Making the most of your dairy-buying dollar

Milk, cheese and butter—as both stand-alone products and recipe ingredients—all play a prominent role on the menu. And sour cream, yogurt and buttermilk are used to enhance everything from beverages to salads, soups, entrees, breakfast items and desserts. So how can you make the most of your dairy buying dollars? Begin by taking a close look at how the dairy industry has diversified and expanded in the foodservice market.


The news
Manufacturers have ratcheted up the overall hipness and kid appeal of milk by packaging it in bright, single-serve plastic containers. First introduced at retail, these 100 percent milk products are gaining popularity as healthy soft drink alternatives. Milk-based drinks, including 51 percent-milk lattes and smoothies, are available single-serve, too.

The dairy business has also made strides in controlling perishability. Advances in shelf-stable packaging and pasteurizing milk at higher temperatures both deter spoilage. Some European dairies are pasteurizing milk through filtration instead of heat, a process not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, reports Pete Kondrup of Westby Cooperative Creamery in Wisconsin. This method produces fresh milk that can stay fresh up to six months, like a shelf-stable product.  

National sales of organic milk and cream now add up to $1.057 billion, or 49 percent of the total $2.14 billion organic dairy category, says the Organic Trade Association. However, these items can run 20 to 50 percent higher in cost, making all-natural dairy products an attractive mid-priced alternative.

Buying strategies
Milk falls into three general categories: fresh, extended shelf-life and shelf-stable. Most fresh milk is sold as pasteurized; it’s heated to 161°F for about 15 seconds to kill pathogens. Pasteurized milk must be stored at 40°F or colder; it should stay fresh for two to three days past the “use by” date. Ultra-pasteurization sterilizes milk at higher temperatures (191 to 212°F) for a shorter time, extending refrigerated shelf life to a month or longer. UHT pasteurization heats milk to 280°F for two seconds, sterilizing and keeping it shelf-stable for up to three months. If walk-in space is limited and you can’t get on a frequent fresh milk delivery schedule, it may be smart to spec ultra-pasteurized and shelf-stable milk. The drawback: these processes can result in flavor loss. Vat-pasteurization delivers better flavor and texture; the milk is slowly heated to 145°F, then held for 30 minutes.


The news
Ultra-premium European-style butters and updated packaging are setting the trend. European-style products are 83-86 percent fat, resulting in more tender baked goods and richer sauces. And the classic butter pat has gone by the wayside; foil-wrapped butter chips and sealed plastic cups are cleaner and less wasteful. More restaurants are turning to butter to replace trans-fatty margarines and hydrogenated shortenings in cooking. And spreadable butter—a blend of canola oil and butter—will soon be crossing over from retail to foodservice.

Buying strategies
Traditional butter (80 percent milkfat) is made from pasteurized cream and graded on the basis of flavor, body, color and salt content from USDA Grade AA (superior quality) to standard quality Grade B. Most butter for restaurants is Grade AA.

Unsalted or sweet butter has no added salt; it holds up to two weeks, refrigerated, and up to five months frozen. Salted butter contains 1.6-1.7 percent salt, which acts as both a preservative and flavoring agent. It can be stored in the walk-in for up to two months and frozen for six to nine months.

European-style or cultured butter is made from pasteurized cream that has been inoculated with active lactic acid cultures. It is churned longer to produce a butter that is lower in moisture and higher in fat with a distinct tangy flavor.

European-style butter is often preferred for melting and clarifying—lower milk solids make it less likely to burn. And though more expensive, “it’s possible to use 25 percent less when you choose European-style butter for baking and cooking because of its extra fat,” says Trevor Wuethrich of Grassland Dairy.


The news
Spurred by the small artisanal and farmstead cheesemakers, larger producers are turning out more specialty cheeses. Production has grown at least 7 percent a year since 2002 in Wisconsin and accounts for 11 percent of the market in California—the two largest cheese-producing states.

