Summer Fancy Food Show

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Specialty cheese expands beyond special occasions as economy tightens

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/Helen Cathcart
Source: Getty/Helen Cathcart

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast Cheese Dairy Fancy Food Show

To offset the threat of commoditization and keep consumers from trading down or stepping away from the dairy case to save money as the economy tightens, specialty cheesemakers are moving beyond traditional formats, flavors and packaging that may be intimidating or come off as overly stuffy or only for special occasions.

Instead, they are embracing packaging and formats that more playful, educational and approachable, and innovating products that are more convenient or allow consumers to enjoy cheese in new and sometimes unexpected ways across dayparts.

At the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City earlier this month, category newcomers showcased the next generation of specialty cheese, including crunchy Icelandic Skyr made with novel popping technology from Responsible Foods under the brand Naera, and a grillable, roastable and boldly flavored baked cheese from Wisconsin-based The Big Moo, which wants to give imported halloumi a run for its money.

Long-time cheesemongers also showed off innovations that they believe will keep consumers coming back even as the economy constricts, including new products from The Vermont Creamery that balance decadence and convenience for a restaurant-quality eating experience at home without the hassle, and offerings from the UK-based Somerdale that inject the category with playful whimsy to reach a broader consumer base.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, these companies share what sets their products apart, how they are expanding the reach of the specialty cheese case and the steps they are taking to recession-proof their businesses and the category at large. They also share where they see the most opportunity for specialty cheese and how consumer preferences are shifting.

[Editor's Note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA's Soup-To-Nuts podcast -- subscribe​ today.]

Communicating value, beyond price point, is essential in a recession

As the threat of a recession rises, so too does the bar for what consumers consider essential or worth their money, according to Somerdale director Alan Jenkins, who explains that among the first products to be left on store shelves during economically challenging periods are those with which consumers are unfamiliar, don’t know how to use or are unsure if they will like.

Unfortunately, he notes, traditionally marketed specialty cheese with their minimalist labels and often monochromatic packages often fall into all three of these camps – which is why he says Somerdale it working hard to make its products more approachable through educational packaging, as in the case of its “Enjoy Me With” range of cheese.

“We try and take specialty cheese and make it more approachable to the consumer, because it is daunting,”​ and like with wine, consumers often make their selection based on the label, Jenkins said.

He explained the “Enjoy Me With” range tells shoppers on the label how best to pair a cheese with wine and other foods so they can easily create an enjoyable experience centered around the cheese.

Somerdale also hopes to drive sales with playful innovations like the “Bloody Good Cheddar," which wraps a deep red cheddar in black wax with a coffin shaped label featuring a vampire that debuted at The Summer Fancy Food Show, or a recently expanded trio of Irish Claddagh Bo cheese, including one wrapped in wax to look like the Irish flag when sliced that is perfect for St. Patrick’s day.

‘Micro-celebrations’ open specialty cheeses to everyday eating

On the other side of the pond, one of the first US artisanal cheese makers The Vermont Creamery is also listening closely to consumers evolving needs, including an increased desire to celebrate life’s little moments.

Vermont Creamery director of marketing Kate Paine explains that consumers want decadent and boldly flavored treats to mark “micro-celebrations,” but they also want snack-sized options that are approachable and convenient enough for every day.

“People want something that’s special. All of us are seeing micro-celebrations pop-up. Everybody is just so thirsty for something interesting and special that makes us feel good. So, you’re seeing people celebrating their dogs’ birthdays or the first day [of something new, like a job] or even Monday,”​ Paine said.

In response, she said, The Vermont Creamery is launching a trio of new flavors of goat cheese, which Paine believes is about to “take off” in the US.

These include a Strawberries Spritz flavor that pairs chunks of strawberries with the essence of wine, but without the alcohol, ‘that competes with a bouquet of flowers and a beam of sunline,”​ Paine said.

Next up is a honey truffle that will launch in the coming months that balances sweet and savory to extend uses, she said.

By introducing new flavors, The Vermont Creamery, is showing consumers that goat cheese is more than a salad topping and can be a dessert, accent to a main course or even a snack to enjoy on the go.

