WCMA Notes: Resilient Artisan Makers Press On

Posted By: John Umhoefer WCMA News ,

Approaching the 12-month mark of economic turbulence for the dairy and food industry, WCMA reached out to a handful of artisan cheesemakers, and a key partner to many manufacturers, and found optimism, and an encouraging theme of business resiliency in the face of stunning change.

“It was rough,” Wisconsin cheesemaker Chris Roelli concluded about the first few months after restaurants abruptly ceased ordering and foot traffic failed in cheese shops that feature Roelli Cheese’s award-winning Red Rock, Dunbarton Blue and Little Mountain cheeses.

Andy Hatch, owner of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wis., agreed. The maker of famed Pleasant Ridge Reserve lost a third of sales in the spring of 2020, and like artisans across the country, had to quickly explore other channels and evolve his business, while watching distributors wrestle to manage inventories and reinvent their businesses.

Tom Perry at Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, noted that the struggle to adapt continues among his peers.

The level to which America’s artisan and specialty cheese industry has survived has been “miraculous,” noted Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods Market. “It just shows how resilient the artisan cheese community is. The strength of interdependencies among these makers, to navigate new markets, new equipment, and business relationships and partnerships has really come to the surface through this challenge.”

For Roelli, months passed before orders recovered, with the holiday season marking a return to good sales. Like Andy Hatch, he saw distributors struggle with lingering inventory and lost sales, but he believes there is an upside to the more careful ordering by his partners. “We see distributors looking closer at inventory, buying closer to need, and in the end, I think that’s better for the quality of the cheese,” he said.

At Uplands, Hatch relied on key national retail chains to maintain volume, but also saw enormous growth in direct online sales to consumers. In addition, established grocery delivery services and new start-ups in urban centers took off for his distributors. 

And while these makers reflect the resiliency of the artisan community, Cathy Strange and these cheesemakers agreed that the foodservice community has not yet rebounded and many artisans have had to cut back varieties, move from fresh cheeses to hard products for aging, or reduce production to navigate lost sales. “I’ve seen artisans evaluating their businesses, evolving their businesses,” Strange said, “and the gaps in foodservice sales have led to new opportunities.”

Reduced sales in fine dining and the lost opportunity to sample and cut cheese from the wheel or block may lead to a fundamental change in how specialty and artisan products are marketed and sold. Each manufacturer spoke of the accelerated demand for pre-packaged, random or exact weight cuts in the last year. Shelburne sold mostly 10-lb and 40-lb blocks of its aged and clothbound cheddars before the pandemic, but buyers began to demand pre-packaged pieces. Shelburne was able to make the shift, and while orders held up, overall volume declined until the holiday season, when sales lifted to 150% of prior years, which Tom Perry credits to loyal customers.

Andy Hatch noted that peers who invested in exact weight packaging did well in 2020 and he is looking to expand his offerings from random weight cuts to exact weights with the help of a converter. Offering whole artisan cheeses is still “the gold standard,” Hatch said, “but like we’ve seen artisan beers accepted in cans, we may see artisan cheese accepted in pre-packaged form.”

Cathy Strange believes both pathways to market will remain. “The industry had been moving to offering prepacked cheese even prior to the pandemic. It offers a wider audience and a greater number of sales environments,” she noted. But for Whole Foods Market, “The expertise of our team members is one of our points of differentiation, to show consumers new worlds of cheese, and we remain excited about that opportunity as we move through this. The industry has been lifting the consumer perception of pre-packaged cheese, and maybe there’s been some acceleration on that side, but we believe our brick and mortar environments will continue to highlight our team’s expertise.”

Each of these artisan industry leaders expressed optimism for specialty cheese in 2021. Cathy Strange highlighted the food safety plans and audits that Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association led for artisans before the pandemic, and the weekly Cheese Chats at American Cheese Society today as key to industry preparedness. “There’s a high level of positive thinking in the entire group,” Strange said. “It’s a hopeful and promising conversation, about how can we work together as we navigate out of this.”