Cottage Conundrum
by Julie Cook Ramirez
Let down by the low-carb craze, cottage cheese makers focus on technology and innovation as they attempt to revive the category.
Cottage cheese is in a slump. OK, so that’s not exactly breaking news. Truth be told, it doesn’t take an industry analyst or a sideshow soothsayer to notice that cottage cheese isn’t exactly jumping off the shelves these days. Granted, that’s not a recent trend, as cottage cheese sales have been on a downward slide for the past two decades.
What happened, you ask? In a word, time. Time during which many loyal cottage cheese consumers quite literally grew old and passed away; time during which other dairy categories have reaped the rewards of significant investments in R&D, packaging and marketing; time during which the majority of cottage cheese makers have neglected to dedicate much, if any, funding or innovation toward reviving the category.
Even the low-carb craze, which swept the nation and boosted consumption of many other low-carb, high-protein foods, failed to garner much interest in cottage cheese. “You would have thought with the low-carb craze, cottage cheese would have emerged as a great alternative food, but that never happened,” says Bill Haines, dairy industry consultant and former vice president of product innovation, Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), Rosemont, Ill. “The problem was that few cottage cheese makers capitalized on it by communicating to consumers about its low-carb benefit.”
There were exceptions, of course, most notably Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods. Through its alliance with Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet, Kraft added a “South Beach Diet Recommended” button to its Light N’ Lively Cottage Cheese packaging. Likewise, Old Home Foods, St. Paul, Minn., took to promoting its cottage cheese as “the original low-carb food” on billboards, in FSIs and on the product packaging itself.
Le Mars, Iowa-based Wells’ Dairy Inc. took its carb commitment one step further, launching Blue Bunny Carb Freedom cottage cheese, containing just 3 grams of net carbs, about 25 percent fewer than its traditional cottage cheese. The company no longer manufactures the product.
Sadly, while other categories racked up considerable gains due almost solely to their low-carb properties, cottage cheese sales couldn’t be flatter. According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI), dollar sales of cottage cheese during the 52-week period ending September 4, 2005, were down 0.3 percent, while unit sales declined 0.1 percent in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart.
“Cottage cheese continues to be in a conundrum,” says Jed Davis, director of marketing, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Cabot, Vt. “It just hasn’t evolved from ‘that thing my grandmother likes’ to something that is better plugged in with today’s demographics.”
Davis believes the industry must find ways to appeal to younger consumers. In particular, he stresses the need to target kids in order to build a whole new generation of cottage cheese consumers, thus replacing the product’s long-time devotees who are reaching their twilight years. Pointing to yogurt as an example, Davis says much could be gained by employing some of the same techniques for attracting children to the category. This includes developing kid-friendly flavors and entering into licensing agreements to feature the likenesses of such kid magnets as Scooby-Doo, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora The Explorer on the package. Granted, a cottage cheese tub with Scooby-Doo’s picture on it will almost surely get a child to beg their parent to buy it for them. Whether they actually eat the product once it’s in the ‘fridge is another matter, however.
TOP 10 COTTAGE CHEESE BRANDS*
  $ Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago Unit Sales (In Millions) % Change vs. Year Ago
Total Category$863.4-0.3%414.7-0.1%
Private Label309.1-0.5160.80.9
Breakstone136.82.368.24.5
Knudsen96.30.540.41.7
Breakstone Cottage Doubles33.59.014.63.9
Dean’s27.83.413.63.9
Friendship22.5-1.110.2-4.7
Hood22.03.110.81.4
Prairie Farms19.55.69.21.3
Light ‘n Lively14.1-15.97.1-15.5
Hiland13.40.45.7-1.9
* Total sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, for the52-week period ending September 4, 2005.
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc.
The need to create “the consumers of the future” is echoed by Haines, who also points to opportunities created by the growth of specific ethnic groups, particularly Asians and Hispanics. Does that mean a jalapeño cottage cheese be on the horizon? Davis does say the category needs “more pizzazz” and that Cabot has “always kept half an eye on the flavored cottage cheese part of the picture.”
“When salsa starts outselling ketchup,” he says, “you’ve got to take notice of that.”
Out With the Old
Last year, Cabot faced the question of whether to continue in the cottage cheese-making business or cut bait and get out altogether. The problem lay with old, outdated equipment located on the second floor of the plant in a room that was badly in need of a new floor to be structurally stable enough to support the heavy cottage vats. What’s more, Cabot faced capacity limitations that made it difficult to keep up with demand during certain times of the year.
Ultimately, Cabot decided to stay in the game. However, management quickly recognized something had to be done to upgrade the company’s cottage cheese-making facilities.  As luck would have it, one of Cabot’s equipment suppliers had been developing a new closed-vat system for making cottage cheese, working in collaboration with Lloyd Metzger, director of the Minnesota/South Dakota Dairy Foods Research Center and assistant professor, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota-St. Paul. The objective was to devise a method for making more consistent cottage cheese by reducing the human factor.
“Whenever you have a lot of human interaction, you have issues with the variability of the product,” says Metzger. “As long as there’s an experienced cottage cheese maker on site, there are no problems, but when they go on vacation or the night shift comes on duty, you have product quality issues.”
Funded in part by DMI, Metzger’s new cottage cheese-making technology uses an enclosed system that automates the cheese-making process. By automating the entire process within an enclosed system, the technology minimizes operator intervention, fluctuations in temperature and exposure to the surrounding atmosphere. The result, says Metzger, is an extremely consistent, high-quality product.
While Metzger says it’s usually a “hard sell” to get dairies to entertain the idea of making cottage cheese in an enclosed vat, Davis says that was not the case at Cabot, primarily because the company had a “very positive experience” when it moved from open to enclosed cooking vats in its cheese room.
“Even though it’s not exactly parallel, that type of thing enters into the thinking because that was a very successful move for us in terms of consistent quality and improved yield,” says Davis.
During a six-month beta test, Cabot ran Metzger’s prototype machine alongside its traditional open-vat system. The results were impressive, so much so that Cabot purchased two new machines. All of Cabot’s cottage cheese is now made using the closed vats, which leads to the inevitable question of whether consumers have noticed the difference.
“We have been hearing some good things, but I haven’t noticed a huge consumer groundswell, saying, ‘Cabot cottage cheese is more flavorful and textureful than ever!’” says Davis.
In the meantime, Metzger forges ahead, pitching his closed-vat system to other cottage cheese makers. He is confident his new technology will spark new product development.
“My hope is that the category can take off because we’ve got an economical and consistent manufacturing process,” says Metzger. “That gives large companies free rein to do some serious product development and give the category the kick in the pants that it needs.”  m
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.