The Vermont Creamery is taking this same ethos of approachable decadence with the launch of its high-fat sour cream in flavors that nod to consumers’ need for convenience but without compromising on “delicious.” And, as Paine points out, the products are unlike any other on the market currently – helping to set them apart, build brand recognition and protect against the threat of commoditization.

Tik Tok shows how using specialty cheese is as easy as 1, 2, 3

Like Somerdale, The Vermont Creamery is also trying to make specialty cheese and dairy products more accessible by leveraging social media, and in particular Tik Tok, which Paine says is helping to show consumers how fancy and fun can also be fast and easy.

She explains that during the pandemic many people began making fancier dishes at home because they had extra time, but as their commitments out of the house begin to ramp up they need ways to make “fancy” faster. And Tik Tok users are doing this by showcasing three-step or ingredient meals and snacks that easy but still feel special.

Responsible Foods offers novel better-for-you and the planet products

Making cheese and dairy more approachable isn’t just about educating consumers how to use the products – it can also be about how the ingredients are sourced and the format in which they are presented, according to Holly Kristinsson, the CEO of Responsible Foods who, along with her husband, is taking the creamy yogurt-like Icelandic cheese Skyr in a totally new direction that is both easier to digest, easier to consume and easier on the planet to produce.

Under the Naeara brand, the duo are launching a crunchy, poppable Skyr snack made with milk containing only A2 beta-casein form Icelandic cows that is processed using a unique duel microwave and vacuum technology.

Each bite is uniquely shaped, high in protein but free or low in lactose and shelf stable – which means they can go anywhere and require less energy to store and transport, making them just as easy to digest as it is to pop in your mouth, and is just as good for the planet as people, said Kristinsson

Finally, Responsible Foods is responding to consumer demand for more sustainable products by producing its Naera Snacks with 100% green renewable geothermal energy, and with an energy efficient drying process that uses only a fraction of the energy of competing drying processes. The company also upcycles would-be wasted dairy byproducts to create snacks with an ambient shelf life of a year, which cuts out the need for high-energy using refrigeration.

In addition to the Icelandic Skyr Snack, the brand also offers crunchy, popped Icelandic Cheese bites in several flavors, including Garlic & Herb, Sour Cream & Onion and new gouda and jalapeno offering.

Big Moo shows specialty cheese isn’t just for special occasions or special people

Another common misconception holding back specialty cheese that the fourth generation cheesemakers behind the recently launched Wisconsin-based The Big Moo brand want to overcome is the idea that specialty cheese is only for adults and people living certain coastal lifestyles.

Molly Rudder, director of sales at The Big Moo, explained that when the company co-founders created The Big Moo, which is an American version of the baked cheese halloumi, they wanted to offer a family-friendly product at an accessible price point that started in the often overlooked Midwest.

With this in mind, she explained, in February they launched a line of baked cheese with bold but familiar flavors and eye-catching packaging that showed how the cheese could easily be prepared on the grill, the stove or even the microwave for a meal that would appeal to adults and children.

“What we wanted to do was elevate in this market the American version of haloumi made with cow’s milk, except we have fun flavors … we have bacon, garlic, jalapeño and original”​ and pizza that appeal equally to kids and adults, she said.

Made from pastured cows in Wisconsin that are humanely raised and BST-hormone free with only milk, cheese enzymes, salt, herbs and other natural ingredients, explained company co-founder Josh Ptaszynski – making it something parents can feel good about feeding their children.

While only on the market a few months, Big Moo’s sales have been growing exponentially thanks in part to its versatility, and its ability to fit within on trend diets, including Keto and flexitarian lifestyles. And the brand plans to continue to build on this momentum with innovations that move beyond the block format and with new flavors, including seasonal options.

As illustrated at the Summer Fancy Food Show by all of these brands, the future of specialty cheese lies in making their products approachable without compromising quality – so through engaging packaging and marketing campaigns, familiar yet exciting flavor profiles and recipes and ultimately helping consumers celebrate even during trying times.

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