I stumbled for words. I racked my brain but it was frozen. I knew this is a simple question, but nothing would come to mind. It’s a question I am asked ten times a day on a normal weekend but I was stumped.
“What’s good today?”
It’s the most basic question one can get at the cheese counter along with, “Where’s the brie?” and “Do you sell Parmesan?” On a regular day it’s just a big softball being thrown to a monger, an opportunity to suggest your most ripe cheese, your cheese you have to sell quickly, or your pet project cheese. Yet, four weeks into the current crisis, I didn’t know how to answer the question.
There is a crisis happening for artisan cheesemakers right now and it is dire. It is possible that in twenty years, those of us still around will be talking about the era of amazing American artisan cheeses that spanned (roughly) 1999-2019 and was an era you had to be a part of to believe. And people won’t believe us.
For the first time since the pandemic buying started, I did a sales movement report for cheese and it is just what I thought I would find, and what I mentioned in an earlier diary post. Hard cheeses, commodity cheese, and cooking cheeses are way up. Well-known local cheeses (for us Mt. Tam, Wagon Wheel, Pt. Reyes Toma, Pedrozo Black Butte, etc. ) holding more or less steady. Cheeses that are expensive, less well-known, or need a story or a sample: way, way down. (Vegan “cheese” is also way, way down, for the record.)
The way that new cheese from unknown producers becomes popular is through people tasting it. That may sound obvious, but how it plays out is not. As a buyer, one of my jobs is to select and schedule the promotion of good but lesser-known cheese. I have found over and over that knocking a couple of dollars a lb off and expensive, unknown cheese does really nothing to promote it. However, taking that promo money and designating that special cheese as a cheese we have behind to counter to offer to customers can sell a lot of cheese. It gets people excited. It’s the entry to telling the story of the producer and why the cheese is important, why what they do is unique and can break down the walls between producer, retailer and consumer.
So, that’s where we put our promos for more obscure cheese. And that’s what we haven’t been able to do for the last four weeks. I have not cancelled any orders – I tend to schedule these type of deals a month or two out — but I sure haven’t placed any more. And yet I read the news… <strike>Capriole is shutting down for the duration</strike>. (Just heard from Judy Schad and Capriole is making cheese again. “Capriole did shut down for 2-1/2 weeks, paid all our milk bills, and then came the plea from our 2 farmers, “please reconsider, we can’t keep our goats if we have to keep pouring milk down the drain.” We did reconsider, and with a hefty inventory of aged cheese, we decided to get milk every 2-3 weeks to make fresh and ripened cheeses—until we can’t pay our bills. I don’t know where this is going, but after 32 years I have to know we tried everything.”) Jasper Hill is making cheese but getting rid of their home herd… there will be more of this.
So how do we help the small producers? I am seriously asking.
Obvs some part of this help should be lobbying specifically for government support that targets small producers. Be ready to be politically active around this issue. But for now – with all the restaurant sales gone and some distros out of business – what’s the plan?
Oldways Cheese Coalition suggests the following (Thanks Carlos!):
I was thinking something helpful would be for all the cheese workers at home right now to talk to your producers who are hurting and help them make *short* videos about what they are going through. Post them and re-post each other’s videos with links on how to buy direct or where to find the cheeses at stores in their areas. We all have so many friends on our social media who follow us because they love cheese. Let’s put that to use! And to be honest I would find it helpful because it’s work I cannot do right now because I am too busy trying to keep our store running.
Everyone should read this great article in The Counter – which is much better than the blog post you are currently reading – by Alexandra Jones which is very thorough in detailing the dangers to small scale cheese producers in this time. Janet Fletcher also interviewed a couple of cheesemakers recently which really brings the message home. Other people have also probably written great pieces, but I am behind on my reading.
As for the customer who actually wanted to buy and talk about interesting cheese? I recovered and sold him a few cheeses from producers I have actually met and know are struggling. It feels like so little, but it’s something I guess…
(Remember everyone, what I write are my own opinions and not necessarily the view of my other co-workers or the workplace as a whole.)