KANSAS CITY, MO. - Specialty cheeses have long been a popular category, and over the last several months cheese purchases have grown as more people are spending time at home, a good predictor that cheese boards will keep their popularity in 2020’s likely-untraditional holiday season. In previous years, nearly two-thirds of the year’s specialty cheese sales have taken place from Halloween to New Year’s Eve.

“It is such an interesting period, but we’re seeing that cheese sales overall are growing,” said Michelle Trowbridge, channel marketing manager for the Madison, Wis.-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “It really depends on what’s coming up the next quarter, but if this was something we were talking about today, the interest is there for holiday trays, just perhaps smaller trays than larger.”

Trowbridge projects that this holiday season grocers can still expect high demand for assorted cheese boards, and similar to past holiday seasons, consumers will likely be interested in a variety of flavors, textures and colors for their holiday trays.

Pairings designed to build contrast

The best cheese trays have two to five cheeses ranging in ages, flavors, colors, and textures to choose from with complimentary pairings for each variety of cheese.

“One of the key principles of pairing is to provide contrast on a board,” said Molly Brown, education manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “So, you want something punchy with a creamy cheese. Acidity is really important when you’re pairing cheese so that’s why things like grapes are so popular, they’re like a little acid bomb that really amplifies the flavors of the cheese and helps put the palette ahead for the next bite.”

The most popular cheese varieties on holiday cheese boards according to data collected by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin are parmesan (12%), smoked gouda (10%) and Havarti (9%). Most cheese board purchases are also accompanied by additional items to serve with the cheese. Meats (39%) and fruits (22%) are the most common accoutrements paired with cheese on a board.

Most parmesan cheeses include notes of fruit, so Brown recommends pairing parmesan with dried mango, pineapple or an orange marmalade. Gouda cheeses have caramelly, butterscotch notes that pair well with Baby Ruth candy bars, peanut brittle and caramel candies, Brown noted. And the mild and buttery Havarti cheese pairs nicely with high acidic fruits like grapes and apples.

“The season offers a really fun opportunity to play with different looks on the board,” Brown said. “Personally, when making a holiday board, I am more drawn to darker colors. Pairing that with brighter colors creates a beautiful visual aesthetic. I like to use rosemary sprigs and a handful of pomegranate jewels scattered over the top. You can really add a lot of drama to a holiday party.”

HORMEL GATHERINGS offers pre-packaged cheese and meat trays

According to Emily Klotz, deli brand manager for Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods, consumers are looking for variety and bold or new flavors along with family favorites on their holiday cheese trays.

“During these unprecedented times, consumers are still entertaining, but in smaller groups like members of the house or immediate friends,” Klotz said. “They still plan on sharing the same foods they have had in the past with little alterations and are paying special attention to foods that are ‘safe’. Our HORMEL GATHERINGS party trays fit this need as we offer pre-packaged meat, cheese and cracker options. They are perfectly paired together which allows no hassle and no prep.”

Hormel’s party trays come in three sizes ranging from 14- to 39.7-ounces: a snack tray size, a party size, and an offering that includes olives in addition to cheese, meat and crackers. Around the holidays, Hormel’s party tray category grows as much as 200% compared to the rest of the year.

Educating customers through virtual channels

Cheese boards are a strong sensory experience and educating customers at the retail level is important to help shoppers make the most out of their holiday cheese boards. While offering samples and holding educational events in person has become more challenging amid the pandemic, there are still ways grocers can successfully educate consumers.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin has worked with a handful of grocers to launch virtual events in which shoppers purchase a specialty cheese or flight of cheeses online or instore and then go home and register for an online event in which they get to learn about the cheese and what pairings go best with it.

Trowbridge pointed out that it would be a great idea for a retailer to host cheese board educational events online at the start of the holiday season, to help shoppers know what to look for.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin is also testing a way for retailers to allow customers to sample cheese instore. “We’re participating with individual sample cups,” she said. “So, something that actually has a lid on it, and you pick it up and take it with you to try at home, and there’s some clever information about the cheese that’s in there.”

Leveraging social and digital assets to promote specialty cheeses and pairing for cheese boards is a strong tactic as well, Trowbridge noted. Whether it’s advertising a specific type of cheese or sharing a recipe, it’s important to educate shoppers with tips and tricks about what they can get instore. A sizeable portion of digital promotions drive online sales in addition to instore purchases. This can help remind eCommerce customers that they can get their holiday cheese tray needs fulfilled online, too.

Inline Plastic’s party platter line is perfect for cheese boards

For retailers who want to offer pre-packaged and made-to-order packaged cheese trays to shoppers, Shelton, Conn.,-based Inline Plastic’s Inline Essentials Party Platter product line is perfect for mix-and-match cheese platters.

The product line includes a variety of dome platters that include five separated compartments for different elements. The containers are easy to both open and reseal, with solid construction and leak-resistant design that lives up to stacking and transportation.

“Consumers continue to gravitate toward packaging that offers three key characteristics: convenience, security and sustainability,” said Sarah Korwek, product manager for Inline. “Pre-packaged cheese trays and party platters provide easy, grab-and-go options for holiday gatherings. Our products' clarity showcases the food and makes a ready-to-serve package that allows food trays to go from store shelf to holiday table without any effort in between.”

The clarity of the post-consumer rDPET material makes Inline’s party platters eye-catching for displaying on holiday tables. The platters are available in two sizes, with three depth options for each size, giving retailers the flexibility to create platters for large and small gatherings. 

Inline’s Safe-T-Fresh line also offers a wide array of smaller and mid-size trays with tamper-evident technology to provide customers the sense of security they are looking for in uncertain times. Inline’s products are 100% recyclable and are made from post-consumer recycled content.

“Retailers should recognize a growing need for party platters designed for small groups. Merchandising these mini-platters or family-sized cheese trays is one option to promote continued relevance,” said Korwek. “And as always, highlighting the convenience and security of all Inline Safe-T-Fresh tamper-resistant packaging provides consumers with that ‘one less thing to worry about’ benefit when making food buying decisions for their holidays.”

This story was featured in the October edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.