Retailers are putting their money on specialty cheese for the holidays, whipping up interest with new varieties and currying face-to-face contact with customers.
They're heating up efforts to educate customers about how to use particular varieties, putting an emphasis on pairing — with wine, fruits and salsas. Suppliers are helping with cross-merchandising tools, such as shelf cards that show delicious-looking accoutrements dolloped onto featured cheeses. The large, standout cards tell customers where they can find the cheeses' accompaniments in the store.
Interesting cheeses, bathed in local brews, American Cheese Society award winners, new imports, added private-label varieties and alliances with new suppliers are all on the calendar. So are expanded displays and demo schedules.
Entertaining with cheese is a natural, and Lunds/Byerly's is underscoring that fact as the holidays approach.
“We do a lot of education-based events around a product in the store,” said John Stueland, deli category manager at the 21-unit retailer based in St. Paul, Minn.
Attention-getting things like splitting, or cracking, whole wheels of cheese out on the floor piques customer interest in the different qualities of different cheeses, Stueland explained.
“We'll take the whole wheel out, maybe a seasonal bleu that's been bathed in a particular local ale. When it's cracked open, customers can see the colors of the veins change, hear the story we tell about it, and see that the cheese is a living, breathing thing,” Stueland told SN.
“We do it with Parma Reggiano and our private-label Grana Padana, too.”
Lunds and Byerly's stores, which all have a service cheese department carrying a wide range of local specialty cheeses, don't make up trays and baskets ahead of time, but instead coach customers as they choose cheese to create their own customized trays.
“We've found our customers like to choose the cheeses themselves, and we help them out on a one-to-one basis,” Stueland said, pointing out that the cheese department often inspires ideas by displaying little tapas-sized trays with three small wedges of different cheeses and some nuts, grapes or cured meats.
The first week in December, themed “Entertaining With Cheese,” will involve a lot of in-store sampling, with new varieties featured, he added.
Another retailer, Pennington Quality Market, Pennington, N.J., is counting on a good holiday selling season based on its strong sales of specialty cheese over this past year. Even in this sluggish economy, sales remained high, and there wasn't even a dip in August, as there often is, the upscale independent's cheese buyer Judy Roseboro told SN.
Roseboro and store manager Don Rellstab are enthusiastic about a new alliance they've made with Artisanal Cheese Co., New York.
“We took a tour of their facility in Manhattan a few weeks ago and it was fantastic. They have aging caves right there on 37th Street in New York,” Rellstab said.
“And the quality of the cheese is great. I always thought I knew what a good cheese tastes like. But I didn't, not till I tasted theirs. Almost immediately we took on 14 or 15 varieties, including a wonderful goat gouda from the Netherlands, and a two-year-old Vermont cheddar that's won numerous awards.”
It's a variety chosen particularly for the holidays.
“We just brought them in six weeks ago and we've already had three reorders.”
The Artisanal Cheese Co. recently spent nearly a whole weekend demoing and talking to Pennington's customers and is scheduled to do it again before Thanksgiving.
“They have this big ‘cheese clock’ set up, which shows very graphically when, during the meal, or in what sequence to serve what cheeses, “ Rellstab said. “For instance, a mild cheese would be served first. They might recommend a young, mild goat cheese to start — with a white wine or champagne. Double cremes and then a bloomy rind cheese might come next.”
Rellstab emphasized that he and Pennington's associates are learning a lot that they can pass on to customers. The link-up was timed for the holidays, and it's paying off, Rellstab said.
“All of their cheeses are high-end, and pretty expensive, but we have them cut in small enough wedges so the price doesn't put anyone off.”
Customers are excited about the new offerings, Rellstab added. They're being told about them during demos, as well as through the market's circular and public address system.
Meanwhile, Norseland, a Stamford, Conn.-based importer, is working closely with selected retailers to cross-merchandise other products with their cheeses.
“We've produced shelf talkers that help retailers with cross-merchandising,” said Ruth Flore, Norseland's marketing manager.
“Wegmans, who as you know is very tuned into cross-merchandising, has used them. A card showing a close-up of a triple creme goat brie drizzled with mango-pineapple salsa might direct customers to Wegmans' Mediterranean bar for the salsa and other accoutrements.”
She pointed out that Norseland works with supermarkets to develop programs specific to the retailer and its location.
Just last month, Norseland developed “The Ultimate Cheese Board” brochure, a colorful six-page foldout that lists quick pairings of its imported cheeses with familiar wines. It has been sent out to retailers and distributors.
