Specialty cheese is a constantly evolving category and has fared the recession well as consumers continued to reformulate their equations for value and eating at home.
In fact, though three categories comprise deli cheese — service and pre-sliced being the other two — specialty cheese makes up the majority, over 58%, of sales volume, Steve Lutz of the Perishables Group, West Dundee, Ill., told SN. Specialty cheese was also the only category of the three to gain dollar sales in the latest 52 weeks, up 1% in dollars and 4.6% in volume.
“Despite tough economic conditions, specialty cheese consumers are not as price-sensitive; higher-priced items such as feta, mozzarella and parmesan continued to see strong sales,” Lutz said.
“Specialty cheese has grown over the past four years and may have benefited from the recession and consumers' search for value, as more restaurant consumers shifted to the grocery store.”
According to Perishables Group data, feta and fresh mozzarella both experienced over 7% increases in dollar sales over last year, and parmesan saw a 3.3% increase. Blue cheese increased 6% over last year in dollar sales and goat cheese experienced a 2.8% increase.
Wisconsin government data also provide evidence of specialty cheese growth.
“Wisconsin cheese makers produced 477 million pounds of specialty cheeses such as feta, parmesan wheels, fontina, blue, provolone and havarti in 2009 — an increase of 40 million pounds over 2008,” said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Madison.
The increase in demand for specialty cheese may also have to do with the fact that American consumers are increasingly able to draw distinctions between cow, goat and sheep cheeses, said Melissa Abbott, trends and culinary insights manager at the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash.
“Consumers today are much savvier than even five years ago in terms of ‘real cheese’ or specialty cheese knowledge,” Abbott said.
“Consumers no longer perceive cheese as something you order from the deli counter or wrapped in shiny plastic and pre-sliced. It's increasingly seen as a small yet accessible luxury. Specialty cheeses represent a time in the day where we have license to slow down, savor and enjoy. Rather than seen as a processed food, real and specialty cheeses are seen as a time-honored process made by real, nice people with a passion for their craft.”
Associated Food Stores, Salt Lake City, has also experienced consumers still buying specialty cheese, said Lisa Schadewald, bakery and deli analyst for Kehe Distributors, a specialty food distributor that supplies AFS with all of its specialty deli and bakery items that are not brought to the retailer directly through its warehouse.
“With ongoing health concerns, people are being made aware that several specialty cheese varieties are not only healthy, but made with wholesome and pure ingredients,” Schadewald said.
“Also, with the current state of the economy, the specialty cheese category offers a unique advantage to the guest. Instead of going out to dinner for a special dining experience, the guest can create that experience at home for their families and friends, making it a win-win for everyone.”
Other industry associates agreed that the eating-at-home trend has driven the success of the specialty cheese market with consumer knowledge stemming from what they've experienced in eating out at restaurants.
“Cheese knowledge is also being driven by restaurant menus and the dizzying array of food media, including TV, blogs and magazines,” Abbott said.
“Quite literally, every on-trend fine-dining restaurant has added a cheese program — replete with a cheese course at dessert, and in many cases this trend has extended to more casual restaurants and pubs.”
While restaurants are offering cheese courses as desserts, many varieties of cheeses touting added fruits and wines are increasingly being found at supermarkets as well.
“Sweet condiments including strawberry, orange, maple, walnut and cranberry are added to natural cheeses for use as dessert course cheeses,” said Umhoefer of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which hosts the World Championship Cheese Contest every even-numbered year.
The 2010 contest held in March smashed entry records with 2,318 entries from 20 nations. Among this international collection of cheeses, 275 cow's milk, goat's milk and sheep's milk cheeses featured added flavorings.
“And that doesn't include 59 additional cheeses flavored with natural smoke,” Umhoefer said, adding that peppers and Mediterranean flavors are also a large part of the growing market.
“Flavored cheeses have grown to become one of the largest segments of this international competition.”
Another trend is flavoring of the rind either by washing or soaking a rinded cheese with wine, beer or oils, or by coating the rind with cocoa, paprika or other spices.
