Milking It

With the exception of most Asian concepts, dairy products represent a large purchase across the restaurant universe. Milk, cream, cheese and/or yogurt span all dayparts and types of operations. Recently, unpredictable market fluctuations and price volatility have made dairy buying a wild ride. But dairy products are an essential purchase; many operators rely on them—especially cheese—to add value and excitement to the menu. What’s the key to making smart buys that will satisfy your customers and your bottom line? Here are some answers.

Buy high-volume cheeses in greater quantity. The more popular cheeses, such as domestic cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella, are in larger supply and are usually priced more competitively than lesser-known varieties, says Marilyn Wilkinson, Director, National Product Communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). On the other hand, small amounts of specialty cheeses can differentiate menu items and add appeal, so make these a proportionate part of your buy and call them out on the menu.

Be flexible. If the type of cheese you spec zooms in price, think about substituting another. The WMMB suggests subbing mild provolone or Muenster for fontina; gouda for manchego; and domestic Monterey Jack for Mexican Oaxaca or queso quesadilla cheese, for example. But “don’t save money at the risk of compromising the flavor of a menu item,” adds Wilkinson. Substitution works best in more “generic” items, such as omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers and quesadillas, rather than ethnic or signature dishes that are distinguished by a certain cheese.

Cross utilize. At Mimi’s Café, VP of food and beverage Adam Baird uses cheeses like Swiss, cheddar, feta, Brie and mozzarella in breakfast, lunch and dinner applications. The fresh mozzarella in dinner’s Caprese Salad, for example, gets folded into an omelet for breakfast; the Brie used in the Asparagus and Brie Quiche at lunch also appears in a new dinner prep, Chicken Brie Dijon. Leftover bits and ends can always be grated and added to salads, gratins and other preps.

Weigh labor vs. cost. Sliced, shredded, crumbled or grated cheese may cost a bit more, but these are recipe-ready for foodservice. “Manufacturers have a lot more expertise in handling cheese than many workers,” states Regi Hise, corporate chef of Emmi-Roth Käse USA Ltd. “They shred a lot more efficiently and under better sanitary conditions than a restaurant kitchen where cross-contamination can be a problem.” Of course, these forms are not appropriate for certain applications, like cheese plates and appetizers, where a chunk or wedge of cheese is desirable.

Consider seasonality. Cows yield more milk in good weather, says Wilkinson, so supply is more ample in the temperate fall and spring seasons and prices more moderate. The same goes for goats and sheep. Fresh cheeses, like chevre, would follow suit, but the price of any cheese that is aged (and the majority are, even for a month) will not reflect the seasons in the same way.

Lock in prices using the futures market. In the past, the government supported dairy prices and the market had more stability, explains Roger Hoskin, agricultural economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. “Now that dairy is linked to the international market, there’s greater price volatility. Restaurant purchasers may have to change the way they do business and consider contracts with suppliers,” he says.