppers come here on Saturday.”

The cheese shop occupies 6,000 square feet — most of which is selling space — of the store's total 300,000 square feet, and is situated in the traffic pattern in such a way that customers are bound to walk through it.

Specialty cheese is one of the top five categories contributing to total store sales.

“Sales” and “selling” are words that are heavily emphasized to associates at Jungle Jim's.

“When we hire an associate, whether full-time or part-time, we make it clear that their job is selling,” Hartinger explained.

And managers show them how, placing particular emphasis on demoing and sampling.

“Our customers can taste anything. We're always happy to slice into a hunk cheese and let them taste it,” cheese shop manager Stu Rutherford told SN.

“If it's a cheese they're not familiar with, they're reluctant to spend the money on something they don't know whether they'll like. So if they look just a little interested or ask about something, our associates know to offer them a taste.”

Sticker shock could be a hindrance because Jungle Jim's cheeses are not inexpensive.

The cheese specials featured in last week's ad circular were each $14.99 a pound. There was Caciotta Bufala, imported from Italy, and offered with $3 off the everyday price. The other special was Wilde Hilde, imported from Switzerland, and promoted at $2 off the everyday price.

Even though 80% of Jungle Jim's cheeses are displayed self-service, that doesn't dampen associates' selling zeal in the least. In fact, on a Saturday, up to nine associates, in addition to the manager and assistant manager, are roving the cheese shop's floor, talking to customers and offering them samples.

“We do have a service cheese counter, but you can sell only so much cheese at a service counter. The way we do it allows us to sell the most we can,” Rutherford said.

Customers are impressed by the variety and like to hunt through the cheeses to see what's new, or at least, new to them.

“We have 70 different bleu cheeses, and we've begun offering several buffalo milk cheeses,” Hartinger said. “First there was buffalo mozzarella, but now we have buffalo bleus, buffalo gouda, even buffalo Gruyere. We create our own trends.”

The shop also carries 80 different cheddars and 75 different goudas.

In a constant effort to educate customers' taste buds, the cheese shop schedules demos all day long every Wednesday through Sunday.

Long-time employee Annie Sketch conducts demos at the tasting center 40 hours a week.

“It's important that customers see the same person every week. They get to know her, and look forward to her demos,” Hartinger said. “Annie is very personable. She knows customers by name. She even keeps animal crackers there at the tasting center for the kids.”

With Sketch's demos, plus those set up by cheesemakers or by distributors, there can be as many as 20 cheese demos going on in one day, Hartinger explained.

Rutherford commented on the value of ongoing demos. “Demoing is definitely the best way to market cheese.”

With an eye toward sourcing local products, nearby cheesemakers often are invited to do demos of their own products, and to tell the story behind them.

In fact, Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese, located nearby in Kentucky, is a case in point. The company makes a variety of artisanal cheeses, using milk from its own dairy herd.

One day earlier this spring, when Kenny's sales manager Van Campbell demoed three of Kenny's varieties at Jungle Jim's, he hit an all-time record.

“He set the record here for a one way demo, selling $1,700 worth of his own cheese that day,” Rutherford pointed out.

Kenny Mattingly, owner of Kenny's, told SN he makes about 2,000 pounds of cheese per week, and that week he delivered 800 pounds of his weekly production to Jungle Jim's.

“The demo was great, and I remember it was a cold and windy day in March. Van gave out samples of our bleu gouda, peppercorn asiago and Tomme de Nena.”

Campbell, who also did some associate training that day, told the associates as well as customers the story behind some of Kenny's Farmhouse cheeses.

For instance, Tomme de Nena was described as “richer, creamier. This cheese [is] normally produced from skim milk, [but] ours is made from our double cream Awe-Brie curds to give it a burst of flavor and a firmer texture.”

Mattingly had praise for Rutherford as cheese shop manager.

“The key to growing sales is working with a cheese manager and scheduling demos regularly, and Stu is the type of cheese manager you want to work with.”

Rutherford brings to the job years of experience in the restaurant business, which he said serves him well at Jungle Jim's. The pace at Jungle Jim's, he said, is energizing.

“The constant flow of people doesn't bother me. I like it. In the restaurant business you have to work fast so I'm used to that. I ran restaurants for 20 years so it was easy to get in the groove here.”

A former chef and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Portland, Ore., Rutherford became acquainted with a lot of cheeses and how to use them through his courses in culinary school and work in the restaurant world.

“Since a lot of our customers at Jungle Jim's are ingredients shoppers — they cook at home — I can be of help to them because I know the characteristics of the different cheeses, and also what goes well with them.”

Rutherford has among his regular customers some local chefs from nearby fine-dining restaurants.

“I have chefs buying cheese from us for their cheese plates. Sometimes, they even ask me to choose the combination of cheeses for their cheese plates.”

In addition to adding several buffalo milk cheeses recently, Rutherford said Jungle Jim's is on top of the flavored cheese trend as well.

“Especially cheddars and goudas because the flavors can be integrated into the cheese. Lavender and garlic are popular right now, and there's newer flavor, muffaletta.” Rutherford said he likes to keep new cheeses coming in.

“About 50% of the selections are basic and the other 50% is constantly changing,” he said. “One of the things I like most about this job is that you're given a lot of freedom as long as you perform financially.”

Rutherford and Hartinger agreed that the biggest challenge in managing so many SKUs of cheese is rotating them to keep all within their sell-by date.

“With the charcuterie products and the cheeses, we have nearly 4,000 products with fairly short shelf lives, and having systems in place to track them is essential,” Rutherford said. “We track dates every single day, sometimes more than once a day.”

As grilling season and summer days get near, cheeses such as caramelized onion cheddar and halloumi [a cheese, usually from Greece, that doesn't melt when grilled or fried] will be featured, Hartinger said. Also some over-the-top promotions are scheduled.

The animatronic robots and often wacky promos at Jungle Jim's were some of the things cheese sculptor Sarah Kauffman, aka The Cheese Lady, said she loved about working at the market.

“It was always different, like a moving machine,” said Kauffman, who worked there 11 years as creative services manager. Her first assignment there was to sculpt a 300-pound cheese gorilla.

And, in the genre of attention-getting events, an upcoming Beemster cheese promotion will involve a 12-foot cow and a hot air balloon, weather permitting, Hartinger said.

She added that Jungle Jim's doesn't consider it has competition in this region. “There's no other store like ours around here.”

Come 2012, however, there will be. The owner of Jungle Jim's bought a former, 211,000 square-foot biggs location. It's nearby, but not so close that it will cannibalize sales from the original Jungle Jim's, Hartinger said.

“It'll open early next year. We still have to ‘Jungle-ize’ it.”