Cheese Comes of Age
Convenience, Snacking, Better-for-You Products Boost Cheese Sales
By Kathleen Furore
How many versions of grilled cheese does it take to make a library?
For the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), the answer is 150–the number of grilled cheese recipes featured at GrilledCheeseAcademy.com. And that number is set to grow once recipes are gathered from the WMMB’s sixth annual Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown, a competition that will be promoted at participating retailers nationwide this spring.
The popularity of what was once a single-ingredient grilled sandwich illustrates the rise of cheese from simple stand-by to an almost gourmet go-to ingredient–and it is compelling cheesemakers to up the ante when it comes to the products they offer retailers and foodservice clients.
“There has been an uptick as far as natural cheese consumption,” reports Bob Starkey, vice president of business development of Green Bay, Wisc.-based Winona Foods. “Processed cheese is on the decline because of nomenclature and the expanding palette of consumers who are looking for bolder, more flavorful varieties of cheese, particularly artisanal products.”
Cheese by the Numbers
The fact is Americans eat a lot of cheese–a lot more than they did even one year ago.
According to the WMMB, annual per capita cheese consumption in Americans is currently 35.3 pounds, roughly one pound more than 12 months ago.
The Dept. of Agriculture recently reported that the jump in total domestic cheese consumption over the past two years was the biggest since 2000, with Americans eating the most on average since the government began tracking the data in 1975.
Looking at consumption data for the past decade further underscores the rising popularity of cheese: Americans have increased their consumption by 11.7 percent or 3.7 pounds over the past 10 years, information from WMMB says.
That’s all good news for cheese vendors, who have upped production to meet demand. In 2016, the U.S. produced a total of 12.1 billion pounds of cheese, an increase of 238 million pounds over the prior year. Wisconsin alone produced a record-breaking 3.2 billion pounds of cheese in 2016, an increase of 97 million pounds, preliminary data from the USDA shows.
Lifestyle Trends Driving Demand
“Convenience really rules!”
That statement from Winona Foods’ Starkey hits on a key factor influencing cheese sales.
“It used to be that people would buy blocks of cheese and slice it. Now, shoppers want sliced cheese–and thin slices are popular because of their lower calorie counts, plus using them makes serving costs go down,” says Starkey, who notes that Winona Foods is preparing to launch “new products with bolder flavors–products that will scream “grab-n-go!”
Dave Larsen, vice president cheese operations at Gossner Foods Inc., a Logan, Utah-based company that specializes in Swiss cheese products, also sees convenience as a key driver of cheese sales today.
“Consumers are looking for more ready-to-use products, and sliced cheese is great for so many applications. Sliced cheese is so convenient for making sandwiches and snacking,” Larsen notes. “More customers are asking for different slice packages and configurations. There are more package sizes and slice thicknesses and cheese types offered than ever before.”
Snacking–which has been called a fourth day-part–also plays a significant role in the increasing demand for cheese. It goes hand-in-hand with the convenience/grab-n-go trend.
The WMMB’s custom IRI database shows that snacks are outperforming the consumer packaged goods category in all channels, as more American consumers seek convenient ways to add high-quality proteins to their diets. Additionally according to data from Mintel, sales of protein-rich snacks increased by 89 percent between 2012 and 2014.
Consumers’ growing focus on healthier fare is another factor.
“Health has become a key purchase driver of cheese, as consumers are increasingly seeking out its high protein content and simple, clean ingredients,” information from the International Dairy, Deli, Bakery Association’s “What’s in Store 2017” report notes.
Larsen and Starkey have witnessed the impact this focus on better-for-you foods has had.
“It seems consumers are looking for something more ‘natural’,” Larsen says. “Consumers are concerned about where their products come from and how they are made. People are more aware of what they are putting in their bodies and nutrition information continues to be a focus.”
“Our artisanal products have never been more important in the dairy category–thank you Whole Foods and Food Network!” reports Starkey, who says Winona Foods’ vegan cheese has enjoyed tremendous success. “Millennials are waggin’ the tail. They know everything and anything about what they eat. ‘Flexitarian’ is the new term–they want vegan, but maybe only once a week. Cheese is one item ‘flexitarians’ and vegetarians don’t want to give up!”
Slicing and Processing Challenges
Focusing on cheese trends and consumers’ preferences for new products is important for manufacturers. They must also focus on the business partners who will help them meet the slicing and processing challenges they encounter so they can get the right products to market.
Starkey and Larsen say that is why their companies look to Weber.
“In our industry, speed does not kill…he who runs fastest and safest [wins],” says Starkey, who notes that Winona Foods is building a new 165,000-sq-ft facility in Howard, Wisc. “Our customers are looking at what sort of innovation we are providing, what unique ways of portioning or slicing we offer…so we’re interested in a partner who can support those things on production and on innovation and the strategy side, as well. We are looking at Weber because we value a company that is reliable–someone who can provide tech support and processing support, and someone with a great name in the industry.”
Larsen says working with a company that can help Gossner meet the demand for thin slices is key.
“Slice thickness continues to get thinner and thinner. With thinner and thinner slices come the challenge to have excellent consistency with the weight of every slice and still maintain production speeds that allow us to provide our customers a finished product that meets the quality and price point they are looking for,” Larsen explains. “Weber understands our needs and is concerned about our objectives and goals. We work together to find a solution that ultimately meets our customer needs and goals.”
Five Ways Consumers Will Eat Even More Cheese in 2017
1. Year ‘Round Comfort. Comfort food is no longer just for colder months. Diners and at-home cooks are seeking out hearty, comforting dishes like mac and cheese, grilled cheese and pasta bakes – all year round.
2. It's Always a Good Time for Brunch. The all-day breakfast trend has transformed into all-day brunch. According to the National Restaurant Association, 7 out of 10 consumers prefer that restaurants serve all-day breakfast. Menu items like flavorful ham and cheese breakfast sandwiches, cheesy egg-based tacos and fried chicken biscuit sandwiches with cheese and sausage gravy are popping up on all-day menus across the country.
3. Bowls, Bowls, Bowls. Ramen isn't the only dish being served in a bowl these days. Expect to see an increase in consumers enjoying bowls any time of day, be it a cheesy breakfast bowl with scrambled eggs or a power bowl with plenty of veggies, ancient grains and Greek yogurt.
4. Conscious Consumption. As consumers strive to eat more sustainably, expect to see an increase in the use of byproducts like whey. Created during the cheesemaking process, whey is a great source of protein that is now being added to juices and smoothies. It's also used in salad dressings and as a fermentation agent.
5. Spice Goes Global. Year after year, hot and spicy flavors dominate trend forecasts. This year, look for new globally-inspired spice blends including Latin American, Middle Eastern, Southeast Asian and Mediterranean. (For in-depth information about global food trends, see the story Global Cuisines: Ethnic Flavors Spice up Meat and Cheese Options in the Deli at moderndelimobile.com).
Grilled Cheese Recipe Showdown: A Look at 2016 Winners
The All American–Wisconsin aged cheddar and mascarpone, churro-battered challah bread and homemade apple pie filling
The Bloody Mary–Wisconsin cheese curds, mozzarella and parmesan, Bloody Mary relish, heirloom tomatoes, celery leaves, bacon and a homemade parmesan-olive bread
The Speakeasy–Gooey Wisconsin havarti and gouda, caramelized bourbon-brown sugar apricots, candied bacon, marmalade-mustard spread and fried sage leaves sandwiched between two crisp, buttery slices of pumpernickel bread