Up Market

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, IRI reports.
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 demand.
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 slow-food movement.
Upscale Interest
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 specialty cheeses.
“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 spreadable cheeses.
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 focus.”
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 entertaining.”
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 serving.”
Category Outlook
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 products.”
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 Categories*
  Dollar Sales
(in millions)
% Change vs.
Year Ago
Unit Sales
% change
vs. Year Ago
Total Cheese 8,326.3 5.6 100 3,386.6 3.4
Total Non-Specialty Cheese 6,894.0 4.2 82.8 2,871.9 2.3
Total Specialty Cheese 1,432.3 13 17.28 514.7 10.4
Other Cheese Blends 504.7 12.8 6.1 204.7 9.9
Italian Blends 103.5 5.3 1.2 41.8 5.9
Feta 103.0 16.5 1.2 37.0 12.7
Colby 100.3 2.1 1.2 40.5 1.4
Provolone 72.2 20.9 0.87 26.9 18.9
Queso Fresco 69.2 4.3 0.83 19.2 2.3
Blue Cheese 53.6 15.7 0.64 17.9 10.7
Muenster 49.2 21.9 0.59 18.2 18.8
Brie 38.8 11.2 0.47 7.8 9.6
Goat Cheese 36.5 12.9 0.44 8.8 7.0
Romano 22.2 -1.5 0.27 7.0 -3.3
Other Hispanic 20.5 9.2 0.25 6.2 10.3
Baby Swiss 18.4 46.4 0.22 6.2 52.9
Mexican 18.2 1.7 0.22 8.4 7.9
Havarti 16.3 47.7 0.20 4.3 50.2
Gouda 15.2 38.6 0.18 4.1 33.0
Gorgonzola 14.3 40.0 0.17 5.0 33.2
Pecorino Romano 14.2 5.2 0.17 3.1 1.2
Fresh Mozzarella 12.2 70.2 0.15 3.0 69.8
Jarlsberg 11.7 22.9 0.14 2.7 19.7
*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.
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