Milking it

Recently, unpredictable market fluctuations and price volatility have made dairy buying a wild ride. But dairy products are an essential purchase; many operators rely on them—especially cheese—to add value and excitement to the menu. What’s the key to making smart buys that will satisfy your customers and your bottom line? Here are some answers.

With the exception of most Asian concepts, dairy products represent a large purchase across the restaurant universe. Milk, cream, cheese and/or yogurt span all dayparts and types of operations. Recently, unpredictable market fluctuations and price volatility have made dairy buying a wild ride. But dairy products are an essential purchase; many operators rely on them—especially cheese—to add value and excitement to the menu. What’s the key to making smart buys that will satisfy your customers and your bottom line? Here are some answers.

Buy high-volume cheeses in greater quantity. The more popular cheeses, such as domestic cheddar, Swiss and mozzarella, are in larger supply and are usually priced more competitively than lesser-known varieties, says Marilyn Wilkinson, Director, National Product Communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). On the other hand, small amounts of specialty cheeses can differentiate menu items and add appeal, so make these a proportionate part of your buy and call them out on the menu.

Be flexible. If the type of cheese you spec zooms in price, think about substituting another. The WMMB suggests subbing mild provolone or Muenster for fontina; gouda for manchego; and domestic Monterey Jack for Mexican Oaxaca or queso quesadilla cheese, for example. But “don’t save money at the risk of compromising the flavor of a menu item,” adds Wilkinson. Substitution works best in more “generic” items, such as omelets, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheeseburgers and quesadillas, rather than ethnic or signature dishes that are distinguished by a certain cheese.

Cross utilize. At Mimi’s Café, VP of food and beverage Adam Baird uses cheeses like Swiss, cheddar, feta, Brie and mozzarella in breakfast, lunch and dinner applications. The fresh mozzarella in dinner’s Caprese Salad, for example, gets folded into an omelet for breakfast; the Brie used in the Asparagus and Brie Quiche at lunch also appears in a new dinner prep, Chicken Brie Dijon. Leftover bits and ends can always be grated and added to salads, gratins and other preps.

Weigh labor vs. cost. Sliced, shredded, crumbled or grated cheese may cost a bit more, but these are recipe-ready for foodservice. “Manufacturers have a lot more expertise in handling cheese than many workers,” states Regi Hise, corporate chef of Emmi-Roth Käse USA Ltd. “They shred a lot more efficiently and under better sanitary conditions than a restaurant kitchen where cross-contamination can be a problem.” Of course, these forms are not appropriate for certain applications, like cheese plates and appetizers, where a chunk or wedge of cheese is desirable.

Consider seasonality. Cows yield more milk in good weather, says Wilkinson, so supply is more ample in the temperate fall and spring seasons and prices more moderate. The same goes for goats and sheep. Fresh cheeses, like chevre, would follow suit, but the price of any cheese that is aged (and the majority are, even for a month) will not reflect the seasons in the same way.

Lock in prices using the futures market. In the past, the government supported dairy prices and the market had more stability, explains Roger Hoskin, agricultural economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA. “Now that dairy is linked to the international market, there’s greater price volatility. Restaurant purchasers may have to change the way they do business and consider contracts with suppliers,” he says.

Q&A with 2 dairy fans

Adam Baird, VP of Food and Beverage, Mimi’s Café, Irvine, California-based

Cathal Armstrong, chef-owner, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Virginia

What are your major dairy purchases?

AB: All kinds of milk, unsalted butter, half-and-half and a variety of natural cheeses—no processed types. My list includes Jack, Swiss, cheddar, sliced mozzarella and mozzarella fresca, feta (in a block that we crumble ourselves), crumbled blue, smoked gouda and Brie. We now buy Jack both sliced and shredded because with the volume we use, it became too labor intensive.

CA: Local milk and cream and artisanal cheeses from small producers are my focus. Cheese plates are a big seller on our bistro menu and at the bar, so we like a lot of variety. Ninety-nine percent of the butter we use is Kerrygold; salted for the table and unsalted for cooking and baking. I also buy Kerrygold Irish Duhallow and Dubliner cheeses.

Who are your suppliers?

CA: I rely on a network of small cheesemakers for farmstead cheeses, such as Maryland’s Pipe Dream Farms chevre and Everona Dairy’s sheep’s milk cheese. We also get weekly deliveries shipped overnight from Murray’s Cheese in New York. My vendor there is an expert and knows my preferences; he always sends two new cheeses to try every Tuesday. International Gourmet Foods out of Springfield, Virginia supplies Kerrygold products.

