There are now more than 1,000 artisan and specialty cheesemakers in the U.S., according to a new study.
The Denver-based American Cheese Society’s State of the U.S. Artisan/Specialty Cheese Industry Survey also found that that number has increased significantly in recent decades. Seventy-six percent of cheesemakers reported annual cheese production of 50,000 pounds or less, suggesting that most of the industry growth is in small businesses.
Cheese continues to top U.S. specialty food sales at more than $4 billion in 2017, according to Specialty Food Association statistics cited in the study. But the artisan and specialty cheese industry is not without its challenges – despite overall growth, just 80% of cheesemakers operated profitably in 2017, and average profit margins were slim. Ninety-two percent of cheesemakers reported that maintaining profitability is an area of concern.
Unsurprisingly, according to the study, cheesemakers that reported a higher production volume averaged higher gross revenue. However, strong revenue doesn’t necessarily translate to profit. The higher the cheesemaker’s gross revenue, the lower the profit margin on average – evidence that bigger isn’t necessarily better in the artisan and specialty cheese industry.
“Cheesemakers put an incredible amount of passion into creating their products, and these in-depth surveys show just how challenging that work can be,” says ACS’s executive director, Nora Weiser. “Unique cheeses made using traditional methods are driving growth in the cheese sector, and engaged consumers who care about local, artisan products are supporting this growth.”