In today's fast-paced and commoditized world, the small-batch authenticity of artisan cheese has turned the category into a rising star
Artisan cheese certainly qualifies as “Slow Food,” but sales of it are anything but slow.
Indeed, artisan cheese — defined as cheese “handmade in small batches with respect for the tradition of the cheese” — is the fastest-growing segment of the booming cheese industry, with some sources estimating that sales have climbed by double-digit percentages for the last couple of years.
Exact figures are difficult to come by, since the very nature of the products — handmade and often hand-cut from large blocks or wheels at retail — precludes the use of UPC scanning codes. Neither ACNielsen nor Information Resources Inc. tracks sales of artisan cheese, officials at both organizations told SN.
But industry sources confirm that the category is finding a broader market and consequently is ringing up unprecedented sales.
“Artisan cheese is on fire. There's no doubt,” said David Leonhardi, director of cheese education and events at Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Madison.
“The industry is extremely healthy, and the growth potential is great. The lion's share of artisan cheese is probably still sold through specialty stores.”
But Leonhardi, as well as other industry sources, said that mainstream supermarkets have been catching on to the trend's potential as well. “Lund/Byerlys has done a good job with it for a long time. And certainly Wegmans and Whole Foods, but others are getting interested,” Leonhardi said.
Cheese guru and author of “The Cheese Primer,” Steven Jenkins, underscored the fact that domestic as well as imported artisan or artisanal cheese — a word said to have been coined by him — are experiencing booming sales.
“Since 1996, our U.S. retail cheese industry and the production and proliferation of domestic artisanal cheese has skyrocketed. Period,” said Jenkins, who is also a managing partner at Fairway Markets, New York.
Indicators of all sorts validate the category's growth. Notably, the number of varieties has risen dramatically, and retail customers are putting in more requests for locally made cheese.
But one of the most significant markers of the segment's growth comes from the American Cheese Society, Louisville, Ky. The organization had more than 1,200 artisan cheeses entered in its annual competition this year, up from 941 last year, and only 75 to 80 in the early '90s.
“Our entries and our conference attendance continue to grow each year,” Marci Wilson, ACS executive director, said.
Meanwhile, Zingerman's Delicatessen, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based specialty store whose cheese department offers artisan cheeses exclusively, has just wrapped up its best sales year ever.
“And that's here, where the economy is sluggish,” said Ari Weinzweig, co-owner of Zingerman's.
While specialty stores have been artisan cheese's domain for years, the market has broadened for a variety of reasons. For one, savvy consumers who travel more and eat at restaurants more than ever before are actively looking for these cheeses in shops and supermarkets.
Artisan cheesemakers are now seeing real potential in selling some of their products through mainstream retailers. In the past, they've quaked at the thought of trying to supply a large chain, but retailers are making it clear that they want the product just for a flagship store or for only one or two selected stores. And as that door opens, all parties concerned are doing a better job of passing critical information along the supply chain, WMMB's Leonhardi said.
Price Chopper Supermarkets, a Schenectady, N.Y.-based mainstream grocer that has been a pioneer in offering artisan cheese, is currently seeking more locally made artisan cheeses due to requests from their shoppers.
The movers of the category at Price Chopper are the customers themselves, said Michel Bray, cheese specialist for the chain, which has more than 100 stores in the Northeast.
“We've had customers asking for very, very local cheese — cheese that's handmade right around where they live,” he said. “That's what they're asking for.”
Bray said people are looking at cheese in a much different way than they did 10 years ago.
“They know it doesn't have to come from another country to be good, for instance. In fact, they prefer local. Ten years ago, if they wanted a Gouda, they wanted a Dutch Gouda. Now, they'd rather have one that's made in Massachusetts.”
But a lot of credit has to go to Price Chopper's merchandising strategy. Not only is the specialty cheese department separate from the deli, but in about a quarter of the chain's stores, the department is staffed all day long. There's a certain panache to be seen as customers watch associates cut cheese from blocks and wheels and wrap it right in front of them.
One of the department's best-sellers couldn't be more local — it's fresh mozzarella made right there in the department.
