How We Source Cheese

Our Cheese Sale is coming at the end of June! Learn more about how we source products for that department in this Q&A with our Menomonie store’s Cheese Buyer Ann.

How do you decide what cheeses to bring in?

Sometimes we receive vendor applications or samples from vendors and decide which of their cheeses to bring in based on the merits of the product. Most often though, we find new products through promotions that bigger vendors run when they want to highlight a new cheese or, as in the case of the Graskas cheddar coming in June, give us access to a special pre-order. I also find cheeses myself to fill gaps I see in the case. For instance, if there are only two blue cheeses on the shelf and both of them are pretty basic, I’ll try to find a fancier one to highlight for the season. I’m planning to bring in a hot pepper blue cheese in the summer for this exact reason.

When you seek out new cheeses yourself, what happens during your research process?

If it’s something as simple as “Wow, we don’t have any plain Gouda anymore,” I’ll start by combing through vendor catalogs to get an idea of what’s out there and usually focus on finding an option from brands we already know and love. If we receive a more specific product request such as customers wanting more goat cheese options, I’ll look at what we have in the case and will again browse vendor catalogs and look at brands we already carry to see if they have any varieties we missed.

What criteria does a new cheese have to meet for us to bring it in (i.e. organic, rBGH-free, etc.)?

I prioritize locality, quality, and cost over all else. I do want to keep the organic cheeses we already carry in stock, but I don’t prioritize finding new organic products unless we receive a specific request for them. The first reason is small, local creameries often have trouble getting organic certification even if they have organic practices. There’s red tape and a financial barrier to getting certified, and I’d rather have a product made in the next town over that is high quality and only has to travel thirty miles to the co-op instead of one that is organic but shipped in from California. The second reason is, because of regulations and industry standards around antibiotic and hormone use in dairies, most cheeses are already rBGH/rBST free and use limited antibiotics whether they are organic or not, at least in Wisconsin.

How does pricing factor into the decision when bringing in new cheeses?

I try to have a range of cheese prices. I want there to be higher-end options for customers who want them while keeping our cheese selection as accessible as possible. I also aim to keep our prices as close to our margin goal as I can. That means when we put cheeses on sale, we’re sometimes taking a margin hit, but my goal is to sell a higher volume at a lower price because it’s better for the customer and it’s good for our turns/repeat business.

How does our co-op’s commitment to local factor into your decision-making process when sourcing?

We live in one of the world’s epicenters for good cheese, so sourcing local is much easier for us. For example, 85% of the cheeses we carry are from local dairies. I would say that more thought goes into choosing a cheese that has a Protected Designation of Origin Certification (DOP) because those cheeses tend to be more expensive but have a rich backstory since they are usually made in other countries. Examples of these cheeses are Pecorino Romano and Gruyere. To be named “Pecorino Romano,” the cheese must be made in Lazio, Sardinia or Tuscany in Italy; otherwise, it’s called Sheep’s cheese. And to be named “Gruyere,” the cheese must be made in Gruyeres, Switzerland; otherwise, it’s called an Alpine-style cheese. When we bring in these DOP cheeses, we want to make sure that they will sell, meaning they must taste good and be recognizable to the customer.

What are the challenges of sourcing cheese?

Although it’s definitely helpful when sourcing local, being located in the heart of dairy country is also one of the hardest parts. There are a gazillion options, and trying to narrow down which products will be of most interest to our customers and be best for our business is really daunting.

How do you decide which to bring in when multiple brands offer the same cheese?

Taste testing, price point, packaging, and availability are how I decide between brands. Taste testing is really make or break when it’s close though.

How do you make the decision to discontinue cheeses?

My goal is to do case flips every season, so decisions to discontinue cheeses are made quarterly. When I do that, I look at sales to find out which are on the bottom rung and go from there. I also like to cut seasonal styles; for instance, Deer Creek’s Bluejay Blue Cheese with Juniper gets discontinued in the warmer months but is brought back for the holidays because it’s a wintery flavor. My goal is that rotating specialty cheeses keeps our customers interested. I love shopping local and eating with the seasons, and I also want to make sure that popular options stay available, such as classic cheddars that are Wisconsin staples.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of our bi-monthly newsletter, The Morsel. If you’d like to read more stories like this one and stay up to date on the latest co-op news and events, pick up a print copy in-store on your next grocery run or find more news on our website here.

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