Milano’s Cheese may not be the largest producer, but its tenacity for food safety, innovation and growth make it an up-and-coming competitor in the cheese industry.

Marina Mayer 
Executive Editor

Five years ago, consumers wouldn’t be caught red-handed buying private label products or clipping and saving coupons. Over time though, the roller-coaster economy has forced even the wealthiest of shoppers to compare prices and opt for the cheaper brand.

Now, “consumers want to be challenged, they want something unique and exciting, something that no one else has,” says Anthony Caliendo, vice president of sales and marketing for Milano’s Cheese Co. “I think that’s one of the advantages we’re going to have as a company, is to be innovative with new ideas that propel us ahead of our competition.”

It’s that tenacity for innovation and growth that make Milano’s an up-and-coming competitor in the cheese industry, despite how consumers save and spend. That’s why the 250-employee, $40 million producer of Italian hard cheese is considered a diamond in the rough, “that company that not everybody knows about but everybody wants to find,” Caliendo says.

Milano’s team of products includes 10 SKUs, ranging from 8-ounce to 5-pound containers of grated, shredded and shaved Parmesan, Romano and Asiago cheeses, which are produced out of its 75,000-square-foot headquarters facility in Linden, N.J., and distributed to foodservice accounts (75%), ingredient users (24%) and retail outlets (1%).

Despite the emphasis on institutional customers though, Milano’s is making a push into retail in a big way. For starters, it became a member of various food trade organizations, such as International Food Technologist, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Private Label Manufacturers’ Association, American Dairy Products Institute and the National Association of Pizza Operators.

Additionally, it started hosting tabletops at these organizations’ tradeshows, including the International Pizza Expo, Mar. 1-3 in Las Vegas; the NRA Show, May 21-24 in Chicago; IDDBA’s Dairy-Deli-Bake Seminar & Expo, June 5-7 in Anaheim, Calif; IFT Food Expo, June 11-15 in New Orleans; and the ADPI International Whey Conference, Sept. 18-21 in Chicago. Coming up, Milano’s will make a tabletop presence at PLMA’s Private Label Tradeshow, Nov. 13-15 in Chicago.

Aside from making a name for itself and exposing its brand through various media, it helps that Milano’s target audience is, “anyone who eats cheese,” Caliendo says. “It doesn’t really matter what their nationality is. In general, when it comes to Italian food, there’s not really many people who don’t like it. When it comes to cheese, specifically Italian cheese, it really has the flavor. It gives it that kick that tastes better. It’s a product that every consumer knows and every consumer wants. I’d say that the percentage of consumers who have Italian cheese in their house is really, really high, probably in the 80-90% range. It’s like not having ketchup in the house.”

In fact, from 1999 to 2009, per capita sales and consumption of Parmesan cheese doubled from 0.41 to 0.80 pounds, according to the International Dairy Facts 2010 Edition, produced by the International Dairy Foods Association, whereas Romano rose from 0.17 to 0.25 pounds per captia over the 10-year timeframe. The data are in the company’s favor. Milano’s is on the fast track to success just by being able to bring the consumers what they want.

Operating cut and dry

While the Milano’s name has been around for some time, it was just recently certified as the doing business as name of JVM Sales Corp., its parent company.

“No one knew what JVM Sales was and that it had to do with Milano’s cheese,” Caliendo says.

However, JVM Sales has been a family-owned and operated business for nearly two decades.

In 1983, Joseph Falcone purchased JMV and ran it as chief executive officer until 2000, when he became blind and his daughter, Marybeth Tomasino, took over. Tomasino, currently the chief executive officer and treasurer, acquired JVM in September 2010.

JVM was built on the strong principles of hard work, dedication, integrity and family values of the Old Country, and has evolved throughout the years thanks to the family’s combined 60 years experience as gifted cheesemakers.

In addition to leading the company, Tomasino holds 10 certifications, ranging from food safety to product development to employee training, and she trains each individual employee herself.

“We’ve always been proactive in the food safety department,” she adds. “[And], the regulations that just changed in the [Food Safety] Modernization Act have only helped this company because we used to chase our customers on information for our third-party orders and any kind of regulatory documents, and now they have to give it to us much quicker.”

To comply with the revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for instance, Milano’s is working to create low-sodium items, “however, there is a standard for Parmesan and Romano,” says Tomasino, who maintains a degree and certification in ingredient development and works with suppliers and local pizza joints to test certain concoctions. “When there is a range of three to five [for sodium content], we try to get a little above three for salt.”

Polishing up its portfolio

While the folks at Milano’s are busy pumping out nearly 400,000 pounds of product a week (see related article, beginning on page 68), they’re also redeveloping their product line and packaging materials to better segue into the retail market.

For starters, Milano’s is in the process of launching a spiced Parmesan and spiced Parm-Romano line, which blends red peppers, jalapeños and other spices to provide a Latin/Italian-type flare.

“There’s so many things you can do with spiced items like this,” Caliendo says. “If you go to any major company, like Subway, you’ll see that they have Parmesan, then they have a red pepper, a basil or oregano and then you’ll watch them shake it on there. So, why have all three when you can have one? We want to try to consolidate it for our clients and make it easier for them, and do the same thing for the retail shelves.”

Milano’s also introduced a sabori seasoning, which boasts red peppers and Italian vegetables to provide an Italian flair with a little kick.

“There always has to be some kind of niche that separates you from the rest, and that’s what we’re really going to focus on as a company - how do we create the marketing, the taste of the product, the ideas that open the door for people to want to try our product,” adds Caliendo.

Meanwhile, Milano’s developed a 1-pound economy-size pillowpack bag featuring a zipper seal that was designed to give consumers more product for less money.

“As the economy went backwards over the last three years, we’ve seen changes in packaging, changes in major companies that have changed their sizes,” says Caliendo. “They maybe went from 8 ounces to 6 ounces. They tried to cut down some of the product to really lower the price for the economy. What we did is come up with a 1-pound bag that really gave the consumer more product, not less product, for a very, very good price.”

To accompany the 1-pound bag, Milano’s created a 64-bag Italian cheese supermarket shipper, which substitutes the run-of-the-mill cardboard rack with a metal frame that holds four black wicker baskets and is adorned with Italian-style colors and artwork. On the sides of the shippers, consumers can find brochures, directing them to the company’s website, which is in the process of being updated to include a more in-depth arena for consumer interaction and recipe sharing.    

“After talking to many dairy buyers, one of the biggest problems I’m hearing is, how do we display cheese? That’s why we designed the new shipper,” Caliendo says.

Milano’s is also tapping in to one of the hottest trends in the food business - going green - by initiating discussions on creating a biodegradable bag.

“We want to become the first cheese company to actually come out to market with these biodegradable go green-type of cheese products,” Caliendo says.”

In addition to its nationwide customers, Milano’s is expanding into the international world of cheese. In doing so, it hired an in-house counsel who has helped the company acquire EEU certification, as well as other export qualifications. Plus, the Milano’s plant is just 10 minutes from the port, providing an attractive means of exporting overseas.

“The way we look at is, we can’t control the government, but we can control our destiny,” Caliendo says. “We have to go out there and work on international markets, focus on the world, not only the United States. Doing so, I think within the next three years, we can probably increase our business by 20-30%, just in international business.”

“We have a very unique position here,” Caliendo adds, “being able to not only build a brand name, but to be able to build a retail product at a great price and then be able to work on the private label side.”

Before long, Milano’s will be more than just a diamond in the rough - it’ll be a gem in the cheese industry where everyone knows their name.