"On Special" is a monthly look at top store categories and the retailers that specialize in them.
No matter how simple or sophisticated their tastes, Andy DeCou hopes people will fall in love with cheese and connect it with Schnuck Markets.
As leader of the cheese category at Schnucks, DeCou is charged with overseeing the Midwestern grocer's efforts to encourage shoppers to buy everything from domestic crumbled feta, goat and blue cheese to Roquefort, Comte and Parmesano-Reggiano imported from Europe.
"The cheese shop really has an opportunity to elevate the store a little bit and gives the customers a reason to come shop in our stores," said DeCou, who serves as the family-owned grocer's "cheese guy" and describes himself as an evangelist for the dairy-based food and the companies that make it.
While all Schnucks stores carry a selection of cheese, a small subset of the chain's locations, classified as premium stores, have full-scale cheese shops and account for the majority of the grocer's cheese sales. Those 26 locations, which have cheesemongers on site to cut and wrap cheese into individual packages, bring in 53% of the Schnucks' cheese business, DeCou said.
At Schnucks' natural-foods oriented EatWell store in Columbia, Missouri, which opened last year, cheese is responsible for 25% of all deli sales, according to DeCou.
DeCou is especially excited about the range and quality of cheese made in the United States, and pays close attention to American artisan cheeses, particularly those made by local producers, when deciding what Schnucks' stores should stock.
At the heart of Schnucks' cheese merchandising strategy is DeCou's dedication to building relationships with small producers and training store employees to become highly knowledgeable about the cheeses those companies make. Among the cheesemakers Schnucks has built ties with are Fox River Dairy of St. Louis, where the chain is based; Beehive Cheese, which is located near Salt Lake City; and Tulip Tree Creamery of Indianapolis.
"I believe that we have here in the United States some of the best cheeses in the world, and I want to spotlight these cheeses," said DeCou, whose formal title at Schnucks is specialty cheese category manager.
Among the company's best-selling cheese varieties are mozzarella balls and logs, crumbled feta, boat and blue cheese. Schnucks also sells a lot of BellaVitano cheese, an Italian variety made by the Sartori Company of Plymouth, Wisconsin.
Schnucks looks to quickly respond to trends that take hold among consumers as it builds its strategy for selling cheese. When DeCou's daughter told him about a video on TikTok that went viral earlier this year and had a recipe for baked pasta with feta cheese, he worked with other departments to capitalize on the opportunity to boost sales.
Within several days, the chain had displays in place to encourage customers to buy pasta, tomatoes, olive oil and feta cheese to make the dish. The result was a ten-fold spike in feta cheese sales that lasted for more than a month and still has a halo effect, DeCou said. "Last I looked, our feta sales were double what they were" before the video captured people's interest, he said.
Training employees to be cheese experts
Schnucks invests in training store employees about how cheese is made, the foods it pairs well with and how to enjoy it as a way to encourage customers to buy selections across its 111 locations. In addition, DeCou posts content online to help customers understand ways to enjoy cheese and promote sales of products that complement different kinds of cheese.
The grocer regularly holds virtual training sessions with cheesemakers for staff who work at its cheese counters and elsewhere in its stores. DeCou also focuses on teaching staff members about wines and other beverages that go with particular cheese varieties.
The programs started out with about 30 attendees, but now bring in as many as 150. In addition to cheesemongers, participants include customer service and produce managers as well as staff that operate deli counters.
Schnucks's effort to educate its staff members about cheese coincides with the strong cheese sales it has seen in recent months.
"During the pandemic, we've seen a really nice spike in the specialty cheeses. And what we've found is that it's not just cheese but charcuterie and olives too. People weren't going out to restaurants anymore, so they were actually coming to our stores more and buying more cheese because they were entertaining at home," DeCou said.
As part of its effort to raise the bar for its cheese departments, Schnucks has encouraged employees to earn the Certified Cheese Professional certification from the American Cheese Society. Four Schnucks employees, including DeCou, have already earned the designation, and DeCou expects additional more members of his team to acquire the certification this year.
Pre-sliced cheeses continue to sell well
Schnucks recently pivoted its cheese operations to serve customers who want to get out of the store in a hurry. While some customers continue to order custom-sliced cheese at the deli counter, the grocer is seeing robust demand for the pre-sliced packages of cheese it has doubled down on during the pandemic. As a result of those strong sales, Schnucks is looking to expand the amount of merchandising space dedicated to cheese that is ready for customers to just add to their carts, he said.
"We've seen a lot of our grab-and-go stuff really pick up. Customers aren't moving back to waiting in line to get things sliced more," he said.
Supporting the cheese industry
When the sudden arrival of the coronavirus pandemic last year threatened the livelihoods of many cheesemakers, Schnucks sprang into action to help them. During the holidays, Schnucks sold cheese from the local producers it works with at cost to help the companies maximize their revenue in the face of the downturn, DeCou said.
"It is a community where [we] adapt the principle that a rising tide lifts all ships, and everybody wants to see everyone else do well because it … grows the credibility of American artisan cheeses," DeCou said.
Despite his dedication to treating cheese as a fine food worthy of special attention, DeCou said his ultimate goal is to find ways to make sure customers are happy, because that's what keeps them coming back.
"I don't care if it's Velveeta and meat sticks. If it goes together and it makes you happy, that's what I want." he said. "I want you to find something that makes you say, 'Man, that's so good. I'm going to buy that again.'"
The state of cheese in the U.S.
- More than 80% of cheese producers saw revenue decline in April 2020 compared with the same month in 2019, according to a survey of 1,000 cheese industry professionals conducted by the American Cheese Society.
- But cheese sales overall were very strong in 2020. Dollar sales of natural cheese were up 20.8% for the 52 weeks ended January 24, 2021, according to IRI data, while sales of processed cheese climbed 17.8% during the same period.
- Cheese sales are currently pacing behind 2020 levels but are still well ahead of 2019 levels. Deli cheese sales for March are down 7.4% compared to March 2020 but 22.2% higher than the same month two years ago, according to IRI data.