While the surge in grab-and-go and the growth in dairy are aligned with pandemic-related changes in shopping and consumption habits, one aspect of 2020’s cheese journey came as a surprise to Jonna Parker, principal with IRI’s Fresh Center of Excellence, who has been analyzing fresh data for more than a decade and has closely charted the emergence of the subtlest shifts in these categories for the last year.
Specialty deli cheese climbed to $4.8 billion in sales, a 20% growth over 2019. “I was surprised,” says Parker. “Synonymous with dinner parties and entertaining with cheese trays or a curated cheese board made in-store, specialty cheese experienced growth even though consumers were at home. They bought fresh parm and mozzarella to upgrade a meal. They went to the deli for an on-hand snacking cheese. Whether they were having a dinner party for one or two at home, they still wanted an elevated experience, and deli specialty cheese lets you do that.”
At Gelson’s, Specialty Cheese Category Manager Gayle De Caro's customers have also put specialty cheeses in their baskets with greater frequency in the past year. “In the specialty cheese category high-end ingredients, such as Parmigiana Reggiano, imported gruyere and fresh mozzarella were seeing large growth,” she says. “The increase in sales is due to the versatile uses of these cheeses from baked meals, fondues and pizzas to salads or just eaten alone as a snack.”
As the pandemic continues, Agela Abdullah, marketing director for Caputo Cheese in Melrose, Park, Ill., has watched her customers embrace specialty cheeses, new recipes and new uses for cheese in the fight against culinary fatigue.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a lot of cheddars. Kids are at home and need lunch, so families need cheese for sandwiches and grilled cheese. But as time went on, we saw consumers getting a little more adventurous in cheese,” says Abdullah. “Though they’re still making grilled cheese, on week 32 of making lunch at home, they’re ready to try different things.”
Caputo, which makes specialty cheeses such as fresh mozzarella and hand-dipped ricotta, as well as a line of cheeses for processing, grating, shredding and custom blends, also runs a small retail shop in front of its production facility, giving the cheesemaker a front-line connection with the consumer.
“Customers [at the shop] who got tired of using cheddar or Colby—there’s a lot of Colby going on here in the Midwest—started asking things like, ‘Does fresh mozzarella melt?’ We’d explain that it melts a little differently than pizza cheese,” says Abdullah, whose team at Caputo would then offer recipe suggestions and cooking tips to curious customers.
But while home meal consumption has encouraged consumers to branch out on cheese selections, other pandemic-related issues such as labor constraints and challenges to supply, have forced some grocers to pare down their specialty deli cheese offerings, which Parker believes may have actually helped sales in the category.
“Before the pandemic, specialty deli cheese had almost become over SKU-ed,” says Parker. “We continued to hear that the category was hard to shop.” A focus on bestsellers, coupled with consumer education and solid merchandising, became a recipe for success in the last year.
“Take out the noise of too many cheeses and focus on what’s working, and it gives underperforming products a chance to grow,” adds Parker, who further recommends approaching the specialty cheese department the way one would wine—tell a story, highlight different varieties and offer pairing and recipe suggestions.
Total U.S. multioutlet (grocery, drug, mass market, military and select club and dollar retailers) | YA is the year ago for the same weeks ending 2020; 2 YA is the same weeks ending 2019; 3 YA is the same weeks ending 2018 | IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm