The international outlook for fine cheese

30 September 2021, 10:26 AM
  • Speciality Food takes a look abroad to find out how cheesemakers, mongers and distributors in Europe and the US are approaching the Covid recovery
The international outlook for fine cheese

Download the full report, Artisan Cheese: Life After Covid, here.

While Covid-19 has dominated global headlines, it’s no surprise that when the virus struck, the UK’s cheese industry turned inwards, focusing on the changing internal supply and demand dynamics as well as the shifting consumer habits in the British market. But internationally, global cheesemakers and mongers have experienced similar scenarios, with artisan producers across Europe and America facing dramatically changed markets.

The state of play in Europe

As in the UK, cheese producers in Europe were hampered by the closure of foodservice businesses, which left them with extra stock and strained cash flows. “In countries such as France, those producers were also less able to pivot to e-commerce (as many UK producers did) due to the lower population density (ie, logistics cost) and for the fact that many artisan producers are much larger and so less able to clear a meaningful proportion of stock through starting a B2C offering from scratch,” explains Tom Chatfield, managing director at European Fine Cheese.

Alexandre Renault, co-founder of the cheesemonger COW in Paris, told Speciality Food that, like in the UK, the closure of markets and hospitality businesses meant that cheesemongers saw increased sales. Overall, Elena Kontareva, senior category manager at Savencia Fromage & Dairy, says a positive impact was seen on the cheese and dairy market in France due to Covid. “Dairy and cheese has been growing ahead of total FMCG despite the pandemic.” The French business, which sells cheese into the UK said no shopper penetration losses were seen for cheese in the UK, “but it was Continental cheese especially which were growing faster as more shoppers were using cheese in recipes and treating themselves to artisan, traditional specialty varieties,” Elena says.

However, the news wasn’t all positive. With much of Continental Europe’s cheese industry linking in with its tourism sector, Alexandre says the regions which usually sell large volumes of cheeses to visitors were heavily impacted. But for cheesemongers, the pandemic offered a chance to foster relationships with new customers. Even as foodservice reopens, Alexandre is confident that retail sales will remain strong. “It is very good for us,” he says. Like here in Britain, a spirit of generosity blossomed during the pandemic, with cheesemongers selling cheeses from struggling producers without making a profit in order to ensure a strong future for French agriculture. “Without these guys, we are nothing. That’s just the minimum we can do,” Alexandre says.

The view from The Netherlands was similar, with Willem-Jan Oudehinken, international account manager at distributor Treur Kaas also noticing a rise in sales at speciality cheese shops across the country. “Because the Dutch government forced the people to work from their home offices, and due to the fact that all restaurants were closed, our customers (the cheese speciality shops) had a very busy time, and they had good turnovers like they normally have during the Christmas season,” he said. But the cancellation of trade fairs and in-person visits made it hard for the brand to discover new cheeses to introduce to its range.

Elena agrees that new product development was “limited” in 2020, and noted that the market is now “catching up”. She continues, “Since health became an obvious concern during the pandemic, the development of products and sectors addressing shoppers’ needs remains an opportunity. We see traditional cheeses which are mostly clean label and natural being part of the healthy and varied diet, which will be always in demand, therefore representing an opportunity for the future growth.”

“We are also seeing a return to new listings and innovation from retail that all but disappeared in 2020 due to the fallout of the initial crisis,” agrees Tom. New product developments naturally fell down the agenda during the pandemic as most businesses were working to stay afloat or pivoting to new modes of operation. “We see a latent demand for new and interesting products,” Tom says.

The big question now is whether retailers and wholesalers can keep this momentum going. “We have to make sure that the consumer who discovered our cheeses in the speciality shop during Covid-19 will still buy our cheeses in the speciality shops after this period,” Willem-Jan says.

Across the pond

In America, which has been slowly but steadily fostering an impressive artisan cheese scene, the dairy industry as a whole was forced to pivot to adjust to the impact of Covid. Individual cheesemakers’ success in doing this varied considerably based on factors including their access to government support, the disruption of their labour resources and their ability to take advantage of the shifts in consumer demands.

As elsewhere around the world, there was a complete collapse in foodservice channels, and a shift, gradually and then dramatically, towards e-commerce delivery channels both directly from producers and from retailers. “Most US cheesemakers were highly exposed to food service channels. It was the darling channel,” says Mike Koch, president and co-founder of Firefly Farms. “I think it scared the bejesus out of just about everyone in the industry, wondering how long will this happen, how will we survive, what will we do with raw milk?”

One potentially positive impact of Covid was that it encouraged much of the industry to shift to e-commerce. “When you roll the clock back, a lot of ‘enlightened cheesemakers’ looked at internet fulfillment channels as unsustainable,” Mike says. “But those who pivoted ended up doing not so bad during the pandemic. My own business ended up about 4.5% up year-over-year from 2019 to 2020.”

While a recovery is certainly underway in the US, with foodservice reopening and consumers increasingly comfortable returning to shops, Covid’s long-term impacts are evident too, including the move to e-commerce and the growing awareness and support of local makers and suppliers. “Consumers all of a sudden understood food system dynamics in a way that they perhaps didn’t pre-pandemic,” Mike says. “There was this groundswell of support for local makers, and so far that has lasted. It’ll be interesting to see if that persists past full recovery.”

Similar to the UK’s ‘Save British Cheese’ box which was championed by Neal’s Yard Dairy and Jamie Oliver, the Victory Cheese movement in the US brought the cheese community – from mongers to makers and chefs – together to celebrate and preserve American cheese during Covid. “The victory cheese movement really galvanised a call to action that was about American artisan products: choose it or lose it,” Mike says.

While cheesemakers and mongers around the world have faced similar roadblocks posed by Covid-19, they are also seeing nearly identical opportunities, as consumers around the world opt to support small businesses and artisan makers. Going forwards, the challenge for the industry, globally, will be continuing to share their passion and inspiring customers in the ‘new normal’.

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