Makers Optimistic As Cheese Sampling Returns
As specialty cheese shops and other retail stores bring back cheese sampling, cheesemakers are expecting a boost in cheese sales going forward. With additional e-commerce advertising, new digital opportunities and improved sanitation, they are equipped with new tools to get cheese into the hands of consumers and tell their dairy farm stories in a post-pandemic world.
“Truly the most impactful way to grow specialty cheese sales is through sampling and demoing the items,” says Rich Mende, senior vice president of channel programs, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. “You need to get cheese into consumers’ mouths to create the full experience. It also provides a platform to tell the story behind the cheese, cheesemaker and, in some cases, the dairy farm that supplies the milk.”
Sampling and demoing cheese helps create in-store excitement to draw consumers into the specialty cheese department. For some retail consumers, Mende says the specialty cheese department can be overwhelming, with hundreds of varieties and unfamiliar brands, and being able to try the cheese opens up an opportunity for a discovery that may lead to a new favorite cheese. In addition to getting people to try cheeses, it also lends an opportunity to tell the story behind the cheese, he adds.
“As sampling is just now starting to open up across the country, it will be interesting to see how retailers and local health departments approach in-store sampling and what, if any, new safeguards are put in place,” Mende says.
For artisan cheese shop Fromagination, located on the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, hygiene and safe food handling continues to be a top priority with the return of sampling. Ken Monteleone, head cheesemonger, creative director and owner of Fromagination, says last year when the pandemic unfolded, Fromagination took action right away by following all the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure safety of its staff and customers.
“When the pandemic first started, hygiene became a top issue as people in the initial stages were being told to wipe down groceries before they were brought into the house. We’re going to continue to do our due diligence in terms of all things we learned during the pandemic,” Monteleone says. “Our team has really become more aware of safe food handling and how to make sure our customers trust us that we’re doing everything we can to care for the cheese and also present it well to them.”
As a cut-to-order and full-service shop that requires skilled employees, Fromagination still is in the process of reopening from five days a week to seven days a week, Monteleone says. The store currently is re-hiring for its front-of-the-house team at the brick-and-mortar store since a majority of resources were shifted to virtual classes and online. He notes that people visiting Fromagination feel comfortable shopping as people who aren’t vaccinated still are required to wear masks but those vaccinated don’t have that requirement.
“Part of how I built this business is people experiencing the cheese before they purchase. Obviously, during COVID-19 we were restricted from doing any of that, so we had to do a better job of really describing flavors,” Monteleone says. “It really made us grow our skill set because we couldn’t rely on an expression from a customer; we had to explain the flavors the cheeses possessed since they weren’t able to sample it. Now that we’re able to sample again, we’re finding that two things are happening: People are Zoom-ed out, and they’re coming into the store for the sampling experience that they’ve missed.”
Fromagination reopened sampling June 19, when the Dane County Farmer’s Market returned to the Capitol Square, and Monteleone found that the store’s customer purchasing ratio increased 25%. He says he expects to see that ratio improving as the store’s next phase is trying to get vendors to come in and sample.
Monteleone notes that Fromagination also has segmented its cheese assortments to ensure some grab-and-go cheeses are available in addition to the small artisan cheeses that are on display for sampling. He says there are some basic cheeses that people know and don’t need to try — they just want to replenish their refrigerators for the week.
Over 14 years, the cheese shop has carried hundreds of cheeses from Wisconsin, the United States and other countries. While the shop inventory is focused on Wisconsin products, Fromagination also often provides its guests with tastes of cheeses from expert producers in places such as Vermont, Minnesota, California, Italy, France, England and the Netherlands.
“What we find is our average retail transaction has gone up because we’ve expanded our assortment and we’re kind of catering to people that want that full service because that’s what’s pretty much made Fromagination what it is — having expert cheesemongers that can tell you the cheesemakers’ stories and guide you through your palate as you taste their cheeses,” Monteleone says.
