Whisps Snacks taps into Americans' love of cheese with expanding cheese crisps lineup: 'We're growing a category,' says CEO

By Mary Ellen Shoup contact

- Last updated on GMT

Picture credit: Whisps
Picture credit: Whisps

Related tags: Snacks, Cheese

Snack trends may come and go, but few can dispute the permanence of cheese in the American diet, says Ilana Fischer, founder of the fast-growing Whisps cheese crisps brand.

"Cheese has survived and thrived along with, and in spite of, various diets that have come and gone,"​ Fischer told FoodNavigator-USA.

According to USDA data, per capita cheese consumption has more than doubled from 14.3 lbs in 1975 to 36.9 lbs in 2017. 

In a Rabobank market report from 2018, Rabobank global strategist, Mary Ledman, and Tom Bailey Rabobank senior analyst, dairy, commented,"Despite recent claims that the processed cheese category is in decline, USDA per capita consumption data suggests that Americans continue to consume American singles and Velveeta."​​ 

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A better cheese crisp

Whisps was an idea born out of the food innovation team at Schuman Cheese, where Fischer was EVP. The idea for creating a craveable pure cheese crisp was inspired by the popular Italian food, frico (pieces of cheese -- typically Parmesan -- that are fried into a crisp served as an appetizer or garnish on top of salads and main dishes).

Whisps weren't the first cheese crisp on the market, but Fischer says the years they spent in R&D has made them the No. 1 selling brand in the category. Costco was among the first retailers to pick up Whisps nationwide in their stores, and Whisps can also be found in Walmart and Target stores across the US. 

"We tasted these other cheese crisps and actually didn’t feel they were as good as they could be,"​ Fischer said. According to Fischer, other brands tend to be extremely salty or oily, and a lot of that comes down to the quality of Parmesan cheese used in the product.

"We didn’t go out to make a health food,"​ said Fischer. However, the brand does want to be seen as a "whole food"​ snack. 

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"Cheese is a wonderful whole food in and of itself. It’s high in protein, low in carbs, high in calcium, it’s a healthy food in moderation, and it’s incredibly craveable."

"Not all Parmesan is created equal,"​ she said. 

Whisps uses copper vat Parmesan, very similar to the way Parmesan is made in Parma, Italy. Using Parmesan made in copper vats imparts a nuttier, fruitier flavor than most other domestic Parmesans on the market, which tend to be sharper and saltier, according to Fischer.

"We also invented a proprietary baking technology, which helps concentrate the cheese flavor without any oiliness. Essentially we take pure cheese, and remove the moisture, and that’s the only thing that happens,"​ she said. 

"We did so well with the Parmesan that a year later we looked up and said we should launch another flavor. ​It took all of three minutes of business research to realize that the next flavor should be cheddar."

For its cheddar cheese crisps, Whisps ended up turning to it in-house master cheesemaker to make the cheddar.

"We went out and bought every single kind of cheddar available in the market, but we could not find one that we felt was as good as our Parmesan. We actually delayed the launch of cheddar until we had our master cheesemaker make his own cheddar for us,"​ Fischer said. 

'We realized that Whisps really needed its own team'

When Whisps was launched under the ownership of Schuman Cheese, it was a strategy to boost cheese sales. The brand succeeded and eventually outgrew its space in the business, and spun off as an independent company in April 2019. 

"The real motivation behind that was that Whisps was growing so quickly that it was becoming a distraction for the rest of Schuman, and Schuman is a cheese company at its heart. We realized that Whisps really needed its own team,"​ said Fischer, who added that the brand still has a very close relationship with its former parent company as it still owns a small part of the business and manufacturers the Whisps. 

Under its own tutelage, Fischer said that things are moving at lightning speed and that it's quickly expanded its team to 25 people over the last seven months. This month, Whisps announced Iris Snyder as CFO of the brand having previously worked for a number of CPG brands including Reeds, Stoli Group, Chobani, and Diageo. 

"This team focuses entirely and exclusively on Whisps, and we have gotten so much done in the last seven months, it’s just been amazing,"​ she said. "I think the culture of the company is: let’s not spend months and months over analyzing things -- let's just do it." 

The brand has expanded its product portfolio outside of Parmesan to include new flavors including Asiago & pepperjack, bacon bbq, and tomato basil.

At the Natural Products Expo West Show this March in Anaheim, Fischer shared that they will be launching two more flavors that target "mainstream snacking."

"We have a big market opportunity out there, we’re growing a category. We have a lot of confidence that Whisps, and cheese crisps more broadly, are going to be a bigger and bigger category in the grocery store and we want to maintain our leadership position in that,"​ added Fischer.

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