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Celebrating Cheese

Retailers use variety and pizzazz to promote cheese as a natural for the holidays

Specialty cheese is expected to hold its own this holiday season even as shoppers trim their entertaining budgets.

While they may not spend quite as much as in the past, people will celebrate the holidays, and they will entertain, retailers and others agreed.

Cheese is a natural for entertaining, even on a tighter budget, they said, because it is so versatile. The category includes a huge variety with a wide range of price points, goes well with a lot of other foods, as well as with wine, and can be served in myriad interesting ways.

“I don't foresee our cheese business hurting, even with consumers spending more carefully,” said Mark Eckhouse, vice president, McCaffrey's Markets, a three-unit independent based in Langhorne, Pa.

“People may just buy a cheese that's a little less expensive, but they'll not stop buying cheese. There are so many varieties, and they're perfect for holiday entertaining.”

Customers who had maybe ordered deli meat and cheese platters or hot platters last year for their parties might opt for just cheese and crackers this year, he added.

“We can customize trays — small ones, if that's what they want — with interesting cheeses.”

Others, including 14-unit AJ's, a division of Bashas' Supermarkets, Chandler, Ariz., are counting on some new varieties and stepped-up demoing to jump-start holiday cheese sales.

Indeed, retailers across the country have spent the last few weeks honing new and improved tactics to shine the spotlight on their growing cheese collections.

Bumped-up demos, bigger displays, smaller wedges, smaller platters, bigger and brighter point-of-sale materials, new brands and varieties and new pairings, combined with old-fashioned merchandising, are designed to keep registers ringing at a steady pace through New Year's Day.

At upscale AJ's, with some of its stores located in very high-income areas, corporate chef Mario Martinez told SN the division is counting on some new varieties to spice up sales.

“For example, we're bringing in Collier's Welsh cheddar, and I've written a recipe for a beer-based fondue featuring that cheese,” Martinez said.

“We'll be demoing that cheese and a lot of others. In fact, we'll significantly increase the number of cheeses we actively sample during the holidays.”

He, as well as Eckhouse, pointed out that the holiday season has already started, with the Jewish high holidays.

“We promoted our cheeses as well as the traditional smoked fish and breads to break the fast of Yom Kippur,” Martinez said.

Another cheese newly brought in, an artisan cheese from Cypress Grove Chevre, McKinleyville, Calif., called Humboldt Fog, is adding interest to AJ's roundup of interesting choices. It's made with two layers of goat's milk cheese that have a layer of vegetable ash between them. It's the American counterpart to a similar cheese imported from France, Martinez said.

The new additions and an aggressive demoing schedule have Martinez looking forward to the rest of the holiday season.

Out on the West Coast, another retailer voiced optimism that cheese is well-positioned for the coming holiday season.

“We're selling more gourmet cheese,” said Tanney Staffenson, advisor at five-unit Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore.

“Consumers have become so much more knowledgeable about cheese, and in addition to that, wine and cheese have got so married up,” said Staffenson.

He has added two new local brands of artisan cheese that have received a lot of attention this year in the consumer press, nationally, he said.

“This is their first year out, but we have to attribute a good chunk of increase in our cheese sales to them. I expect them to continue to do well during the holidays.”

Staffenson listens to his customers, and if they want a cheese he doesn't have, he said, he will get it for them quickly through his supplier, Unified Grocers.

“We have to stay creative, finding new items and getting customers to try them,” he said. “We've just now brought in a triple-cream Brie that I think our customers will love.”

While Staffenson talks about gourmet cheese sales not letting up, he also points to sales of Tillamook cheddar, which has its own place of prominence in Lamb's dedicated cheese cases. Tillamook, a hugely popular Oregon-based brand on the West Coast, remains the backbone of the cheese department at Lamb's, Staffenson explained.

“Believe it or not, those 2-pound bricks of Tillamook cheddar are the second-biggest volume mover in the building, second only to jug milk, and they usually run neck and neck with eggs,” Staffenson said.

While Tillamook runs promotions every so often, it hardly matters what the retail price is, Staffenson said. It just sells and sells.

“With other cheeses, it's cases we order, but it's pallets of Tillamook.”

Tillamook bricks might be the foundation of the department, but specialty cheese varieties will be cut into smaller pieces this year at Lamb's. People are being careful about what they're spending, and they don't want to pay $20 for a wedge of something they might not like, Staffenson and others have pointed out.

