CHICAGO — Cheese manufacturer Sargento Foods Inc., Plymouth, Wis., is celebrating its 70th anniversary and staying true to its core strategy. Processed cheese has never been part of Sargento’s portfolio, and the third-generation, family-owned company has no plans to enter the plant-based cheese market. Its focus is natural cheese and identifying formats and marketing efforts to keep real cheese relevant to today’s consumers. That’s why Sargento is prioritizing snacking.

“Snacking is still a lifestyle in the US, with younger generations fueling future sales potential with an uptick of three-plus snacks per day,” said Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for the market researcher Circana, Chicago. “Key themes include bold flavors, convenience, satiety, fun and indulgence.”

Two-out-of-three consumers snack to fuel the day, which is up six percentage points from two years ago, according to the Circana 2023 Snacking Survey. Fifty-four percent of respondents said snacks are an important part of their healthy eating plan throughout the day. The figure is up seven percentage points from two years ago.

All of these snacking occasions have driven consumers to be more aware of their choices. Mindful snacking is about choosing better-for-you foods as mini meals, rather than traditional snacks from years ago, which tended to be high-carb, high-fat, nutrient-void treats. Many mindful snackers are following higher-protein diets, making cheese snacks attractive options.  

Sargento enhanced its position in the snack segment when Balanced Breaks was introduced in 2015. The dual compartment packages have cheese pieces on one side and varied accompaniments on the other, such as chocolates, dried fruits and nuts, or mini crackers. The latter is a joint venture with Mondelez International, Chicago, with the snack food company providing Ritz, Triscuit and Wheat Thin crackers.

“We have seen solid growth in our snacking portfolio as consumer demand for healthy snacking options has grown,” said Kristi Jankowski, executive vice president of innovation. “Sargento has a 37% share of refrigerated cheese snack kits. All store brands combined have only 7% share.”

Mozzarella string cheese is one of the few cheeses Sargento produces internally. Manufacturing takes place at the Baker Cheese Factory Inc., St. Cloud, Wis., which Sargento acquired in May 2022. Through the acquisition, Sargento has control over what is produced at Baker Cheese at a time when cheese snacking is seeing high demand. The situation presents the privately owned company with a space for future innovation, something that may be challenging in the natural cheese category.  

That’s because natural cheese innovation, in general, is limited by the standards of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations. Such rules have never stopped Sargento. The company has had many firsts since 1953, including offering packaged shredded cheese, shingled natural slices and zippered packaging for its shreds and slices.

While the company sources most of its natural cheeses from other cheesemakers, it is prudent with procurement. At least 10 cheese graders work with approved suppliers to make sure all cheeses meet Sargento’s specifications, including the basics, such as cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss, as well as formulations developed by the in-house innovations team.

One such example is Sargento Creamery, a line of 100% sliced natural cheeses that delivers an enhanced melt thanks to the addition of cream.

“We have intellectual property around Creamery and work very closely with our supplier to make sure product meets specs,” Ms. Jankowski said. “It sounds easy enough. But it is not. Not only does it have to taste just right, it also must be able to be sliced.”

The same is true for the company’s Ultra Thin Slices, which are half the thickness of traditional natural slices. That means half the calories and half the fat but all the flavor, said Ms. Janowski. It keeps dairy cheese relevant for health-conscious consumers.

 Sargento’s most significant competition across all retail cheese formats — chunks, shreds, slices and snacks — is private label. The company has non-branded businesses that sell cheese to foodservice operators and for food manufacturing.

Sargento also has a frozen breaded cheese appetizer business that produces such products as mozzarella sticks and curds for foodservice from company-owned production facilities in Kiel, Wis.  

To ensure cheese remains a top snack item among younger consumers, in particular females, Sargento created “girl dinner” TikTok videos. This is the trending glamorized evening meal featuring a plate of finger food, including grapes, cheese cubes, olives and baguette.

“We are going where the eyeballs are,” Ms. Jankowski said. “Over the past few years, we’ve seen shifts in consumer media viewing habits, omnichannel shopping habits and new technologies that impact how we plan our marketing investments in order to effectively reach consumers. In response, we are making significant shifts to lean into digital video, social media and retailer media.”