When it comes to the still-growing trend of local, wholesome foods, it’s not entirely clear where cheese fits into the picture. It’s not exactly an easy food to produce and transport, and when does a local cheese company become too big to be considered local?
“There are definitely hurdles in getting a small producer’s cheese into supermarkets,” says Brian Civitello, who started Connecticut’s Mystic Cheese Co. three years ago. “But people increasingly want the products, and there are ways to make it happen.”
Sarah Hoffman, who helped turn Green Dirt Farm in Weston, MO, into a commercial creamery in 2008, says local, smaller batch cheeses hit all the marks on the evolving list of consumer needs. “First and foremost I think people are looking for something that is incredibly wholesome and the marker for that for a lot of customers is a clean label; a label that doesn’t have a lot of preservatives or complicated-sounding chemicals in the ingredient list,” she says.
Consumers are also looking for a product that is produced with care and integrity, she says. Many times, a smaller, local producer can better present that image. Green Dirt Farm, for example, can boast that all of its sheep’s milk products are animal welfare approved, as is any cow’s milk it sources. It’s all backed up by a third-party auditor.
“When people see that certification on our label, I think it tells them that we’re doing something that has real integrity and that they can feel good about buying,” Hoffman says.
The demand is there and growing, but cheeses like Green Dirt Farms’ Dirt Lover rind cheese or Mystic Cheese Co.’s Melinda Mae aren’t always found in the supermarkets most consumers frequent. “We’ve seen a tremendous demand coming from even the larger supermarkets who are now interested in carrying our products,” says Civitello. “I think it’s good for them because the consumers who shop in those stores are wondering why they can’t get those types of cheeses there.”
Part of the reason, naturally, is that smaller producers simply have less product in general, which means less inventory to send to stores.
Another potential road block is the fact that a chain of supermarkets and a local cheese maker may not always immediately gel when it comes to modes of business. “We do represent kind of a problem for grocery stores. If they’re buying directly from us, it’s outside of their normal systems that make things very efficient for them in the store,” Hoffman says. “I think that looking for us and asking for our products through a distributor is one way to get around that. That way the products are in a distributor’s system and it makes it easier for them to plug it straight into their system and they don’t have to have any special workarounds for our products.”
Civitello says one simple step in creating a successful relationship between the two parties is communication. Mystic Cheese hasn’t always had the best luck with getting in touch with a buyer. “And when you do get in touch with a buyer and they want your product, I think it’s really important to establish what sort of expectation there is as far as volumes that we can commit to,” he says. “You have to have a really good line of communication with a store whose typical buying pattern might be through a catalog or something. A smaller producer might need a little more flexibility in the selling part.”
It’s also important to keep in mind the seasonal nature of local cheese and yogurt products. Traditional, hand-crafted production can emphasize flavor and alter the traditional flavor experience. The milk changes constantly, and when it hits the creamery, it’s not standardized.
“We create something from what we get at the moment,” Hoffman says. “We’ll tweak our recipes and change things here and there a little bit so our products are still recognizable as the same cheese, depending on which cheese it is. All of those things relate to the seasonal changes in the milk, so our customers can have a little bit of a celebration of the seasons when they try our products. It’s not always the same thing every time.”
That can lead to a cheese company’s customers and their consumers not always being able to purchase their favorite cheeses. “It’s challenging as a small producer in that sometimes you don’t always have the same products like a larger producer would,” Civitello says. “So you might see more seasonal things.”
Even when a company has immense pride in being a small, local or regional producer, the desire or need for growth is nearly inevitable. Green Dirt Farms primarily sells in the Kansas City region, either direct to customers or through a distributor. Mystic Cheese does nearly have of its business in its home state of Connecticut. But both companies also have plans for growth.
“We’re about to quadruple our size,” Civitello says, noting that Mystic Cheese will open a new facility later this year. “There’s a fine line because it’s very difficult to be a small artisan producer. The margins are tough and you want to grow your company, but how much can you grow before you’re perceived as mass produced? I think that’s a tough part of growing a small artisan company and maintaining the image of your quality and being a local company.”
Hoffman says supermarkets can help these smaller companies by perhaps doing something that might not, at first, be popular internally. “I think one thing grocery stores need to think about — if they really are committed to supporting local — is taking a little bit lower margin on it,” she says. “All of the small producers I know are dealing with the problem of not being able to take advantage of scale and are really struggling economically. I think for grocery stores, a lot of times the price point is not where it normally is for them in terms of the way they think about margins.”
In the end, it can lead to a store’s customers being able to find their favorite local brands on their shelves. “I think there is that attraction that brings the customer in if they have the local product,” Hoffman says. “If they can rely on that to attract customers, they might consider taking a lower margin on it.”
And better accessibility can benefit all parties — the local producers, retailers and consumers. “We sort of pride ourselves on the fact that, behind the marketing, our products are very accessible,” Civitello says. “We’re trying to reach the widest spectrum of cheese consumers possible. We’re not trying to make these really strong cheeses. We’re finding a niche as maybe a gateway into artisan cheese for people who maybe have never had different or unique-type cheeses before.”