CMN

Article Archive - March 31, 2006

Technology transforms String cheese into a convenient snack

Editor’s note: Each month, CMN profiles a different cheese, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing and sales, as well as any other interesting details we can unearth. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: String.

By Amelia Buragas

MADISON, Wis. — String cheese is a case study in how cheesemakers can take a well-known cheese, make minor adjustments to its make procedure, repackage it and end up with a novel product.

String cheese essentially is Mozzarella cut into small pieces. But to the consumer, String cheese is something that Mozzarella will never be: the ultimate convenience food.

“As soon as Sorrento began producing String cheese, it emerged as a core product,” says Maggie Mathers, product manager, Sorrento Lactalis, Buffalo, N.Y.

Brian Baker, vice president, Baker Cheese Inc., St. Cloud, Minn., says despite String cheese’s ubiquity on the market today, it was not an overnight success. Baker Cheese was one of the first companies in the Midwest — and possibly the nation — to produce and market String cheese. Baker says his grandfather produced String cheese in small batches in the 1970s and took it to parties and social events to test it out in the community.

“It was perceived as a really intriguing new item, and that’s how we got started,” Baker says. “As more customers started seeing the advantages of having this snack cheese and the fun of being able to peel and string this cheese, it became less of a novelty and more of something that kids and adults could enjoy as a snack.”

Mathers says an increased interest in healthier food and snack options has driven growth in the String cheese category in recent years.

“String cheese, because of its portability, has become a healthy, family snack option that offers both convenience and single-serve portions,” Mathers says.

“Kids love it,” adds Jean Hendrix, president, Masson Cheese Corp., Vernon, Calif. Hendrix says it’s also an ideal snack option from a parent’s perspective because String cheese is handy and clean.

• Technology to the rescue

When String cheese production began in the 1970s, it was anything but convenient for cheesemakers. Leaders in the String cheese category say without equipment innovations that automated production, keeping up with demand for String cheese would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do.

Baker says machinery companies and cheesemakers were able to work together in the 1980s to develop extrusion and cutting equipment that created a uniform and consistent String cheese product. Perhaps more importantly, though, was the advent of the single-serve package, which Baker says “set the baseline for String to have tremendous growth in the late 1990s and in the 2000s.”

It is the single-serve package that has made String cheese a product found in nearly every supermarket in the United States as well as at gas stations and convenience marts and in briefcases and lunchboxes.

However, many companies continue to successfully produce String cheese in bulk packages. Henning Cheese, Kiel, Wis., sells its String cheese in 10-ounce and 1-pound packages. Kerry Henning, president, Henning Cheese, says there is a “fair amount” of demand for individually-packaged String cheese and his company is considering adding that option to their product line.

Kathy Larson, Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg, Wis., says her company only recently added individual packaging to meet rising consumer demand for convenient packaging.

“We now have an individual 1-ounce stick so that kids can put it in their lunch box,” Larson says.

George Crave, president, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo, Wis., says convenience is something always on his company’s agenda when it comes to String cheese. Crave Brothers produces a Farmer’s Rope Cheese that is larger than the typical String cheese, but Crave says it is easy to open and cut off nuggets for a snack.

“String cheese is a snack food and has to be made for convenience,” he says.

• Spicing things up

Henning says String cheese often is considered a snack for children, but by adding savory flavors his company appeals to the adult market as well. Henning Cheese’s garlic and hickory smoked String cheeses have been on the market for five years, and Henning says they make up roughly 20 percent of the company’s business.

“You can’t go wrong with different flavors,” he says.

Henning says he expects to see companies continue to experiment with flavors in the near future.

In addition to savory flavors, consumers someday may be able to buy bubblegum or cotton candy-flavored String cheese. The Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR) has included String cheese in its kid-flavored cheese research project.

“We’re looking for a healthy snack alternative,” says John Jaeggi, cheese industry and applications coordinator, CDR. He says the goal is to develop a healthy and sweet treat for kids to replace nutritionally-void snacks.

Jaeggi says berry and fruit flavors work well when added to String Cheese, but the flavors have a short shelf-life. CDR currently can make flavored String cheese with a three to four week shelf-life, but Jaeggi says nothing less than two months will make him happy. He adds that research on flavored String cheese is on hold until CDR finds an industry partner to guide development. But Jaeggi says there is a market out there for sweet-flavored String cheese.

“We’ve given samples out to kids, and they absolutely love it,” he says.

• Slow, but steady, growth

According to data from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, an estimated 155 million pounds of String cheese were consumed in 2004.

In terms of foodservice usage, the largest category is quick service restaurants, which make up 56.9 percent of the market. Non-commercial usage accounts for 20.1 percent followed by full service restaurants at 13.0 percent and leisure/retail at 10.0 percent.

Information Resources Inc. data show of grocery retail sales comparing 2003 and 2004 show an exodus toward individually-packaged String cheese. From 2003 to 2004, sales of random weight String cheese fell by 40.3 percent and random weight sales only accounted for 0.8 percent of total sales at 551,881 pounds. Exact weight, on the other hand, accounted for the bulk of the market at 66.1 million pounds and were up by 22.5 percent from 2003 to 2004.

Individual production data for String cheese is included in the Mozzarella category and is not available from USDA.

Baker says growth of the String cheese market spiked in the early 2000s, fueled by the low-carbohydrate, high protein diet fads. He notes that production grew 12 to 18 percent but as the fad faded, so did the growth. However, Baker says consumers continue to see String cheese as a healthy and convenient snack and the category continues to grow — albeit at a more modest 3 to 5 percent per year.

“It’s probably not an item that has the potential to change or grow considerably again,” says Baker. “We will hopefully see steady small growth as people continue to realize the health and value of snack cheese.”

Henning says slow and steady is fine by him.

“It might not be exciting,” says Henning. “But I’d rather see good steady growth than let it get out of control.”

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