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
Like Riesbeck’s, Morton Williams began about a year ago to source different types of cheese from Wisconsin artisan cheese makers.
“One of the biggest things that’s happening is a lot of domestic cheese makers are making cheeses that we used to import,” Macias said.
“Take French Morbier, for instance, a goat’s milk cheese that has a line of ash through it, and now Carr Valley, in Wisconsin, is making the same type of cheese.”
At its newest store, opened in Manhattan, Morton Williams’ artisanal cheese case runs 40 feet against the back wall of the store, offering a selection of 300 cheeses. Most of the company’s other 10 stores have cheese cases no longer than 12 feet.
All remodels and new stores will get expanded space for specialty/artisanal cheese, Macias pointed out. Maybe not as much as at this store, “but here, the [upscale] neighborhood warrants it.”
From two years ago, the selection in all 11 of Morton Williams’ cheese departments has been ramped up.
“The selection is great, and it absolutely gives us a competitive advantage over the big chains,” Macias said.
All the retailers SN talked to were paying new attention to their cheese departments, because they see the category’s popularity growing, and they see it as a good point of distinction.
“We definitely need more room. During the holidays, I had a hard time keeping our island case full. I had three girls constantly restocking it,” said Nancy Flannery, deli manager at Ferguson & Hassler.
“We have a 16-foot island case now, but we’re going to 20 feet. Right now, we’re talking to our distributor, working hand in hand with him, and checking catalogs to figure out what we want to add to our selection, what we think will sell. We’re planning now so we’ll be ready when we get the larger case.”
Flannery said that people in the area the store is located have regional tastes, and the store can stay a step ahead of the big chains because it can source just what its customers want.
“Longhorn and farmer’s cheese, for example, are not popular everywhere, but they are popular here, and Gruyere and Muenster,” Flannery said, and added she’s looking forward to adding new varieties.
At Skogen’s Festival Foods, Onalaska, Wis., deli director Lars Batzel said he sees the company’s selection of specialty cheese as one of the “pros” that bring customers into the store.
“We have more selection than the big-box stores. Hopefully customers come to us for their cheese,”
A new case that’s on order for one of the 17-unit retailer’s high-traffic stores will offer 40% more space for specialty cheese and accoutrements, such as crackers, some private-label cheese spreads and items that go with cheese.
“It’ll be 20 feet long, allowing us to put all those things together in one case.”
Kowalski’s Markets, in St. Paul, Minn., can source local specialty cheeses that larger chains can’t, officials pointed out.
“We look for small-batch, artisan items that the bigger chains couldn’t use because the supply wouldn’t be big enough,” said Terri Bennis, vice president, fresh food operations, at the nine-unit retailer.
Bennis, however, considers the company’s cheese specialists — each store has one — even more important to shoppers than the selection of cheese.
“Customers anxious to learn are more apt to venture out of their comfort zone and try something new if they can talk to one of our specialists.”
Read more: Kowalski’s Ramps Up Culinary Teaching Events
Consultants, too, pointed out that while selection can build a sturdy competitive edge for the independent retailer, having knowledgeable associates available to talk to customers is a necessity.
“Cheese can be a real destination draw, offers high margins and can also sell complementary products (deli, wine, etc.) without taking up a lot of space, but it’s critical to have knowledgeable associates,” said Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillanDoolittle, Chicago.
“Knowledge, recommendations and sampling help to generate sales.”
Brian Salus agreed, and pointed to the success attained by West Point Market in Akron, Ohio.
“A single-store operator or small chain can really drive the category by having, as West Point does, a cheese expert cutting, wrapping and selling on the floor, breaking whole wheels of fabulous cheese. It is a great show — very entertaining and effective in building a business as ‘the place for cheese.’”
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