Canadian Pizza Magazine

Features In the Kitchen Ingredients
Marketing Insights: Cheese stories

Cheese stories


Cheese has come of age. In fact, a grilled cheese
sandwich made it onto the menu of the Cuvee black tie gala this year in
Niagara-on-the-Lake. This event is considered the “Oscars” of Ontario
wine, and is the not-to-be missed event of the wine and food
enthusiast’s calendar.

Cheese has come of age. In fact, a grilled cheese sandwich made it onto the menu of the Cuvee black tie gala this year in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This event is considered the “Oscars” of Ontario wine, and is the not-to-be missed event of the wine and food enthusiast’s calendar.

Of course, we’re not talking about the traditional processed cheese grilled cheese sandwich but, one featuring toasted Panini with fontina cheese, marinated tomato, and basil. This versatile food has clearly arrived.

Cheese is traditionally an integral part of making a great pizza, however, this particular ingredient has probably been the most difficult one to manage for most operators. It’s expensive and the regulations around what price foodservice pays for it versus other channels are complicated and emotional. Up until now, cheese was just another ingredient – more functional than glamorous. 

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Recent food trends are suggesting that specialty cheeses are becoming more mainstream. This trend is important for the pizza industry to take note of because it just may be the fastest way to fatten your profits and attract new customers.
Is cheese becoming more popular? You bet!

Consumption of cheese increased by five per cent from 1992-2002 according to Statistics Canada.  Consumption of premium “variety cheeses” increased four times the overall category rate, posting a 20 per cent increase in consumption from four kg per person in 1992 to almost five kg per person in 2002. According to Dairy Biz, the average Canadian consumes 24.8 pounds of cheese per year. This amount is somewhat less than the American average of 29.6 pounds per person per year.  

Some trend watchers theorize that aging baby boomers have shifted their dairy consumption from traditional fluid milk products towards the cheese category. The focus on healthy eating supports increased consumption of cheese. Cheese is perceived to be a very healthy choice with a touch of “comfort food” thrown in for good measure. 

Trend watchers in the food and drink industries are noticing that consumers want “the story” around the items on the menu and cheese plays to this trend beautifully. There’s almost a human-ness to cheese – much like wine where from one batch to another, one day to another, the product is ever changing. 

Julia Rogers of Cheese Culture in Toronto, Ontario, notes that what makes cheese different from many other food items is the fact that it’s “essentially one ingredient (milk) that through the cheese-making process, can take on thousands of taste sensations. Cheese flavour is a product of nature and the cheese-maker’s craft. Contrast this experience to the chemically orchestrated and single note flavours we find in things like potato chips and it’s easy to see how consumers are attracted to the more complex taste profile of specialty cheese.”

Pizza and cheese have a long history together. A cheese topping on a pizza has traditionally served more of a functional role than a flavourful one. Cheese has been there to add mouth feel, function as a roof to hold the ingredients onto the dough and a perhaps a bit of flavour. If you were looking to add more flavour to the dish, this was typically accomplished by adding some spicier meat toppings. 

Given how expensive cheese has become, it makes sense to give it a more prominent role in the taste profile of our pizza. Many operators may not consider using artisan cheeses to top their pizzas out of a desire to control costs. After all, these specialty cheeses are more expensive so how can one afford to use them at the same level as we currently use pizza cheese? That’s the rub – you don’t have to use as much.

Since these artisan cheeses are so much more flavourful, you only sprinkle a bit on top and can add twice the taste impact for potentially the same food cost. Using a specialty cheese will give your pizza a much more upscale image and allow you to charge more. The labour cost won’t go up because it’s the same process to top the pizza. It’s all good news for your balance sheet.

It can be a daunting task to decide what cheese will best suit your pizza recipe. When choosing a cheese to go into a recipe, it’s a very similar process to the one used to pair wines with food. Julia Rogers recommends that operators “start simple – with the classics and then think about the dimensions of everything else going on.  Keep in mind that physical changes like breaking and heating the cheese will release aromas and flavours more developed from what’s found in its solid form.”

Once on the pizza – it’s a whole different animal. 

You may wish to choose a cheese to complement the other flavours in your pizza or your goal may be to have the cheese provide contrast to the other tastes. A salty cheese will make sweet toppings taste sweeter – that makes sense as salt is a flavour enhancer. A sweet cheese may soften and complement a spicy topping. Experiment with your product development and think of the cheese as the thread that ties the whole taste profile together. 

When marketing your new creations, use “non pizza like” names to communicate a more upscale image. Refer to “topped flatbreads” instead of pizza and suddenly, you’ve positioned the item in a more premium category. Be descriptive – doesn’t a flatbread topped with caramelized onion, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese sound tempting? 

Teach your staff about the ingredients you’re using. Tell them the stories behind the specialty cheeses so they can in turn relay these stories to your customers. It’s time to let cheese take centre stage on your pizza. There must be a reason it’s always been on top.•

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in brand strategies. Michelle can be reached at briseboismichelle@sympatico.ca.


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