The already fine line between splurging on gourmet cheese and making an everyday cheese purchase was rendered nearly indistinguishable in 2000, with more and more people seeing the dairy-case delectables as an everyday treat, boosting sales and re-invigorating the category.
t the exception," agreed Judy Creighton, co-manager of Creighton's Cheese Fine Foods, San Francisco.
According to USADATA Consultant and Market Research reports, retail sales of specialty cheeses will reach $2.9 billion by 2002, a 36% increase over 1997 sales.
Several factors contributed to this trend over the course of the past year, including consumers' increased desire for variety and unusual flavor, and even shoppers' travels abroad, which help them cultivate tastes for cheeses they may not have encountered at home.
As with most specialty products, consumer education, and sometimes enticement, are effective methods for keeping a cheese aisle healthy and profitable.
Michel Bray, cheese manager for Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., said that cheese sales in his stores rely heavily on the employees who sell it, especially in the specialty section. His clerks attend two to three training seminars each year and have cheese reference books available to them at all times behind the counter for quick reference upon a customer inquiry.
Price Chopper also partakes in a large amount of sampling conducted by staff members, who can answer any consumer questions.
Another key to the growing popularity of specialty cheeses is the increasing number of consumers who are eating the dairy staple alone, rather than as a meal-enhancer, its traditional role for years. Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis., said that more and more shoppers are using gourmet and specialty cheeses as party platters, in gift baskets and as snacks.
The age-old New York City gourmet deli Balducci's, upon opening a new branch in uptown Manhattan, went to great measures to install a large and extremely well-stocked cheese counter, containing many different types from all over the world.
Many of Balducci's cheeses, both international and domestic, were aged on the premises and often marinated, while the display case showed off dozens of value-added cheeses, like brie torta with roasted red peppers and basil, that were prepared by the deli's staff on-site.
Even as demand for such cheeses grew over the past year, food-safety organizations pushed for more possible restrictions on one of the more popular types -- unpasteurized cheeses. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration began investigating whether aged cheeses made with unpasteurized milk present a significant health hazard as host for bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.
Some big-selling cheeses, like Swiss, Gruyere and Parmigiano-Reggiano, could be impacted by any processing restrictions, industry observers note.