Cottage on the Cusp

by Julie Cook Ramirez
Contributing Editor

New investments in products and promotions have cottage cheese makers feeling uncharacteristically upbeat.
Could the long-awaited, long-hoped-for revival of cottage cheese be just around the corner?
A number of cottage cheese makers are hopeful its time has finally come. And they are willing to put their money where their mouths are — investing in new products, new technology, and new promotions, all designed to give cottage cheese a much-needed boost.
Interestingly, two of the category’s largest players — Dallas-based Dean Foods Co. and Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods Inc. — have taken a page from yogurt’s playbook and targeted their efforts in the pre- and probiotics arena. Kraft rolled out LiveActive Cottage Cheese for Digestive Health last April under its Breakstone’s and Knudsen’s brands. Boasting 3 grams of prebiotic dietary fiber in each serving, LiveActive is said to be the first cottage cheese to contain inulin, a prebiotic fiber source derived from the chicory root. Health benefits of inulin include alleviating common digestive troubles while aiding in calcium absorption.
“Maintaining a healthy digestive system is essential to a person’s health and well-being,” says Jason Hecker, Kraft’s brand manager for cottage cheese. “Kraft is dedicated to meeting the growing demand for nutritional benefits in food products, and LiveActive Cottage Cheese is just one example of how we are working to provide healthier options for our consumers.”
Dean, meanwhile, rolled out a new probiotic cottage cheese containing Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus casei. The product is available throughout the Upper Midwest under Dean’s three flagship brands: Dean Foods, Country Fresh and Land O’Lakes.
According to David Haley, regional director of marketing for Dean’s Midwest Region, the product was developed out of a desire to add value to the cottage cheese product. Once the concept was finalized, Haley says, a great deal of work went into ensuring that the resulting product possessed the same taste and mouth feel as traditional cottage cheese, while the cultures remained alive throughout its entire shelf-life.
“We recognized that we needed to get people to taste the product, so one of our main drivers was in-store demos with educational materials about probiotics,” Haley says. “Not only did people find out it doesn’t taste different, they found out it costs the same as their regular cottage cheese and has the added benefits.”
TOP 10 Cottage cheese BRANDS*
  $SALES (IN MILLIONS) % CHANGE VS. YEAR AGO UNIT SALES (In Millions) % CHANGE VS. YEAR AGO
Total Category$884.60.9%408.8-2.7%
Private Label324.22.1159.2-2.3
Breakstone96.28.635.45.3
Knudsen69.1-6.824.7-10.0
Breakstone Cottage Dbls37.34.635.25.7
Friendship27.1-1.512.7-5.7
Dean's27.1-3.311.4-7.4
Hood23.8-0.59.8-6.6
Prairie Farms17.2-4.78.1-8.1
Knudsen Cottage Doubles15.313.312.615.8
Darigold12.73.46.0-3.9
* Total sales in supermarkets, drug stores and mass merchandisers, excluding Wal-Mart, for the 52-week period ending September 9, 2007.
SOURCE: Information Resources Inc.

Like the Kraft product, Dean’s probiotic cottage cheese is intended to aid in digestion. Does that mean Dean Foods is seeking to score an Activia-type home run for the cottage cheese category? “We don’t want to say we copied a certain yogurt manufacturer’s stuff, but we looked at what some of the yogurt companies were putting on their packages and came to the conclusion that it’s all about digestion,” Haley says.
Courting Consumers
It’s also about attracting a younger, more active consumer, something the category sorely needs if it is going to survive. Long saddled with the reputation of being an antiquated “diet food,” cottage cheese is widely recognized as a category whose consumer base has “one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel,” according to Jed Davis, director of marketing, Cabot Creamery Cooperative, Cabot, Vt.
With the new healthy eating focus in many school districts across the country, the school lunch arena presents a significant opportunity for cottage cheese to capture a whole new generation of consumers. “If we could get cottage cheese added as a dairy serving on school menus, that would be a home run for the category,” Haley says. “Right now, however, I’m not aware of too many schools that have done that.”
Haley concedes that schools’ hesitance to open the door to cottage cheese could be due to kids’ disdain for the product. After all, he says, his own 13-year-old daughter "looks at cottage cheese and says, ‘How can you eat that stuff?"
When it comes to securing cottage cheese a spot on the school lunch tray, Penny Baker, director of marketing for Orrville, Ohio-based Smith Dairy Products Co., admits she’s at a loss. However, she suspects that the answer lies in the area of flavored cottage cheese with better packaging.
“It’s got to come in the form of single-serve containers, rather than just a dollop of cottage cheese from a foodservice line on a tray,” she says. “The other element would be cottage cheese with fruit, cottage cheese salsa, flavored cottage cheese — line extensions to go past traditional cottage cheese.”
For its part, Smith Dairy has focused its marketing efforts on promoting cottage cheese as an ingredient. During the first quarter of 2007, the company sponsored the Smith’s Cash Cow Cottage Cheese Recipe Contest. Consumers were invited to submit their most original and creative cottage cheese recipes for appetizers, main dishes and desserts.
Not only did the contest result in a 20 percent increase in retail sales during the 12-week promotional period, but it also gave the company some valuable insight into just how consumers are using their product in their own kitchens.
Looking forward, Baker reveals that Smith Dairy is “looking into” probiotic and prebiotic products. Meanwhile, Des Moines, Iowa-based Anderson Erickson Dairy is merely keeping an eye on such activities. At this point, company president Miriam Erickson Brown says AE’s core cottage cheese business has proven so successful, she doubts such R&D efforts would result in much of the way of a payoff.
In Phoenix, meanwhile, Shamrock Farms continues to look for ways to breathe new life into the ailing category. For the time being, the question remains just exactly how to go about doing so.
“Cottage cheese is on our radar screen in terms of how can we innovate,” says Sandy Kelly, director of marketing, Shamrock Farms, Phoenix. “Is it packaging? Is it product development? I think it’s all of the above.”
Still, there’s no denying that the tide seems to be turning in terms of the amount of optimism surrounding the cottage cheese category. Further evidence that Dean is feeling bullish about cottage cheese came to light this spring when the company paid $130 million for Jericho, N.Y.-based Friendship Dairies Inc., a 90-year-old privately held maker of cottage cheese and other cultured products.
Then there’s Dallas-based Daisy Brand. A dedicated manufacturer of sour cream for more than 75 years, Daisy recently entered the cottage cheese business. The privately held company declined to comment for this article, but the product is being promoted as “a creamy, delicious way to start your morning” and “a quick and easy way to lighten up your day.”
So far, all the enthusiasm with regard to cottage cheese has yet to result in much of an increase in overall category sales.
But cottage cheese makers are upbeat about the category’s future prospects, especially in light of recent innovations. “I think people will gradually start coming back to cottage cheese once they realize it’s low-fat and it’s got loads of calcium and protein,” Haley says. “When you add value-added benefits, like probiotics, to it, you’ve got a real winner.”
Julie Cook Ramirez is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.