Specialty Food Sales Suffer When We’re Forced to Stay at Home

jim prevor

The American Cheese Society did an industry study that, not very shockingly, revealed that the specialty cheese industry is in a depression. The study reported that, overall, specialty sales are down 58 percent. Not surprisingly, the study finds sales are down in all markets, both foodservice and retail; that 71 percent of respondents have applied for some kind of financial assistance, such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP); that 48 percent of respondents have reduced employee hours; and 30 percent have laid off employees.

While 61.5 percent of respondents predict that the “new normal will be very different from the past,” there are some silver linings: The cur-rent situation creates an opportunity to pause and improve business operations (73 percent) and to reach out to new customers (73.5 percent).

Though the survey includes nearly 1,000 stake-holders, the accuracy of their reports and the degree to which they constitute a valid representation of the market is uncertain. Still, you don’t need perfect research to realize things are tough for a field, such as specialty cheese.

First, these products are relatively expensive food items, so if one is losing a job or is uncertain about the future, buying expensive foods isn’t the natural inclination.

Second, specialty cheese often sells better when a consumer gets usage information, say by inter-acting with a cheesemonger. Yet, current circumstances discourage this kind of interaction.

Third, sampling is often crucial to exposing people to new tastes and flavors. But typical sampling mechanisms — leaving out a bowl of cubed cheese — is simply horrifying to many people now.

Fourth, eating out at restaurants is not only a form of sustenance, it often is a form of celebration. Even as restaurants open, if the clientele is office workers needing lunch or travelers needing sustenance — if social-distancing rules are still in place — the purchasing profile will be very different than if people are celebrating events.

Fifth, eating at home is also changed by current circumstances. Normally, one might have friends over, perhaps a party. Maybe there would be cheese plates out with wine or beer. Summer is approaching, which means barbecues and social invitations. Part of hospitality is variety and abundance, but none of that seems right now.

The truth, however, is that this pandemic brings about changes that go far beyond cheese. We’ve seen reports about farmers having to destroy vegetables or milk. Think about this for a moment: right now, almost everyone who has lost a job is getting unemployment… indeed, some are receiving more compensation from unemployment than they were receiving from their job.

Though there are stories of people waiting hours to get free food, and there are certainly some people who are falling through cracks in our system, most people in the workforce either have a job or are eligible for unemployment insurance, which is currently paying $600 a week more than what it would have otherwise paid.

So the issue is not that everyone is impoverished and can’t buy food. The issue is that staying at home changes consumption patterns.

At school or at work, a cheeseburger is likely to come with a slice of tomato, a piece of lettuce and the option for a slice of onion. Almost certainly there is some kind of side, such as fries, cole slaw or potato salad. Very often, there is some kind of appetizer or soup or salad. Yet, a hungry teen looking to grab lunch may make a burger, squeeze some ketchup on it and call it a day as he runs back to his room to do a Zoom class for high school.

We don’t have good data, but it doesn’t seem insane to think that many people might use this interlude as the time to go on a diet. They figure they are sacrificing less than when their friends are inviting them to dinner, although it is also possible that more people are depressed and snacking away.

Retailers respond to consumption patterns, so at first they may have delisted items so they could carry more hand sanitizer and masks. But as normal inventorying returns, we can expect many items to remain delisted because they no longer match current consumption patterns. To put it in simple terms: many of the “normal” food items are not selling.

We can certainly act to support producers we want to see succeed, and the American Cheese Society is pushing those efforts. The country is gradually reopening, but the real question will be whether the country is prepared to stay open if there is a rebound in virus cases. This rebound is likely as social interactions reengage. Will people find a rebound in COVID-19 cases a price they  are willing to pay? Or will they want to see the country shut down once again? On this question everything hangs.