Chicago-based Bel Brands USA, makers of The Laughing Cow, Mini Babybel and Boursin cheese (among others) has become a rising star in the snacking and portable cheese category, having doubled its revenues in the last four years. Its Laughing Cow masterbrand (The Laughing Cow and Mini Babybel) is now America’s number one branded snacking cheese.

Bel Brands is a subsidiary of Fromageries Bel, headquartered in Paris, and has more than 350 SKUs, which also includes Merkts cold pack cheese, Kaukauna cheese balls and logs, Price’s Real Cheese Sandwich Spread, Owl’s Nest, and WisPride cheese. The global brands are sold all over the United States in over 90% of grocery stores.  The products are also sold in warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club and mass merchandisers like Walmart and Target.

In 2011 Bel Brands reported over $300 million in annual sales, up approximately 18% over the previous year. The company has seen growth despite the lowest level of processed cheese production in more than two decades for the United States, according to data from the International Dairy Foods Association.

How did the company rise above these statistics and stand out with natural cheese production trending? President and CEO Lance Chambers said he believes it’s a combination of things.

“Healthy snacking and portion control has definitely played a role in the growth. Consumers are always looking for healthier options but they don’t want to sacrifice [taste]. And I believe our cheese products bring a unique solution because they’re indulgent, so you’re not really giving up on taste, yet they have a better nutritional profile …and they’re portion controlled.” Chambers said.

For example, a wedge of the light version of The Laughing Cow only has 35 calories and the original version has 50 calories. Mini Babybel portions are 50 and 70 calories for the light and original, respectively.

Chambers attributes the company’s success to an emphasis on marketing as well. Much of its growth has been fueled by the recent success of its key brands Mini Babybel, The Laughing Cow wedges and Boursin, and the marketing strategies surrounding them.

“First of all we have great products, but most people didn’t know about them. So we really focused on the marketing and selling of those products. I think it was also upgrading our talent across the board, in marketing and sales, and all functions within our headquarters. And we have consistently invested behind the U.S. business.”

Chambers said “a dedicated innovation team” understands consumer trends, challenges and needs. They develop and test new products that Bel Brands can bring to market to meet unmet consumer needs. They introduce flavors and varieties that appeal to local consumer tastes and preferences.

This team also works with Bel Group’s global development and research center in France to “share insights and product innovations that can be adapted to local tastes and needs.”  In the last three years, product innovations have generated 8% of the Group’s annual global sales, according to Chambers.

Ann Legan, vice president of marketing for Bel, also emphasized the company’s focus on marketing support, especially for new product releases. “We have combined media advertising with national digital and consumer promotions, social media initiatives and other synergistic tactics, such as in-store demonstrations.”

Bel Brands expanded regional marketing to national for its new Boursin Gourmet spreadable cheese introduced last year, along with a new TV advertising campaign. The company also created a TV commercial in May for its new Smooth Sensations Cream Cheese, which was added to The Laughing Cow line last spring.

The Smooth Sensations wedges are available in cream, strawberry, garden vegetable and cinnamon cream flavors. All of the cream cheese spreads are marketed as containing one-third less fat, with the classic cream also available in full fat. The most recent product addition is a new mozzarella flavor in its Mini Babybel line.

The company says Mini Babybel represents close to one-third of its U.S. sales and has tripled in size with consistent 25% growth.

The company’s compound growth means more production and more production means more space. In the beginning of the year Bel announced plans to build a $100 million 170,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on a 48-acre site in Brookings, S.D. This new plant will take over part of the production of the Mini Babybel products. Over 50% of Babybel business is currently imported from France and the rest is produced out of its Leitchfield, Ky., plant. The new plant will eventually eliminate the need to import product from France.

The 188,500-square-foot Leitchfield plant also produces the Laughing Cow wedges and cream cheeses. It produces approximately 40 million pounds of cheese per year. Its milk is supplied through the Dairy Farmers of America.

Bel has another 144,000-square-foot plant in Little Chute, Wis., which produces its Boursin Gourmet spreadable cheese, Kaukauna, Merkts, Price’s Pimento cheese, Wispride and Owl’s Nest, and has a cheese production capacity in excess of 50 million pounds per year. This facility primarily buys its cheese from a variety of cheese suppliers.

The Brookings plant, which broke ground in July, will be a flagship facility in terms of automation, equipment, processing and efficiency, and is being built to meet LEED certification.  It will have a production capacity of approximately 22 million pounds, with a goal to produce 1.5 million Mini Babybel cheeses each day. This means the plant will need a lot of milk, and Bel is committed to supporting the growth and expansion of the dairy industry in the area, said Chambers. 

“We are working with the state of South Dakota and existing co-ops …to encourage local dairy farmers to expand their milk production capacity and to also bring new dairy farmers to the state.”

The construction of the plant will bring over 200 new jobs to the area upon completion of Phase 1 in mid-2014. According to Chambers, making this plant LEED certified was an important part of the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility development policy. “Sustainability is something very important to us as a global organization. And we feel this shows one of our commitments to sustainability.”

The company has shown a dedication to reducing its environmental footprint in several aspects of its business. It moved to its new headquarters in Chicago in 2011, which is LEED certified, and now a majority of its HQ employees commute to work by public transportation instead of drive; and all of its plants are obtaining Food Safety System Certification 22000.

Chambers said the company is proud of how far it’s come in the last four years. In July Bel Brands USA was named Chicago’s “101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work for,” by the National Association of Business Resources (NABR) for four years in a row.  

As for the future, the goal is to try and double its revenues again in the next four to five years, and to continue coming up with more value-added products.

“I think innovation is our life-blood and we have to continue to innovate, we have to determine consumers’ unmet needs and find ways to satisfy those needs,” said Chambers. “We’re not looking just to steal share within the category, we want to grow the category, because that’s when everyone wins.”