With the greater variety and quantity of cheeses available, consumers are more sophisticated about their choices, often trading up from commodity cheeses like cheddar and American. Imports are flat but American cheesemakers are rising to meet demand with more unusual products. Ed Zimmerman, consultant to the industry through his company, Successfoods Marketing of Novato, California, says these are some of the other trends foodservice buyers should be watching: the increased availability and scope of Hispanic cheeses; more cheeses with an “all-natural” label; mixed-milk cheeses (blends of cow, goat and/or sheep); value-added cheeses with seasoning variations; and a continued move toward ready-to-use cheese shreds or pieces, some as blends labeled as “bistro” or “taco.”

Some cheese companies are going for even more intense flavor profiles. Sartori Foods of Plymouth, Wisconsin, has a line of Xtreme cheeses with flavors ranging from coffee to wasabi and hot ’n blue. Roth Käse, another Wisconsin company, offers spirited cheeses enhanced with Kentucky bourbon, gin and California port, while Beechwood Cheese Company developed a signature chicken soup-flavored cheese. And the dairy industry is experimenting with a strawberry-flavored string cheese in an effort to get more calcium-rich dairy into kids’ diets.

In Europe, cheesemakers are now exporting pre-portioned, individually quick frozen cheese to make it more convenient and cost-effective for restaurants to get consistent results with minimum labor and waste. Soignon, a French goat cheese company, was the first to use IQF technology to freeze cheese and now offers a complete line of ripened and non-ripened goat cheese in cubes and slices.

Buying strategies
Bulk cheese is available in wheels, blocks, loaves and random pieces—ranging from 8 ounces to 200 pounds. Shredded, grated and crumbled cheese comes in varying size packages and containers. 

To make your cheese dollars go further, look for versatility. “A two-year-old cheddar has broad application,” says Dave Leonhardi, director of cheese education for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “You need just a little to get big flavor, and it blends well with other cheeses.” Ditto for mozzarella, provolone and asiago. Leonhardi suggests purchasing small amounts frequently rather than large quantities. If cheese sits too long in the walk-in, it attracts bacteria and absorbs flavors.

With specialty cheese, “pay less attention to price and more to performance,” says Zimmerman. An aged or high-flavor cheese is a smart purchase—you need less to make an impact. Jerry Dryer of Dairy & Food Market Analyst feels that flavored natural cheeses can differentiate the menu. “You can easily offer 17 different cheeseburgers with small amounts of value-added cheeses,” he says.

Other Dairy Products

The news
Lighter, healthier products made from lowfat and skim milk have been the main focus of processors for the past 20 years. While that focus hasn’t shifted entirely, a small number of dairies are now producing high-fat, premium products to appeal to discriminating palates. And others are introducing Americans to European favorites, like quark and fromage blanc.

Yogurt is being positioned as a functional food that does more than deliver nutritional benefits. With its Activia brand, Dannon has boosted yogurt’s healthfulness by adding a natural culture known as Bifidus Regularis, a
strain of “friendly” bacteria that reportedly improve digestive function. Activia is available in six flavors: strawberry, vanilla, peach, blueberry, mixed berry and prune. Later this year, Dannon will be introducing a new fresh dairy product called DanActive, a cultured probiotic dairy drink that is clinically proven to help strengthen the body’s defenses.

Buying strategies
Operators who want to go organic or premium with some dairy purchases might start with this category since the investment is smaller. Cultured products, such as sour cream, buttermilk and yogurt, can be delivered on a once-weekly schedule since spoilage won’t occur as rapidly; store in the walk-in at 40°F or lower. You might also consider purchasing portion-control, single-serve sizes of cream cheese and sour cream.

The supplier connection

Dairy experts talk about recent issues affecting foodservice purchasing.

