The specialty food industry is rallying around American artisan cheesemakers as part of the Victory Cheese initiative. Named for the Victory Gardens of World War I and II that were planted to supplement rations and boost morale, the grassroots program endeavors to preserve the American cheese industry and its producers, some of whom report profit declines of up to 80 percent.
“When COVID hit, the business reverberations were really fast and foodservice and hospitality industries collapsed, but many people don’t realize that 50 to 60 percent of some cheese producers’ business had gone to restaurants and caterers,” said Greg O’Neill, co-founder of Victory Cheese.
Sales of specialty cheese also suffered at retail as consumers stocked up while quarantining at home, in many cases forgoing specialty varieties for commodity-type products.
Now, retailers like Zingerman’s Mail Order, Di Bruno Bros., and iGourmet hope to help cheese companies recuperate some of those losses by promoting Victory Cheese assortments from small- and medium-sized producers.
Zingerman’s Mail Order has sold close to 400 Victory Cheese Boxes, each containing one-pound of cheese from two different makers, since it began promoting them in mid-June, said Brad Hedeman, product and marketing specialist for the retailer, whose consumer base is comprised mostly of those purchasing gifts (80 percent). Five dollars from the sale of each Victory Cheese Box purchased from Zingerman’s goes to Food Gatherers, which provides food assistance to children and adults in need in Michigan’s Washtenaw County.
“I don’t care about profit margins, the point is to sell the cheese and get it into as many new hands as possible,” said Hedeman, who has discounted the boxes from $45 to $25. “I’d been having success with grab bag cheeses and the element of discovery, and these allow us to include cheeses from our deli inventory or even our creamery or from distributors up the supply chain. On every step of the line there is some glut and an overabundance of inventory for which we can find a home.”
Di Bruno Bros. in Philadelphia has committed to selling enough cheese to fill 1,000 Victory Cheese Boxes, said Emilio Mignucci, vice president of culinary pioneering for the chain. It’s selling the boxes for $50, which is below its typical gross margin, and offering free shipping. Its current offering includes Jasper Hill Farm’s Alpha Tolman Gruyere, 6-ounces, Spring Brook Farm’s Reading Raclette, 8-ounces, and Firefly Farms’ Black & Blue blue cheese, 8-ounces.
“It is an important initiative for us because we have been a leader in the industry for a long time and as such, we always want to lead by setting great examples,” he said. “The artisanal cheese community is a community that we believe in and want to support.”
In addition to selling these boxes, Di Bruno Bros. is supporting small, local cheese makers by offering their cheeses at a deep discount.
Online specialty retailer iGourmet recently began marketing 12 different Victory Cheese selections with themes such as “West Coast Gems” and “Southern Standouts.” The assortments, which are packaged in a reusable bag, have been curated by Janet Fletcher, a regular contributor to Specialty Food magazine who writes the email newsletter Planet Cheese and is the author of Cheese & Wine and Cheese & Beer.
She has selected 36 cheeses for the collections that can be purchased individually or as part of the Victory Cheese Club, where a collection of cheeses is sent each month for either six or 12 months. For each order sold, iGourmet will donate $10 to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to providing meals in the aftermath of natural disasters.
“I focused my selections primarily on small creameries that did not have their own robust direct-to-consumer programs,” she said.
Fletcher has produced 10-minute guided video tastings on the contents of each collection so that consumers can learn more about the producers they’re helping support.
Retailers, foodservice outlets, and cheesemakers who’d like to get on board with Victory Cheese can find step by step instructions on doing so at victorycheese.com.
The Victory Cheese initiative is also appealing to consumers to support the effort and post about their selections using the hashtag #VictoryCheese.
“We’d like them to really start buying specialty cheese wherever they buy cheese,” said O’Neill. “Whether their favorite is a Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove or cheddar from a small producer in Colorado, we ask that they support the cheeses they love and producers they love and get the word out.”