Lutz of the Perishables Group said he is also seeing an increase in flavors such as goat, gruyere, whole milk mozzarella, port wine and brie with fruit.
AFS told SN it has seen popularity with fresh mozzarella, fruit and wine infused artisan and Mediterranean cheeses.
“Moving into the summer season, we see an increase in the fresh mozzarella cheeses,” Schadewald said.
“Mediterranean cheeses such as feta and gorgonzola are also great for light summer eating. We are seeing a growing number of cheddar varieties infused with fresh fruits such as blueberry, mango, raspberries and cherries. In addition, there are also many varieties of flavor-infused cheese that mix the richness of parmesan cheese, creamy cheddar cheese and asiago cheese with wine and ale.”
At PCC Natural Markets, Leo Bloom, deli merchandiser for the Seattle-based retailer, said he sees customers showing more interest in goat and raw milk cheese, and many locally made specialty cheeses are very popular at its stores.
Beecher's Handmade Marco Polo and No Woman cheese varieties have gained popularity, Bloom told SN. Beecher's Marco Polo cheese is flavored with lightly milled green and black Madagascar peppercorns, while the No Woman variety has a Jamaican influence with brown sugar and cloves creating smoky, spicy and earthy flavors.
Another popular flavored cheese at PCC is produced by Beehive Cheese Co. in Utah and called Barely Buzzed, a coffee-rubbed cheese with hints of lavender, butterscotch and caramel.
Bloom also said that two local farmstead cheeses from Tieton Farm & Creamery and Willapa Hills Farmstead Cheese are popular.
The local movement is indeed a factor in pushing farmstead cheeses.
“While Spain certainly captured our attention in 2009, we expect to see more aged, pungent and farmstead cheeses rich with terroir to gain momentum in the coming year,” Abbott said.
“This is in part due to the fascination with all things local, giving rise to a plethora of artisan cheese makers here in the U.S. and the ability of savvy retailers to showcase and foster knowledge through trial and through ‘food as theater,’ such as with the zeitgeist of cultured dairy, Murray's Cheese within a Cincinnati Kroger.”
To stay on top of cheese trends and gauge what new varieties to introduce, retailers educate themselves by attending trade shows and local events, and being aware of customer demographics.
At AFS, in addition to communicating within the management team and with Kehe Distributors, the retailer also takes a close look at the store demographics and requests from customers.
“AFS is very proactive in offering cheeses that are requested by the guests, as well as introducing cheeses that are new to the market,” Schadewald said.
“With the educational programs offered to the AFS team members, they are well informed as to what is available to their guests. The AFS team stays on top of market trends through various forms of research in addition to community feedback, executing decisions in the best interest of the guest.”
AFS also encourages and supports its team to travel to Wisconsin to take part in cheese factory and farmstead tours hosted by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
“These tours are essential in providing a complete education in the creation of award-winning cheeses that are sold in the AFS stores,” Schadewald said.
PCC sends its cheese team to industry trade shows and local events such as the Seattle Cheese Festival, and, according to Robin Kuczynski, PCC's deli retail manager, “We listen to our customers.”
PCC also has in-store demos by cheese vendors and active sampling to introduce new cheese brands and flavors.
“Each PCC location has a fully trained cheese specialist on staff,” Bloom told SN.
“We also feature our cheeses in our advertising pieces, POS signage and on our website. We also suggest fruit and wine parings for our specialty cheeses at regularly scheduled PCC wine-tasting events, on signs in the stores and on our website.”
Having a staff that is well versed and passionate about cheese is critical, and to effectively introduce new brands and flavors, human interaction with a cheese expert and sampling are key, Abbott said.
The key to supermarket specialty cheese is getting the right products at the right stores, Lutz said. This can be done by looking at demographics, analyzing customer purchasing habits and tracking loyalty card information.
“Regardless of the approach to determining what customers want, it is very important to use the data to make fact-based recommendations on assortment decisions, because the specialty cheese category has so many items,” Lutz said.