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Specialty Cheese Is, Well, Special

The 23rd Annual Conference and Competition of the American Cheese Society was held in Portland, Oregon, and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, a cooperative venture of Cabot Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm, was named the Grand Champion. The Pundit congratulates the winners of each category in this highly credible and competitive competition. But if large chain retailers would pay more attention to the ACS, they are the ones that would get the prize.

Specialty cheese is the quintessential perishable food as it is an absolutely perfect way for food retailers to differentiate their stores. The reason? While the quality, assortment and basket of service on all perishables is key to separating one chain from another, the hundreds, indeed thousands of specialty cheeses available mean that each store must offer to the consumer an edited selection of specialty cheeses and, in that editing, is every opportunity to distinguish one store from another.

In the ACS competition there were 22 major categories and 91 subcategories, with a total of 941 cheeses entered. You can get an idea of the scope of the American specialty cheese industry by looking at the 2006 Annual Competition and Judging Results Brochure. Remember both that these are only the ones entered in the competition and we are just talking about North American cheeses here; countless thousands more can be imported.

Many big time retailers have gotten arrogant and assume that vendors will bring them product, but the small volume of many of the best specialty cheeses means that they sell out easily and the cheesemakers aren’t looking for orders from people who count their stores in the hundreds, much less the thousands.

Here is where micromarketing and store differentiation kick in. What is the right mix of specialty cheese for each store? The choice for a retailer is simple: get educated or rely on distributors to not only tell you what is good, but to understand what mix will work for each concept and location.

One of the reasons I know the quality of the judging at ACS is that Lee Smith, my longtime friend and associate and the Publisher/Editorial Director of DELI BUSINESS magazine, one of the Perishable Pundit’s sister publications, was an Aesthetic Judge this year. Lee has long been a champion of the specialty cheese business, and among the many contributions that Lee writes each year in DELI BUSINESS is the best Specialty Cheese Guide for the trade. Any chain retailers out there who are looking to gain a competitive edge should think seriously about the opportunity in the specialty cheese category. Make sure you have top people at ACS next year and, in the meantime, if you would like a free copy of the 2006 Specialty Cheese Guide that Lee wrote in DELI BUSINESS, just send an e-mail with your name, title, company and address here.

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