During the American Cheese Society’s virtual conference, Thursday, Emily Harbison, technical specialist with Dairy Connection, and Dave Potter, vice president of Dairy Connection, shared their perspective on how COVID-19 impacted the specialty cheese industry. Dairy Connection, Inc. is an ingredient supplier to specialty, farmstead, and small-to-midsize cheese and fermented-milk manufacturers nationwide.
In the fall of 2020, Dairy Connection set up a data collection infrastructure to monitor how their customers were doing and what challenges or successes they were encountering. From this data, a few themes began to emerge, including:
• Purposeful pauses. A lot of cheesemakers took a break from processing milk, said Harbison. Some sought out other revenue streams, while some just grazed their animals and attempted to get their bearings.
• Foodservice numbers were down. Cheesemakers self-reported that foodservice sales decreased 20 to 50 percent. However, some of those losses were offset as grocery and wholesale sales increased from between 20 to 30 percent.
• Increased need for technical assistance. “Especially early on, a lot of people had questions on how to extend the life of their current inventory,” said Harbison. “There were also makers with government contracts making cheese they never had before, so they were seeking commodity cheese recipes.”
• Investment in food safety and education. As retail sales of cheese increased, makers spent more time getting to know the category and learning how to cut and wrap their products. They also reported that they spent or wanted to spend more time upping their food safety practices and education.
Potter shared other observations from 2020, including an increase in business for Northeastern customers, greater churn, and more business closures than usual. The biggest factors leading to closures included increased competition or reduced market share, generational change or lack of succession planning, and the time intensiveness of food safety compliance. “These factors aren’t new,” he said, “but they were made more clear in the last year.”
Ultimately, the most important lesson from the pandemic was the value of relationships, including vendors, customers, and employees, noted Potter.
“Our customers relied on us and we had to make sure to get them what they needed. And our vendors were there for us in the same way.”