Cutting and wrapping smaller portions is something Tony Doering, deli manager at Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis., is paying particular attention to this year.

“We're featuring smaller pieces if it's a variety our customers aren't familiar with.” Doering said.

“For instance, we've just got Montero from Cady Creek — a wonderful Wisconsin cheese with olives in it — but with new items we try to keep the pieces small, about 4 ounces.”

Another new item at nine-unit Quillin's this year is in the spotlight. It's a Brie packaged in a cylindrical form.

“That is so easy to use, because you can cut off a slice that's about the diameter of a quarter, put it on a cracker, with a little dab of preserves in the middle,” Doering said. “It's easy and it looks great. We'll be doing a lot of demos with that.”

The utilitarian aspect will particularly be a plus, he said.

“Most of our stores are in rural areas, with a blue-collar customer base. For the most part we stick to the basics. More cheddars, Colby, Jack, so demoing something different is particularly important for us.”

It's an adventure, and adventure is good wherever it is, sources told SN.

Part of the specialty cheese success story is tied to the aura around some varieties that speaks of their culture. Certainly such items as the American version of French Morbier, with a layer of vegetable ash in the center — the one newly featured at AJ's — has a story behind it that begs to be told.

“Specialty cheeses have been gaining in popularity as consumers become more adventuresome in their eating choices,” said Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a Chicago-based retail consulting firm.

Retailers can do a better job selling by providing consumers with better information — on country of origin, taste profiles, and food and wine pairings.”

At Stauffers of Kissel Hill, Lititz, Pa., pairings are major even though the retailer doesn't sell wine.

“We have charts up that pair certain groups of cheeses with particular wines,” said Mike Huegel, deli-bakery buyer at the three-unit independent.

“We also make good use of a lot of educational materials that we get from Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. As a matter of fact, I'll be meeting with their Eastern Region representative to talk about what we'll use for the holiday season, especially what holiday POS materials.”

Huegel, who pointed out that Stauffers has a 65-foot cheese and Mediterranean food island, said he's wracking his brain to come up with anything new this year that will keep cheese sales up.

“I just approved our holiday brochure and added a little blurb on one page that suggests a cheese gift for the person you never know what to get.”

Pairing cheese with wines, fruits and preserves, and telling people the cheese's story, relies a lot on having a staffed cheese department — and according to some sources, more retailers are staffing their cheese departments, at least part of the time.

“We're seeing more retailers staffing their cheese departments,” said Melissa Abbott, senior trend spotter and analyst at the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.

“It's imperative that retailers have a knowledgeable person available who is really passionate about cheese,” Abbott told SN. “Consumers have gotten used to high quality, and they're still learning about cheese. They like that. I can't see them switching back.”

Meanwhile, Abbott suggested packaging or displaying cheeses together in a way that will pique customers' interest, maybe offer them the experience of easily comparing different cheeses.

“I just returned from the U.K., where, in bistros and at retail, I saw small trays with a small piece of sheep cheese, goat cheese and cow cheese. I thought that was a great idea.”

Abbott also suggested putting items together to underscore the culture or the country of origin of a particular cheese.

“For instance, around Manchego, a retailer could display Marcona almonds and quince paste, all of which go beautifully together and make a person think of Spain. Whenever a customer learns something about a food, they quite often tell their friends and family about it at gatherings. It's empowering.”

That's an obvious plus for anyone selling cheese.

Such efforts, in order to have maximum effect, do require knowledgeable associates at the cheese display or nearby — or, at the very least, a lot of staffed demos need to be set up.

All the retailers SN spoke with said they're increasing their scheduled demos this year and also are featuring additional varieties of cheese.

Cheese guru Steven Jenkins, author of “The Cheese Primer” and a managing partner at Fairway Markets, New York, said his staff will be doing what they always do during the holidays: making special efforts to talk to customers about specific cheeses and how to serve them.

“We're performing a number of ‘Entertaining with Serious Cheese and Serious Accompaniments’ seminars — in-store, in the cheese departments, demonstrating right in front of customers on the selling floor which elements to choose and how to serve them,” Jenkins said. “A stand-off table near the counters, a talented and passionate person manning the table, and performing these seminars during the busiest hours — that is, from 1:00 to 3:00 and from 5:30 to 8:30 — [will continue] from the week before Thanksgiving clear through New Year's Eve.”