AUSTIN, Texas -- For the first time, Whole Foods stores from coast to coast are highlighting the products made by New England cheesemakers.
Spearheaded by the New England Dairy Promotion Board, the event is anchored by five regional cheese producers with national distribution, but the initiative also showcases products from smaller artisans with limited distribution.
The program, which ties in to the retailer's national advertising campaign, was inaugurated April 16 and continues for an entire month.
For some time, Whole Foods has been a good friend to American cheesemakers, working directly with producers and setting aside space in the stores for their products. "We try to base the cheeses we stock on what customers like," said Cathy Strange, national cheese buyer for the chain.
But this promotion will raise awareness of New England's cheesemaking prowess with consumers nationwide. Whole Foods, a natural and organic foods retailer, operates 131 stores.
"We'd like consumers to take away recognition of the great cheeses of New England so they can support any number of cheeses from the region," said Ruth Anne Flore, president of Flore, Price, Sloane and Associates, a Sudbury, Mass., consulting firm that spent months working to develop the promotion.
"The beauty of the program is we can promote the great cheeses of New England in various regions of the country, and always have a selection of New England cheeses," said Flore, who is a past president of the American Cheese Society. "It allows the smaller cheesemakers to work within their capabilities."
The program aims to open consumers' eyes to the variety and quality of cheeses made close to home; it's not a price-driven promotion, Flore noted. To participate, cheesemakers were not required to offer a "cents-off" incentive, though the anchor companies were given the option of highlighting price points.
"We're trying to focus on celebrating the cheesemakers and their cheeses, rather than promoting the price," she said.
In addition to being part of the retailer's national advertising campaign, the promotion features a brochure, distributed to all stores in the chain, that offers a brief history of New England's cheesemakers, the retailer's commitment to the products, and short profiles of the anchor companies: Cabot Creamery, Cabot, Vt.; Crowley Cheese Co., Healdville, Vt.; Vermont Butter & Cheese, Websterville, Vt.; Grafton Village Cheese Co., Grafton, Vt.; and Great Hill Blue, Marion, Mass.
Flore produced a menu of promotional items. At their discretion, Whole Foods' regional cheese specialists selected the most appropriate items for the stores in their area. Shelf-talkers, posters, signage and recipe cards were included in the package, Flore said. The specialists were also encouraged to use repack labels, identifying "The Great Cheeses of New England."
The Dairy Promotion Board supplied cheese appreciation guides to the stores, Flore said. New England has long been a stronghold for American cheesemaking. In the 1620s, the earliest settlers of Plymouth Plantation brought the tools and skills necessary to make cheese from England to the New World, and, up until the mid-19th century, cheesemaking was a cottage industry, the Dairy Promotion Board noted. And while cheddar for many years represented the bulk of the cheese produced by area farmers, cheesemakers now produce Brie, Parmesan, Gruyere and several other varieties.
A representative of the board credited Strange, Whole Foods' cheese buyer, for supporting the efforts of the region's cheesemakers. "She saw the value of New England cheeses," said Jeanne Hebert, regional sales and marketing manager for the dairy promotion board, based in Sutton, Mass.