A shift in milk production from the Midwest to the West, coupled with rising fuel costs, is hampering distribution, says Garrett Lowney, director of sales and marketing for the Independent Procurement Alliance Program. “This problem gets passed down in the form of a higher cost to the end user,” he adds. Distributors and operators must monitor processes to drive inefficiencies out
of the supply chain.

Supplier consolidation is swallowing up smaller companies. This is shifting power up the supply chain from buyers to producers, Lowney explains. To counteract this, he advises distributors and restaurants to work together to more accurately forecast orders, consolidate purchases and adjust order cycles.

Specialty distributors are growing. While broadliners still handle the bulk of dairy commodities, smaller distributors are dealing with specialty, local or small-production products. Not only do these distributors sell unique ingredients, “they can come in the back door four to five days a week, offering operators a better schedule for freshness,” says Kevin Marckus, sales manager for FreshPoint A-One-A.

Exclusive deals are a more frequent way to do business. FreshPoint, for example, offers an Around the Rind program in which a specialty cheese is featured weekly.

Customization is growing. Operators can work directly with a manufacturer or distributor to create proprietary products. “If a restaurant is looking for a specific flavor profile, melting property or other function in a cheese, we work out a solution,” says Elizabeth Bowes, marketing manager for Sartori Foods in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Past custom products include a citrus-infused Tesore cheese and crumbled cheeses with a  hand-crafted, artisanal look.

Product Cuttings

Two experts offer a step-by-step guide to evaluating two common dairy products in your inventory

Trevor Wuethrich, Director of Marketing, Grassland Dairy Products, Greenwood, Wisconsin

  1. Color should be pale yellow to off white with no black specks or mold.
  2. Cut with a sharp knife and notice moisture content. A few beads of water or a fine film of moisture are normal; excess water indicates deterioration.
  3. Butter should smell fresh and sweet. An off odor may mean that the cream came from a cow that ate onion grass or another substance.
  4. Taste the butter at around 60°F, a little cooler than room temperature. The flavor should be sweet, fresh and creamy with no trace of other ingredients; butter tends to easily absorb flavors from foods in close proximity.

Cheddar Cheese
Dave Leonhardi, Director of Cheese Education, Wisconsin Milk Marketing, Madison, Wisconsin

  1. Bring cheese to room temperature. Color should be uniform. Cut cheese; note any color flaws inside.
  2. Examine texture. Curd structure should look fully knitted or bound together; the more aged the cheese, the more crumbly it will be.
  3. Sniff the cheese. Aroma should be fresh and true with no off odors.
  4. Remove a small cube of cheese; work it between your thumb and forefinger. Is it too oily? Overly dry?
  5. Place cube of cheese on your tongue and roll it around to manipulate temperature. It should deliver a clean, tangy flavor.

Tip sheet

Dairy products are pretty perishable, making it a priority to monitor delivery and storage.

  • Don’t overbuy because you get a great price, especially with milk, shredded cheese, fresh, non-aged cheese and cream; butter can be bought frozen and stored in the freezer up to four months.
  • Use a thermometer to check that the temperature is close to 36°F inside the delivery truck and the case of product, advises Kevin Marckus, sales manager for FreshPoint A-One-A in Pompano Beach, Florida. Truck doors open and close constantly.
  • Store butter and milk away from strongly flavored foods; both absorb odors easily.
  • Cool, clean and covered is the best approach to storing cheese. Wrap in breathable coverings (such as freezer wrap) and store away from other foods.
  • Don’t shred cheese far in advance—it tends to dry out. Once shredded, store in a tightly sealed container or plastic bag.
  • Do not freeze milk, cream, sour cream, yogurt or cheese.