On the West Coast, Lamb's Thriftway, in one of its Portland, Ore.-area stores, has opened up more space for specialty cheese as part of a remodeling. The owners expect the redo — along with an added variety of cheese — to give its sales an outstanding lift over the holidays.
“Just in the last couple of months, we've tripled our selection of cheese and doubled our sales of it,” co-owner Nick Goldsmith said.
“We wanted to get this done before the holidays,” he added. “We took out a grocery gondola and opened up space, giving more space to perimeter departments. We put in two, low-profile, 12-footers with three decks just for specialty cheese. Now, we have the largest cheese selection in town.”
The company has hired a cheese steward for the first time. He'll be putting emphasis on several local cheeses, including Rogue Valley Bleu, an Oregon cheese that took a top award this year at the American Cheese Society's annual meeting.
A particular part of the store renovation is expected to bring new customers to the specialty cheeses, primarily those who used to be satisfied picking up a brick of cheddar from the dairy case.
The owners brought the two cheese departments together. Right behind the two 12-foot cases is a wall stacked high with regular cheese — including the two-pound bricks of Tillamook that are so popular in this area. Those cheeses used to be all the way across the store in the dairy department. Partially integrating the two categories of cheese is aimed at getting customers to move up a step in their purchases.
If customers reach automatically for the regular cheese, the specialty cheese is right there as well to entice them.
Another Oregon supermarket retailer — Newport Market in Bend — prides itself on its cheese selection. Sales haven't lagged at all in this slow economy year, officials said.
“For the size of our store, we do a tremendous specialty cheese business,” said Newport Market's Jeff Holden, who works closely with cheese director Glen Silvey.
“We bring in new and interesting cheeses for the holidays. We know our customers, so we pretty much know what they'll like.”
But it's not just selection of cheeses, it's super customer service that sets Newport Market apart, industry sources have told SN, and Holden confirmed that.
“We demo a lot, but I'll let a customer taste any cheese he wants to. If he points to seven cheeses he's not familiar with, I have no problem opening all of them. And I often have people ask me what cheeses would go well with a pinot [noir] and I'll choose two or three for them.”
Award-winning Rogue River Bleu, retailing for $34.99 a pound, is the holiday season star here, too.
Back in Lakewood, Ohio, Nature's Bin, a natural food store turned full-line grocery store, also does a good business in specialty cheese despite its small size. The store's size is somewhat counteracted by the loyalty of its customers, associates said, which keeps sales healthy. But in a total selling space of 7,000 square feet, the retailer is hampered in showing off its varieties.
“We have this ugly, 12-foot stand-up case that's a challenge,” Josie Duennes, food service manager, said. “But I managed to add two semi-circular extensions to the bottom shelves recently.”
Duennes brings in special cheeses during the holidays, items that'll look good in baskets or on trays, she said. For instance, right about this time, she starts selling Truckles from England.
“They're small rounds in different flavors — maybe whiskey and sage — and covered in different colored wax, like red, green, black and brown. They're small and they look great in a basket. Also, Vermont Butter Co. makes 2.5-ounce rounds of Bijou goat cheese that goes well at this time of year,” Duennes added.
Since Nature's Bin is cramped for space, there are no cheese baskets made up ahead of time, but associates are quick to suggest what goes with what and to introduce complementary items such as 5-ounce jars of pear and fig compote or sweet onion jam.
Across the industry, retailers are tuning up their specialty cheese selections and putting more demos on the calendar in readiness for the holiday season. Their spirits have been buoyed by their sales during this past year. Retailers who spoke to SN said sales were steady and at least one said he had not seen customers trading down in quality.
“They may buy a smaller wedge, but they stay with the quality they want.”
Everybody said they're revving up their demo schedule. Lunds/Byerly's will be doing cheese demos and other events just about every weekend until New Year's.
Ferguson & Hassler, a single unit independent in Quarryville, Pa., is calling attention to its specialty cheese with a huge ad on the front of its circular this week that gives the holidays a send-off with special prices on a large selection of specialty cheeses. The ad takes up at least two-thirds of the front page.
Safeway, which has a well-developed specialty cheese program, is looking to get its customers in a holiday mood with the most recent issue of its cheese-centric publication, The Art of Cheese. The lead-in blurb on the cover reads: “It's easy to set the stage for spectacular holiday meals by starting with an array of irresistible appetizers. … Cheese is wonderfully versatile, and lends itself to a variety of scrumptious hot and cold appetizers.”