If a worldwide pandemic wasn’t enough to convince you that dairy marketing has entered a new era, then consider what TikTok can do to your plans.

Feta cheese manufacturers noticed a strange and dramatic uptick in retail orders of feta in February, generally the “off season” for this summer favorite. Little did they know that MacKenzie Smith, the blogger at Grilled Cheese Social, dropped a 30-second recipe video on TikTok Jan. 28, sparking a viral phenomenon that has yet to lose steam.

The recipe calls for 8 ounces of feta, with cherry tomatoes, salt, garlic, basil, olive oil and pasta. The #fetapasta hashtag Smith inspired has 780 million views and counting on TikTok.


Foodservice losses, retail gains

Last year was difficult for cheeses bound for foodservice markets. Overall cheese volume dropped 16.4% — and even more in categories such as full-service restaurants (down 35.7%) and travel and leisure destinations (down 57.6%), according to “Cheese in Foodservice: Assessment and Outlook,” prepared by Technomic for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

Feta, with 72% foodservice usage in restaurants, was hit hard when states imposed waves of shutdowns to promote social distancing. According to the Technomic study, feta’s compound annual growth rate dropped 13.8% in 2020 compared to 2018, with a 20.7% decline in full-service dining and a 33.7% drop in travel and leisure. This for a rising-star cheese that grew 4.3% in sales in the previous two-year study.

Manufacturers such as Klondike Cheese in Monroe, Wis., were perplexed in February when retail customers started ordering more frequently and with larger orders.

“We had one account order nearly five times more product, and they wanted it weekly,” said Dave Buholzer, Klondike Cheese co-owner.

Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association contacted feta manufacturers in the United States and can confidentially estimate that additional sales of feta in February and March 2021 alone approached 4 million pounds. This was growth beyond typical seasonal gains, and surprising spikes in sales were reported by each manufacturer contacted.

The Washington Post has written twice about the phenomenon of this baked feta pasta, including a rave review. The New York Times joined in, noting “spillover in Twitter, Facebook, followers of Rachel Ray, the “Today” show and “Good Morning America.”

What The New York Times missed were legions of amateur feta pasta images on Pinterest, the Food Network’s “just right” recipe and EatingWell’s gush: “This might be our favorite food trend of all time.”

The wild success of a simple make-it-at-home recipe might reflect these sheltered times, but more likely it reveals how instantly connected the next generation is, how clean and simple the recipe is, and how unmockably delicious it turns out.

Clean, simple, delicious. That’s cheese. And that’s how a free, viral video moved $10 million (and counting) worth of one of America’s favorite specialty cheeses.