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Guest Columns

Perspective:
Cheese Education

The impact and influence of education in the retail channel

Molly Browne

Molly Browne is education manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. She is a guest columnist for Cheese Market News®.

I grew up in Wisconsin, where, as everyone knows, we live, eat and breathe cheese. In spite of this in-born passion, I would be lying if I said that growing up I could have ever conceived of the notion of a cheese educator, let alone possessed an ambition to one day become one. Even when I began working as a cheesemonger and I learned that cheese education was, in fact, a thing, the idea of working as a cheese educator seemed impossibly lofty; however, I truly felt it was my calling. And although I did not start my cheese career in Wisconsin, I always hoped that my path would lead me home eventually.

All of this to say, that it still feels a bit surreal (but very exciting) to say that I am now the education manager for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin.

I believe that education is, truthfully, the nucleus of the specialty cheese world. It is a world that is still shrouded in mystique, thought of as esoteric, and in fact, quite intimidating to most people out there, even though cheese consumption in the U.S. is at an all-time high with per capita cheese consumption over 38 pounds annually (USDA/ERS, 2018).

In order to sell cheese, you must know cheese, and you must be able to educate your customer about cheese. Your counter staff are the warriors out there on the front lines, fulfilling this quest to inform the masses and fill their grocery carts with specialty cheeses. They are the invaluable link between the money and the maker in the supply chain. Therefore, it is crucial to develop educational resources to help them perform their jobs to the best of their ability.

Here in Wisconsin, we have the heritage, the expertise and the local resources not only to make incredible cheese, but also to build a world-class education platform. In fact, when I started my career in cheese, it was Wisconsin cheesemakers that I turned to first in my personal quest to learn more. Chris Roelli and Andy Hatch were the first cheesemakers who let this curious young cheesemonger into their production spaces, gave me a chance to see milk in the vat for the very first time, and helped me connect all of the dots of exactly what went into making a great piece of cheese. Amazingly, I was able to visit both in a single day, given the density of great cheesemaking operations in Wisconsin. And those are just two examples of the many incredible cheesemakers here in Wisconsin! We are home to the only Master Cheesemaker Program outside of Switzerland, and many of the producers here are third and fourth generation families who are still following recipes and techniques brought over from the Old World.

I am so excited to dig into my role by building new educational infrastructure to support cheesemongers, deli managers and specialty cheese buyers based on the rich legacy of Wisconsin cheese. There are some incredible projects in my pipeline; stay tuned to see what we build. In the meantime, here are my top three tips for retailers who want to incorporate more education into their specialty cheese landscape.

1. Lean on your producers to provide training and expertise to your staff. No one knows more about the products in your cheese case than the people making them, and no one has a greater interest in making sure your staff is trained and knowledgeable than they do. Drinking straight from the well of producer knowledge will ensure that your team knows all the little details to make the story of the cheese come to life for your customers.

2. Leverage promotions as an educational opportunity. It’s important to make sure that your team has the tools they need to go big during a promotion, so make sure that everyone in the department learns something about the promo cheeses before they go on sale. Request one-sheets or demo kits with educational content to support the promotion in your initial conversations to make sure this crucial opportunity is not overlooked.

3. Support the people on your team who show up to learn. Cheesemongers tend to be particularly passionate and motivated employees, and they will often take it upon themselves to learn more independently. Let them know you support their efforts by asking them to lead a mini-training for other staff members, by creating opportunities for them to interact with producers when possible, and by recognizing their study efforts any way you can.

It’s not a coincidence that specialty cheese has exploded in popularity as consumers have begun to expect more transparency in the food system. People want to know what’s in their food and how it’s being made, and that shift in perspective has set the stage for massive growth in the specialty cheese market. Behind every great cheese is a great story, and in front of it, is a highly educated cheesemonger who knows the details of that story and can convey it to the customer. This is their ultimate superpower — the ability to turn value-minded grocery shoppers into cheese aficionados who don’t hesitate to drop $40/lb. on a carefully crafted, finely aged cheese from a little-known producer someplace they’ve never heard of before.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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