Whey to Go
In its 2007 year-end analysis, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board states that the overarching food trend that favors small batch, homemade products and minimally processed, natural ingredients is paving the way for more specialty and artisanal American cheeses. The scope and quantity of cheeses now available for foodservice purchasing—and the restaurants that are buying and menuing them—has never been greater.
This spike has occurred with both domestic and imported products, as consumers’ appetite for cheese continues to grow and they become more knowledgeable and fussier about their choices. Note the numbers:
Americans now consume 32.5 pounds of cheese per person annually. That’s expected to rise to 36 pounds by 2016, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
- Wisconsin is the top cheese-producing state, turning out 2.3 billion pounds in 2007—up 3 percent from the previous year. Specialty cheeses continue to claim a larger share, now accounting for about 16 percent of Wisconsin cheeses. These include smaller-batch farmstead and artisanal cheeses—a rapidly growing category.
- Cheese production in California increased more than 80 percent over the last decade, totaling about 2.28 billion pounds in 2007, making California the second-largest U.S. producer. Milk production also reached a record high in 2007 at 40.6 billion pounds, according to the California Milk Advisory Board.
- Imported cheeses now account for about 5 percent of our supply, according to the Cheese Importers Association of America. Although Italy, France, Switzerland and other cheese-centric countries are still major players, lesser-known locales in Europe, Australia and the Middle East are ramping up exports. And many imported cheese types—such as Spanish Manchego and Greek feta—are now produced in the United States due to greater recognition and demand.
The cheese buy
With ever-expanding choices, how can you make cheese purchases that will satisfy your needs and your customers’ tastes? “Functionality and convenience are the bottom line for most foodservice operators,” advises Kirsten Jaeckle, marketing manager for Roth Kase, a Wisconsin cheese company. “Ask yourself, ‘Does this cheese do what I want it to do in my menu applications?’”
Many purchases are no-brainers—pizza concepts must buy mozzarella, and burger joints sliced American or cheddar cheese. Although almost every concept orders a certain amount of these commodity cheeses, purveyors are adding value and excitement to the standards. In addition to the traditional timesaving forms (shredded, sliced and cubed), foodservice customers can order custom blends of two or more cheeses, such as cheddar and Monterey jack, in the proportions desired. Roth Kase offers a new “slice on slice” program, in which the slices of cheese are stacked without paper to eliminate waste, yet peel apart easily. Havarti, Gruyere, Swiss and cheddar are among the 13 varieties in the program.
Most recently, this company started selling cheese board kits to assist the increasing number of restaurants that are menuing cheese plates. “We select three to five complementary cheeses and bundle them together, sometimes with dried fruits and nuts,” Jaeckle says. “An operator doesn’t have to commit to buying a full wheel or log and it takes the guesswork out of composing a cheese plate.”
On the menu
Cheese with strong flavors, such as Blue and Feta, are becoming the most popular cheeses on the menu, according to consumer research from the California Milk Advisory Board. “Americans say they are eating more flavorful cheese and that they will pay a premium for cheese with more flavor,” says Tricia Heinrich, a vice president with CMAB. A 2007 Technomic MenuMonitor research report backs up those findings. Here’s what’s being served:
Top 10 most popular specialty cheeses
Flavored cheeses (i.e. Pepper Jack)
Asiago and Mozzarella (tied)
Top 5 menu items using cheese
Q&A with Francesca Elfner
BelGioioso Cheese, Denmark, Wisconsin, maker of Italian specialty cheeses
Q. What trends are you addressing in your product line?
A. We’re focusing on artisanal cheeses. The newest introductions are burrata, a fresh mozzarella filled with cream; crescenza, a fresh, rindless cheese with a mild, milky flavor; and Italico, a soft table cheese with a smooth, earthy flavor. Since our cheese maker is from Italy, these are very authentic even though they are produced in the United States.
Q. How can foodservice customers work with cheese makers to customize products?
A. Just ask. Several manufacturers are going in this direction. BelGioioso does custom blends of Italian cheeses to fit operators’ specs, such as a 63 percent parmesan/37 percent asiago mix, and we package cheese in many forms—crumbled, grated, cubed, shredded and most recently, shaved. And when customers ask us to age a cheese a little longer or a little less, we can oblige.
Q. What issues should operators be aware of to become smarter cheese buyers?
A. Food safety is very important to consumers right now. Work with suppliers that offer tours of their facilities, conduct third party audits and can trace products.
Q. Are broadline distributors offering more specialty cheeses?
A. Sysco has a new service called ChefEx geared to specialty and artisanal cheeses. Operators pay Sysco directly and BelGioioso or another company is then responsible for shipping out specialty cheeses right to the restaurant.
Q. How can a restaurant preserve the integrity and freshness of a cheese once it’s delivered?
A. Cheese is a living thing and must breathe properly. It’s important to monitor temperature and oxygen transfer so the cheese stays properly moist and doesn’t dry out. The right packaging can help; paper wrappings absorb some of the moisture and plastic keeps it moist. For creamy, fresh cheeses like gorgonzola, crescenza and blue, I suggest refrigerating at 34 to 38°F., keeping both paper and plastic around the cheese. Hard cheeses like grana and parmesan should be stored at 40 to 50°F. Cut off what you need with clean utensils then wrap the cheese with stretch plastic.