Customers are captivated by the sight of a staffer making fresh mozzarella, Bray said. And once they've watched it being made, they rarely leave without buying some.
At all of Price Chopper's new stores and remodels, the cheese counter has been redesigned to bring associates closer to the customer. Previously, they would cut the cheese in sight of the customer, but off to the side. Now, a 6-foot by 3-foot Corian counter puts the action right in front of the customer.
Rather than try to source local, artisan and specialty cheeses from a boggling number of small sources, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, has chosen to let Murray's Cheese of New York do the work.
In fact, Kroger, which operates more than a thousand stores under various banners across the country, announced last month that it has made a deal with New York-based Murray's that will bring mini Murray's cheese shops into selected Kroger stores.
“Our partnership with Murray's allows us to build on their expertise as we expand our cheese offerings for our customers,” Jeff Burt, Kroger's vice president of deli bakery merchandising, said last month in a statement to the press. Selected Kroger stores will begin to offer Murray's cheese early in 2008.
Meanwhile, Rob Kaufelt, owner and president of Murray's, and a former grocery retailer himself, told SN that Murray's physical setup inside Kroger stores will constitute a store-within-a-store.
“It's a test, and we hope it works. We're impressed by their [Kroger's] sincerity in wanting to bring superior cheeses to their customers, and it fits with what we want to do,” Kaufelt said. “It's always been my wish to bring good cheese to the American culture. What better way to do it than this?”
In that vein, cheese manufacturer Sargento, Plymouth, Wis., is looking to give the broadest cross-section of America a taste of artisan cheese.
The company will introduce a line of shredded cheeses this month that feature cheese from small artisan producers, including Roth Kase, Maple Leaf, Burnett Dairy and Zanetti.
“With the launch of Artisan Blends, Sargento is looking to bring artisan cheeses to the convenience of the dairy case,” said Michael G. Vaszily, senior core marketing manager, shredded cheese, for Sargento.
In a pre-launch survey, Sargento found that while consumers noted that they loved artisan cheeses, they also felt they were sometimes difficult to find and incorporate into their meals, Vaszily said. He added that the sales growth of specialty cheese was a key influencing factor in Sargento's decision to add its Artisan Blends.
Retailers and others also give a lot of credit to television food shows for acquainting consumers with the world of artisan cheese.
In fact, Patti Rispoli, deli supervisor, FoodTown and Super FoodTown stores on the New Jersey shore, said she knows her customers' appetites for new varieties of cheese are whetted by television's Food Channel.
“As soon as something is mentioned on the Food Channel, they're right in here, looking for it,” Rispoli said. “That happened with Parmigiano Reggiano, and goat's milk and sheep's milk cheeses.”
The 10-unit independent, operated by Food Circus, Middletown, N.J., has easily tripled the variety of cheeses it carries in the last two years, and has been adding artisan cheeses in bigger variety, Rispoli said.
“We get some from small artisan operations in Vermont and New York, even some here in New Jersey. We still have our share of imported, but we're getting more from here,” Rispoli said. “Sales are growing fast. They're pushing the whole category up.”
At its two most recently remodeled stores, the company has added a full-service World Cheese island, where staffers are charged with educating customers about cheese.
Putting in those islands at those two high-traffic stores was a good decision, Rispoli told SN, because with their position up front and across from the stores' open kitchens, the islands have called attention to the huge variety of cheeses available.
“And it's so important to educate customers,” Rispoli said, commenting on the fact that the cheese islands are staffed every day until 7 o'clock in the evening.
Other retailers stressed education as a key driver for the category.
Zingerman's website is designed to educate customers about all their products, but especially about artisan and farmstead cheeses — how they're made and how to recognize a superior cheese.
“Education is crucial in-store, as well,” said Weinzweig at Zingerman's, where domestic varieties are catching up with imports.
Fairway Markets' Jenkins seconded that.
In fact, Jenkins has offered seminars on cheese. And his merchandising strategy is to call attention to cheeses he wants to spotlight with signage, demos and interaction with customers. The cheese counters at all four Fairway stores are full-service.
