What is in this article?:
- Independents Say Cheese
- Big Cheese
Small independent supermarkets have built a competitive edge — and continue to sharpen it — with artisanal cheese.
Photo by Thinkstock
Creating interesting, artisanal cheese departments has served small operators well, especially in market areas where big chains reign.
The likes of Fairway Market, New York; Kowalski’s Markets, St. Paul, Minn.; and West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, have long been leaders in developing standout specialty cheese departments that almost certainly give them an edge on the competition.
Indeed, consultant Brian Salus, founder and president of Salus & Associates, Mathews, Va., said specialty cheese can be one of the best differentiators there is.
“Large chains generally take a ‘one size fits all’ approach … and offer cheese precut and packaged direct from the manufacturer,” Salus said.
Independents who haven’t already developed their cheese selection are at work right now honing what they have. They’re devoting more space to it, beefing up their selections as they huddle with distributors on selection and pricing. They’re looking on their own, too, for local sources.
“More small farmers are making cheeses. We’re connecting with them, and telling our customers about them,” Charles Macias, perishables executive, at Morton Williams, New York, told SN.
“First, we educate our associates about any new cheeses we bring in so they can educate the customers.”
Macias described recent expansion of the company’s selection, which includes regularly sourcing blocks and wheels from Wisconsin cheese makers.
“We also might tell a customer about five cheeses we flew in from Spain or one that was made right on a small farm in the Adirondacks.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson & Hassler Market, Quarryville, Pa., a single-unit, family owned supermarket, is about to launch a re-do of its deli, which includes making more space for artisanal cheese, and 15-unit Riesbeck’s Food Markets, Saint Clairsville, Ohio, is in the process of upscaling its artisanal/specialty cheese department.
Across the country in Seattle, nine-unit PCC Natural Markets considers its artisan cheese department, with its large variety, a big plus, particularly in its area.
“We have the opportunity, in not being a large chain, to carry what our customers are asking for and to introduce new cheese from local and small producers,” said Robin Cantor, PCC’s deli retail manager.
“Our cheese specialists all have a vast knowledge and passion for the cheese they sell, which translates to great service and sales in this department.”
Talking to customers about cheeses is paramount in making an artisanal selection competitive and a sales success, retailers agreed.
“Highest-dollar market basket shoppers are drawn like moths to a flame to supermarkets who employ artisanal cheese specialists. A first-class cheese counter is crucial to the independent operator who must compete against chains,” said Steven Jenkins, executive vice president of New York-based Fairway Market, and author of “The Cheese Primer.”
Over the last two decades, Jenkins has developed and overseen 12-unit Fairway’s artisanal cheese departments, and he regularly orchestrates in-store events that spotlight the company’s immense cheese selection.
Such an event — a wine, chocolate and cheese tasting — is set for Feb. 5 in one of the company’s New Jersey stores and Feb. 6 in its Upper West Side Manhattan store.
At Riesbeck’s, three wine-and-cheese tastings were held last fall.
“We sampled a 70-pounder of Wisconsin cheddar from Hennings, and I sold 60 pounds of it in the four hours of one of the tastings,” deli director Johnny Harubin said.
She added that the wheel had been cut into various sized wedges.
Riesbeck’s sent Harubin on a Wisconsin Milk Marketing cheese-making tour this past summer.
“I learned so much on that tour. It was all interesting,” Harubin said, and she’s intent on further developing Riesbeck’s cheese department.
“Our cheese department was definitely a destination during the holidays, and still is. I want to get some sheep’s milk cheese from Holland, but also a lot more from Wisconsin. Right now, we’re bringing in 40-pound blocks of artisan cheddar regularly.”
As she spoke of revving up the artisanal cheese selection, Harubin said, “Customers know that if we don’t have what they want at the time, we’ll get it for them.”