WCMA Notes: Demand Remains in Volatile Times

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News ,

It took a lot of calls around the industry until the answer clicked.  What is the state of the cheese industry in these volatile times? It’s this: “No one is asking what’s the hot cheese right now. It’s traditional, it’s cooking, it’s give me what I know.”

That cheesemaker quote encompasses a host of opinions and data from makers in the Midwest and a few out West.  It means opportunity and full capacity production for many, and worrisome sales for some, particularly in artisanal specialties.

But it’s 2020 – give it a week and everything will change.

As this is written, Wisconsin has begun a mandate to wear masks in all indoor locations in the state. Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association had previously determined that a strong majority of dairy manufacturers and processors in the state, greater than 75 percent, already had mask mandates in place at their plants.

Dairy manufacturers and processors join businesses nationwide facing COVID-19 illnesses in the workplace. It’s a credit to dairy that incidents have been small and well-managed, with leaders addressing distancing, sanitation, worker screening, temperature checks and progressive leave policies even back to March 2020.

More than 30 states have enacted mask requirements similar to Wisconsin, and politics aside, masks are an important measure to reduce workforce disruptions – a key tool to keep your staff safe and on the job.

Because cheese is selling. National scanner data shows cheese volume sales at retail remaining up about 15 percent in July compared to the same weeks last year. These sales, combined with rising foodservice orders, USDA dairy buys and export ship-outs from the “cheap cheese” days in April, conspired to rocket the benchmark spot market for block cheddar at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to an all-time record $3.00 per pound in July.

That lift, rather than a change in consumer demand, has high-volume cheese makers and processors reporting a softening in orders in recent weeks. Retail grocery promotions for cheese have withered and while convenient natural sliced cheese continues to sell, chunks and shreds have slowed. That slowdown signaled a turn, and at this writing, just 17 days since the $3.00 record, the spot market for cheddar has fallen 119 cents to $1.81. Buyers will be back.

Sales into foodservice remain down across the board.  Macro data finds quick service restaurant sales off 12 percent and full-service restaurants down 25 percent into late July. Cheesemakers report foodservice cheese sales down in that ballpark or greater, yet none report a new downturn matching a return to reduced (or outdoor only) restaurant seating in states like Texas, California, New York and New Jersey. 

Foodservice sales off 25 percent still represent growth from steep declines in April and May, cheesemakers note, but no processor was bullish on foodservice growth in this third quarter of 2020. School openings (and remaining open) is the wild card that may shift eating away from home.

Pizza sales among the large chains remain strong with Domino’s reporting sales up 16 percent in the second quarter of 2020; Papa John’s up 28 percent, and Pizza Hut U.S. sales rising 1 percent. Frozen pizza sales are up 34 percent in March through July compared to last year.

Mozzarella makers report solid production as pizza chains and independent restaurants adapt to curbside pickup and online sales.

Specialty and artisanal production and sales are too complex to generalize, yet some patterns emerge. Feta cheese sales are strengthening, and Hispanic cheeses are selling well. Manufacturers with specialties cut to exact weight for retail are performing well, but the more common sale from artisan cheesemakers – bulk wheels or forms bound for higher-end cheese stores, seating dining establishments or high-end delis – are down.

Cheese has proven a staple in the diets of consumers preparing food at home, and treating themselves to an affordable, artisanal experience. But sales favor products easy for the consumer to grab at the store, convenient to use at home and familiar enough to work with in the recipes they know.

End user demand remains, but the cheese industry has seen record low and record high benchmarks for cheese pricing, and the rollercoaster is plunging again. Volatility lies in an insecure pipeline trying to manage product volumes and cost of goods held in uncertain times. At the plant level, cheesemakers should focus on workforce safety, reliable supply, and unprecedented sales and marketing communication with buyers navigating these uncertain times.