“Fairway is doing nothing differently now as opposed to two or three years ago,” Jenkins said. “We have always stressed the merchandising and availability and selection of serious cheese,” he said
“My buyer, maitre-fromager Avanelle Rivera, and I are dedicated to all things cheese. I have two guys now on staff who are very knowledgeable, and who serve to keep Avanelle and me sharp, as well as disseminate their passion to our customers and to our other counter people.”
The category continues to grow every year at Fairway, and Jenkins said he sees no slowdown in sight.
As small-batch cheesemakers enjoy booming demand for their products, new terminology has been entering the mainstream. Lest there be any confusion, the American Cheese Society and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board clearly define “farmstead,” “artisan, “artisanal” and “specialty” cheese.
Both define farmstead cheese as cheese that is made on the farm with milk from that farm's animals.
The ACS further underscores that by saying, “Farmstead cheese may not be made from milk obtained from an outside source.”
WMMB's website defines artisan cheese as follows:
“A term describing cheese made in small batches, often with milk from a limited number of farms. Having unique texture or taste profiles developed in small sealed production or by specialized producers.”
The ACS definition reads much the same and adds that as little mechanization as possible is used in the production of artisan cheese.
ACS uses the words “artisan” and “artisanal” interchangeably.
The definition of specialty cheese is slightly broader, with WMMB describing it as “a subjective term used to classify cheeses of exceptional quality, notably unique or produced in quantities of less than 40 million pounds per year. Cheeses that are combinations of different cheese types also may be referred to as specialty. For example, Blue/Brie is a soft-ripened specialty cheese with a blue vein mold throughout.”
The ACS definition is almost identical but adds that all types of milk can be used, and may have flavorings added.
Cheese guru, author and Fairway Markets official Steven Jenkins has his own way of describing cheeses to his customers so they will never, ever confuse an artisanal cheese with a commodity cheese.
“It's very simple,” Jenkins said. “Either a cheese is a serious [artisanal] cheese or it's not. If it's not, it's a factory cheese. The difference is stark and telling.”
As an example, he said the customer “can judge a book by its cover: the rind, the crust.”
“Natural” is the key word.
“If the rind/crust is natural, that is, is NOT covered with plastic or paraffin or paint or a fancy-schmancy label, but is instead natural [and a natural color], having been allowed to age, was frequently turned, buffed, rubbed, washed or whatever its artisanal recipe called for, it is doubtless a serious cheese, an artisanal cheese.”
Like many suppliers, retailers and consumers concerned with how some companies stretch the definition of “natural,” Jenkins has no patience with calling cheeses specialty cheeses. “Specialty is a term that means absolutely nothing,” he said, “and it should be banned from our industry vocabulary.”
— R. H.
Zingerman's, Ann Arbor, Mich., has outlined on its website some pointers for buying “superior cheese.”
Although Zingerman's tips are directed at consumers, the guidelines could be useful to retailers looking to make their collection of artisan cheeses unique in their marketplace.
The tips also could be passed on to customers.
Here's what Zingerman's officials deem important in choosing an artisan cheese:
Flavor comes first. In fact, “the flavor should be so savory and delicious it will cause a person to shake his head in amazement after just tasting a tiny sliver,” they say. Also, they suggest sticking to traditional cheese.
Doing things the old-fashioned way is hardly the norm these days, and it can be a challenge to find cheese made like it was 100 years ago, but it's worth the hunt, the Zingerman's cheese experts say.
Handmade cheeses, they continue, are almost always more flavorful than those made by time-saving processes in factories.
They also recommend cheese made from raw milk, for better flavor.
Finally, they suggest forgoing convenience. Instead, they recommend buying cheese cut to order, “because it almost always tastes better than wedges that have been in plastic.”
More information can be found on Zingerman's website, www.zingermans.com.
Other sources of information regarding artisan cheese include Steven Jenkins' “Cheese Primer” and Rob Kaufelt's “Murray's Cheese Handbook.” Retailers also told SN that for quick cheese information, they refer often to Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board's website, www.wisdairy.com.