Udderly Delicious: Chefs Showcase Dairy on their Menus

Mindy Segal, Hot Chocolate, Chicago
This casual cafe serves up more than its beverage-centric name would imply: soups, sandwiches, salads and small plates fill the bill of fare and the dessert list is extensive. Chef-owner Segal liberally sprinkles the menu with dairy products, sourcing from farmers and artisan producers as well as a small distributor. Whole milk yogurt, cream and cheeses made with sheep, goat and cow’s milk are tops on her list. “We’re a 65-seat restaurant, so to control perishability, I order in small quantities and get delivery of dairy products every day,” Segal says. A specialty of the house is her Lemon Ricotta Pancakes with blueberry compote, made light and fluffy with whole milk ricotta.

Michael Ehlenfeldt, Stone Hearth Pizza, Belmont, Massachusetts
As you’d expect, lots of cheese goes through the three locations of this pizza concept. A pre-shredded mozzarella-provolone blend from Grande Cheese Company in southern Wisconsin goes onto the classic pizza; it won hands-down in a blind taste test, Ehlenfeldt reports. But that’s the only cheese that’s not from New England. Great Hill Blue, Green Mountain Gruyere and Maplebrook Farms Mozzarella are all locally made and purchased through one small distributor who delivers weekly. “I’m a big fan of sustainable, small-production cheeses,” Ehlenfeldt says. “Although these cost a few more pennies, it pays off in quality. Plus, it takes less fuel to source them.”

Kate Neumann, mk Restaurant, Chicago
“I use a ton of butter and cream,” says this pastry chef, who gets deliveries twice a week. “I especially like the European-style butter for baking and in buttercream—it holds up nicely because of its lower moisture content.” Several of Neumann’s signature desserts are based on dairy products, including her coconut panna cotta, buttermilk ice cream, crème fraîche chantilly, Tahitian vanilla custard and peanut butter mousse. The latter (pictured) starts with Philadelphia brand cream cheese. “I’m really attached to that cream cheese. It’s one of those flavors everyone relates to and it blends beautifully with peanut butter.”

Scott Johnson, Canoe Bay, Rice Lake, Wisconsin
Canoe Bay’s menu features many dairy products from sustainable or local producers. Johnson sources milk from a Minnesota farmstead, Organic Valley cultured butter (to the tune of 1,500 pounds per year) and cheeses procured through Classic Provisions in Minneapolis, a small purveyor who turns product over fast. But two of his favorite cheeses—Buttermilk Blue and Grand Cru Gruyere—are from Roth Käse, a larger Wisconsin manufacturer. “They handle cheese with expertise and passion, much like a small cheesemaker would,” Johnson notes. “Even though it’s a big company, some of the cheeses are hand washed and turned and they do their own affinage on premises.” Here he plates Grand Cru Gruyere with red and golden beets and a beet reduction.

Cheese Wiz
Mike Gingrich, cheesemaker
Uplands Cheese Company
Dodgeville, Wisconsin

How did you get started? Our cows’ milk had distinctive flavor characteristics from the pasture grasses they fed on from spring through fall. Since cheese concentrates the flavor of milk, I thought we could make something really unique. I loved the taste of Beaufort, an alpine-style cheese that’s similar to gruyere. With help from the University of Wisconsin, I learned how to make it and in 2000, we released our first Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Describe the process of creating it.
Most cheeses are made from milk that’s pooled from 20 to 30 different farms. Pleasant Ridge is a farmstead cheese, meaning we use only fresh milk from our own cows. We age our cheese in three temperature-controlled [55°F], high-humidity “caves” in our creamery. Twice a week, we turn the cheese over and wash it with a brine solution to keep it free of unwanted bacteria and intensify flavor. This aging process goes on for at least four months and up to 18 months.

How much cheese do you make?
We produce about 60,000 to 70,000 pounds of cheese a year. One-third of that goes to restaurants through specialty distributors; the rest goes to gourmet markets. Demand outstrips supply, but we’re limited by our cows.

Any storage recommendations?
Walk-ins are much cooler and dryer than our caves. If you’re purchasing wheels, don’t stack one on top of the other. And turn the wheels over once a week so moisture doesn’t accumulate Once the cheese is cut, keep it loosely wrapped.

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