What would you say characterises the American cheese market at the moment?
Louie Gentine: Supply and demand for cheese is strong. There may be some tightening of supply in 2010 over 2009, but we believe that consumers will still purchase over 30lb of cheese per person in the US.
Cheese is a very ‘crave-able’ food. Not only do consumers use it in their food preparation, but more and more consumers are snacking on cheese. In addition, with so many varieties of cheese to choose from – strong or mild, soft or crumbly in texture – consumers are likely to find at least one cheese they love. Cheese is an integral ingredient in many popular cuisines, such as Italian and Mexican, and there’s strong interest in artisan cheeses as well.
What has been the effect of the economic recession on cheese sales and purchasing choice?
Gentine: Despite the recession, Sargento has experienced excellent retail cheese sales as a result of our continued focus on the consumer and innovation. In addition, I believe the retail cheese category has benefited from consumers cooking more at home. Other food manufacturers continue to incorporate cheese in their products, so we also fared well in our food ingredients division.
With economic pressures, consumers’ habits have changed somewhat as it relates to their willingness to eat outside of the home. It’s likely that this has had some impact on the amount of cheese sold through the foodservice channels, as well as a change in where consumers go to eat out – for example, casual dining vs quick service.
Sargento is always producing new, innovative products. Tell us something about the innovative process – where the ideas come from, how long it takes to put a new product on shelf.
Gentine: At Sargento, we have a long, rich history of bringing innovative, new products to market. Not only are we proud of this heritage, we also believe that building upon it is critical to our future growth. We approach our new product development with a ‘solutions’ mentality. At the core of our new product efforts, we strive to understand the needs of our customers and the consumers they serve, and to create innovative solutions to those needs.
Like many consumer product companies, we use a structured, stage-gate process to guide our new product projects from concept through commercialisation. We start by identifying areas of opportunity based on market dynamics, consumer trends and our own strategic objectives.
We analyse the needs of customers and consumers in those opportunity areas and identify those needs that become the focus of solution generation. Depending on the scope of an initiative, ideas may come from customers, consumers or our internal staff. Ideas generated and believed to merit further investigation are fed into our systematic, disciplined new product process where they are further developed and evaluated.
Throughout this process, we have a cross-functional team using a broad range of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies to identify and develop the concepts – product, package and positioning – that provide the strongest solution to those customer or consumer needs. Our process and testing can be adjusted based on the complexity and level of risk associated with an individual project.
Closer-in new products can be developed and tested in as little as 4-6 months, while significant new product innovations may take years to fully develop, thoroughly test, and to build the manufacturing capability.
In many countries, cheesemakers are coming under pressure from government bodies to reduce salt and fat content, and cheese is almost being portrayed as an unhealthy product in some quarters. What’s the situation in the US?
Gentine: Natural cheese supplies calcium that many Americans need more of in their diet, so we talk about the healthful properties of cheese with our government officials. Sargento has introduced reduced-fat products in response to consumer demand. The same is true of the new proprietary reduced sodium products (a ‘first’ in the cheese category) that we introduced in January.
These are meeting a consumer need according to our research; they’re not in response to government regulations. The most important factor to us is the taste of the cheese – we won’t compromise on quality. All Sargento products must fulfil our brand promise of consistently providing high quality and great taste. It’s what consumers have come to expect of us.
Your ‘Finishers’ range takes the range beyond the traditional block of cheese.?Do cheesemakers make enough use of these opportunities? Tell us a little bit of the story behind that.
Gentine: Our point of view – since my grandfather started Sargento in 1953 – has always been to offer natural cheese and related products to meet consumer needs. Our Finishers line (which combines natural shredded cheese with croutons, dried fruit, nuts, premium meats and cheese sauces), as well as our newest division, Culinary Solutions (offering complete meals), take a broader perspective to continue to meet consumer needs for high quality and convenience.
Our food ingredients division works closely with food manufacturers to provide cheese solutions for their product development needs. This year, they launched an online Idea Centre to assist our customers in defining and designing new products.
Sargento Food Service doesn’t sell from a standard product list – they customise for each customer whether it’s a frozen, breaded appetiser, a chef quality sauce or a specific cheese cut that enhances a menu.
Consumers have the choice of block cheese, sliced, cheese sticks and cubes, grated, crumbled. Is there anything else to come?
Gentine: Of course! There will always be something new, another way to add value. When my grandfather, Leonard Gentine, started to shred cheese in 1958, that was unheard of, and now it’s standard in US supermarkets. Innovation is a definite growth engine for cheesemakers and marketers.
What is your current marketing strategy and what’s to come?
Gentine: Sargento will continue to invest to build and strengthen our brand, to innovate, and to exceed customer and consumer expectations for products and services.
How do you see the future of the cheese industry and cheese market?
Gentine: I’m very bullish on the cheese industry. It has been the business our family has been in for three generations and I expect it will be for generations to come. We have great momentum and opportunities to continue to grow.
Louie Gentine is president and chief customer officer of Sargento Foods, a leading family-owned US cheese producer.
© FoodBev Media Ltd 2020
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