New cheesemakers also entered the marketplace during the pandemic and have used in-store sampling as a method to introduce their cheeses to customers. For example, Blakesville Creamery in Port Washington, Wisconsin, was established in 2020 as part of an existing dairy farm and today has 1,200 goats in its herd producing milk for its fresh, washed-rind goat cheeses. The planning and design phase of the creamery started back in 2017, and construction on the creamery was completed in March 2020.
“We make goat cheese from the milk of our own herd. Our product line is focused on soft-ripened cheeses,” says Veronica Pedraza, head cheesemaker and general manager of Blakesville Creamery, who has been making cheese for 15 years, and previously worked at Sweet Grass Dairy, Jasper Hill Farm and Meadowood Farms. “This type of cheese is not as familiar for Wisconsinites as say, Cheddar or Swiss. In-store sampling helps introduce this style of cheese to customers.”
Meanwhile, Emmi Roth USA Inc., a subsidiary of Switzerland-based Emmi Group, is a producer of specialty cheeses based in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, that has a history of success in driving purchases of specialty cheeses through in-store sampling. The company is known for its award-winning cheeses from the United States, Switzerland and Europe, each crafted from fresh, locally-sourced milk. Some of its key cheese brands include Le Gruyère AOP, Kaltbach Cave-aged, Roth Grand Cru and Buttermilk Blue.
Most of the grocery retailers Emmi Roth works with stopped live demos last year and at the start of this year. Now that they have gradually gotten back toward sampling product again, Emmi Roth’s Vice President of Club Sales Kevin Hevrdejs says retailers are looking to have a good third and fourth quarter compared to last year by getting demos back on the sales floor.
“We typically saw about a 20-30% increase in sales during the week of sampling,” Hevrdejs says. “The greatest benefit is that the retailer ordered more product for the sampling and sometimes featured our product on an endcap, so sales and purchase went up significantly at that retailer.
Cabot Creamery, Cabot, Vermont, has not done in-person sampling since the pandemic began, but it is planning to test the waters over the summer and fall to see how it goes. Amy Levine, director of business support development at Cabot Creamery, notes that acceptance of sampling programs may vary around the country, and the creamery is hopeful consumers will be ready and open to sampling this summer and fall.
“Everyone is eager to get back to normal. We know that certain regions are more accepting of relaxed guidelines than others,” Levine says. “The future of sampling depends on consumers’ comfort level with taking and trying a product in a safe environment, and we anticipate that some markets will be open to that sooner than others.
“The sensory experience of tasting our cheese and experiencing it firsthand is by far one of the most effective marketing tools that we have,” Levine adds. “We take great pride in the flavor and quality of our products, and that’s why we have historically jumped at any opportunity for sampling whether in stores or out in the community. Plus, it’s just a great opportunity to talk and connect with people and tell our story.”
In the meantime, Cabot Creamery has shifted its focus to more digital and e-commerce marketing opportunities, and it continues to use its Instacart Shoppers programming to stay in communication with consumers. Digital and e-commerce outreach will continue to be a focus beyond the pandemic, Levine says.
In addition to greater brand awareness and growing partnerships with its retail customers through sampling, Emmi Roth has added additional e-commerce advertising to reach consumers who altered their shopping behaviors with the onset of COVID-19.
“E-commerce advertising has had a positive ROI (return on investment), and it will continue to be a long-term strategy,” Hevrdejs says.
Virtual classes and webinars also have become popular since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to Monteleone. During the spring and summer months, Fromagination is focusing on virtual group classes designed for companies and organizations who might have employees all over the country and want to engage in a team building experience. In the winter months, he says Fromagination will continue to do virtual classes and make them available to anyone.
“An added bonus of being in Wisconsin and having great relationships with its cheesemakers is really being able to showcase them in a way that was not as widely utilized prior to COVID,” Monteleone says, noting that all classes focus on Wisconsin, tell cheesemaker stories, introduce cheeses and pairings — and some classes even feature the cheesemaker and their farm.
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Source: Cheese Market News