by James Dudlicek
The specialty-cheese category continues to grow by
leaps and bounds as palates mature.
If people didn’t have an unceasing interest
in food, there wouldn’t be a whole cable TV channel devoted to it.
And when viewers’ favorite on-screen gourmets
use mysterious, exotic cheeses in their recipes, budding cooks at home just
have to follow suit.
Therein lies one of the growth factors of specialty
cheese, many varieties of which have been experiencing double-digit growth
over the past three years, according to Linda Hook, vice president of
marketing for DCI Cheese Co., Mayville, Wis. “The cooking
channel’s popularity, with celebrity chefs introducing their
audiences to the latest and greatest, often unfamiliar cheeses, spurs
consumers to seek out and use them in their own homes,” Hook says.
Apparently consumers are seeking them in droves.
Dollar sales of specialty cheeses topped $1.4 billion for the 52-week
period ending May 30, 2004, according to Chicago-based Information
Resources Inc. (IRI), a 13 percent increase over the previous year. Unit
sales for the same period are up 10.4 percent, to more than 514 million,
In fact, the major growth in the cheese industry is
happening within the specialty and artisan cheese category, according to
Daniel Carter, manager of the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC), a
part of the Wisconsin Value Added Dairy Initiative, which provides
technical assistance to emerging and existing dairy businesses. Areas
within the category experiencing growth include farmstead and grazed-milk
cheeses, Carter reports.
Fast-growing new categories include ripened and
unripened cheeses, fresh and aged sheep and goat milk cheeses, washed-rind
cheese, smoked cheeses and marinated cheese, among others. “It is
interesting to note that while these categories are catching on, the United
States’ importation of cheese subject to licensing requirements was
up 15 percent during the first six months of 2004,” says Carter,
noting volume for June 2004 was up nearly 33 percent over a year earlier.
Imports also will continue to grow, Carter says, as
demand for specialty and artisan cheeses increases due to “maturing
palates and appreciation of chefs and consumers.” As processors
nationwide strive to meet the growing demand, Wisconsin has four new plants
ready to open in the coming months and nine dairies with expansion programs
planned or underway, he notes.
Other trends Carter reports include cheese made from
milk blends (cow, sheep, goat, buffalo), American original cheeses not
named for imported varieties, “signature cheeses” made by
commodity manufacturers and “grazed organic” as a health
According to Carter, important players and factors in
the growth of specialty cheeses include chefs, specialty and green markets
along with traditional retailers, the American Cheese Society and the
Among other factors driving the category’s
growth are more discretionary income for travel and dining out, especially
for baby boomers, and a growing interest in ethnic cheeses.
“Consumers are trending towards American-made
artisan products, especially as they realize that American cheeses are
winning international awards,” says John Fiscalini, owner of Modesto,
Calif.-based Fiscalini Cheese Co., maker of award-winning artisan cheeses.
“Upscale Americans are paying for quality and taste that previously
could not be found by local producers.”
Faith Stevenson, marketing manager of Merrill,
Wis.-based Rondelé Specialty Foods, reports growth in deli sales of
“Offering consumers a variety of high-quality
products with new varieties and user-friendly packaging has driven the
growth,” says Stevenson, whose company makes several lines of gourmet
DCI, founded in 1975 to consult artisan cheesemakers
on how to better access nationwide markets, is observing several trends in
the specialty category.
“Some that we are
looking at are snack cheeses (non-juvenile focus), organics, signature
cheeses for sandwiches, more chain private label specialty cheeses in both
dairy and deli, artisan/farmstead and sustainable agricultural
cheeses,” says Hook, whose company sells its brands nationally to the
retail, foodservice and industrial sectors. “We are in R&D in
many of these areas and have also introduced products that fit in one or
more. For instance, our Organic Creamery line has expanded to 47
SKUs, all of them specialty domestic or imported varieties.”
In its most recent product launch, DCI expanded its
line of organic cheeses with nine new items introduced at this year’s
International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association conference in Washington, D.C.
“We are marketing to mainstream retail, in particular the
organic/natural sets within the retail sector,” Hook says.
“Demos and cross merchandising have been a large part of our
Fiscalini sees a growing trend of eating American
artisan cheese as a course of its own, or preparing meals with the
“expensive” cheeses instead of mass-produced products.
“We are responding by producing some of the best-tasting cheeses
available anywhere,” he says. “We also produce cheese that can
be used alone in a cheese course, but they also have wonderful heating
characteristics so they can be used in cooking fine meals.”
Fiscalini cheeses earned high ratings at the American
Cheese Society conference in July. Among the company’s latest
offerings are Purple Moon, a young wine-soaked cheddar; Horsefeathers, a
spreadable blend of cheddar, sour cream and horseradish; San Joaquin
Cheddar; and 30-month-aged Bandage Wrapper Premium Reserve.
Rondelé has responded to demands for unique
products with a selection of new flavors and combinations of what it calls
“cheese with cheese.” The company offers gourmet spreadable
cheese deli cup flavors like Blue Cheese, Salsa, Tomato Basil Feta and Goat
Cheese. Rondelé also has launched three new spreadable cheddar
blends in its Pub Cheese line.
“Research indicated that although other cheese
products are gaining in popularity, cheddar remains a constant favorite
among consumers,” Stevenson says. “There is a consumer desire
for cheddar spread alternatives that are suitable for everyday use and for
Meanwhile, Stevenson reports the trend for new and
different cheeses is being joined by the reduced-carbohydrate dieting
trend, in which cheese is well placed, with its naturally low carb levels.
“As part of a low-carb diet, Rondelé spreads can be melted on
vegetables, baked in omelets, spread on pork rinds, wraps and pinwheels,
melted over hamburgers and steaks or used as a stuffing ingredient in
chicken breasts and quiche. The spreadable cheeses can also be used as a
vegetable dip,” she says. “To reiterate the message, labels are
being placed on every product stating the carbohydrate count per serving.
All Rondelé products have 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrates per
Hook predicts continued growth in all sectors,
primarily retail and foodservice. “The ‘love affair’ with
cheese continues, with chefs and consumers alike. The popularity of
regional specialties and artisan cheeses is still in its infancy,”
she says. “Our plans are to continue to explore and capitalize on
niches within the category, to develop products that add value, are
innovative and provide a solution.”
Fiscalini also sees great things ahead. “I think
American artisanal cheese is in the preliminary stage of an explosion on
the food horizon,” he says. “We plan to continue producing our
bandaged cheddars and San Joaquin Gold, as well as look into finding
additional hard cheeses to add to our product list.”
Growth also is foreseen in the deli case, and
“Rondelé is going to grow with it,” Stevenson says.
“Rondelé takes great pride in innovating new and exciting
flavor profiles for the consumer while providing value-added
DBIC’s Carter says the specialty category is an essential
part of the overall cheese industry as it continues to grow.
“The emerging domestic specialty and artisan
cheese industry is a perfect partner for the existing commodity cheese
industry, as together they serve the full gamut of consumer demands,”
he says. “Cheese combines healthy lifestyle with art form, fulfills
divergent sensory preferences and will continue to captivate and please the
marketplace as it has for centuries.” df
|Top 20 Specialty Cheese
|% Change vs.
vs. Year Ago
|Total Non-Specialty Cheese
|Total Specialty Cheese
|Other Cheese Blends
|*Total U.S. retail sales
by exact weight in traditional grocery outlets only for the 52 weeks ending
May 30, 2004. Source: Information Resources Inc.