AB: We purchase from two major suppliers—one on the East Coast, the other on the West. We get deliveries three times a week through our central commissary so everything is really fresh and it rotates quickly. Our cheeses are all domestic except for French Brie and Danish blue. Because of our volume [145 Mimi’s Cafes] we have some leverage on price and delivery schedule.

What dairy buying challenges do you face?

AB: Cheese is more complicated to buy than other items; the industry is very regionalized and there are co-ops, alliances and direct suppliers that don’t necessarily work together. We may get a fixed price for a month, but then we have to renegotiate the next month. Prices fell off about a year ago, but now they’re up again; it’s been a real roller coaster. But we employ two people that keep close watch on the market. We’re always trying to figure out the best way to buy and even tried an online cheese auction.

CA: I have to be flexible. With some of my small cheese producers, availability stops in winter so I have to switch to another cheese. I often have 50 pounds of cheese and 22 or 23 different varieties on hand at one time for the cheese plates I serve on the bistro menu and the cheese courses on the tasting menu. Although the cost of some cheeses has gone up, I balance that out over time. The price of specific items is not as relevant to me as meeting overall food costs at the end of the month.

How do your dairy buys differentiate your menu?

CA: The Kerrygold butter we use in our shortbread is key to the rich, nutty quality of the cookies. The better the butter, the nuttier the flavor. We bake them twice to enhance the caramelization. The Irish Duhallow cheese stirred into our grits imparts just the right tangy creaminess. And our cheese plates are so popular because of the variety we offer at a great price; guests can choose three for $10.50, five for $12 and seven for $15 from a list of 20 or so artisanal cheeses.

AB: Cheese adds value to our menu items. For example, all our cheeseburgers and sandwiches get a double slice of cheese and guests can choose their favorites from the many cheeses we offer. I constantly look for and play with new cheese varieties. Brie started as an ingredient in an LTO but now permeates the menu. I’m considering aged gouda, pepperjack, smoked cheeses (mozzarella and cheddar) and Tillamook cheddar to add to the order list. Our guests gravitate to familiar cheeses but will try new ones in LTOs.

The big cheese(s)

The top 10 cheeses are pretty predictable: Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan and Swiss lead the pack, with provolone, American, feta, blue, Jack and ricotta following. More surprising are the up and coming cheeses on menus.

Cheese    Penetration change 2010 vs. 2009
Taleggio    46.6%
Colby Jack    38.6%
Burrata    32.9%
Three Cheese Blend    29.0%
Shaved Reggiano    26.9%
Aged Cheddar    23.8%
Cotija    22.6%
Manchego    21.0%
Queso Fresco    20.3%
Mexican Cheese    15.2%

Source: Datassential Menutrends Direct 2010

Product cutting: shredded cheese

Led by: Regi Hise, corporate chef, Emmi-Roth Käse USA Ltd.

1. Do a visual check of the bag before opening. Most shredded cheese is packaged in 5-lb. rigid plastic bags. The bag should be clear and free of condensation and bloating. Condensation indicates that the cold chain has been broken and the product has warmed up and cooled down, which may hasten growth of mold. Bloating means gas was produced inside the bag—another indication of warming.

2. Open the bag and sniff. The cheese should have a clean, dairy aroma with no odor of fermentation.

3. Examine the shreds. They should be separate and not clumped together. Shredded cheese is very lightly coated with an edible anti-caking agent called microcrystalline cellulose. It’s unobtrusive on the shred and doesn’t affect flavor. In the days when sodium silicates were used, there may have been gritty fallout on the bottom of the bag.

4. Note the texture. Hard and soft cheeses vary in firmness, but the shred texture should be consistent with a natural cheese block of the same variety.

5. Taste the cheese. To taste, roll a few shreds between your thumb and forefinger to release the aroma and flavor. Look for the same flavors you would find in a block of cheese of the same variety.

The dairy outlook

Roller coaster prices seem to be the “new normal” for buyers of dairy products. “Volatility will be a fact of life in the long run,” states Roger Hoskin, an agricultural economist specializing in dairy for the Economic Research Service (ERS) of the USDA. The reason—U.S. dairy is much more integrated into the global economy than it used to be. Even though exports account for only 3 percent of production, they have a disproportionate effect on prices, he explains.

On the supply side, total cheese output was 878 million pounds this May, 2.5 percent above May, 2009, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Butter production was down—131 million pounds or about 5.6 percent below May, 2009 levels. “The market in fats is tight and butter prices will probably stay high for awhile,” says Hoskin. “And milk prices are higher over 2009. The early 2011 forecast is that prices should inch up some more.”  

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