Artisan Cheeses in Missouri: Retail Grocers’ Perceptions

Joe Parcell
Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics

The sales potential for artisan cheeses appears promising in Missouri. Artisan cheeses are becoming more popular among consumers, many of whom desire hand­crafted cheeses that are more complex in taste and variety. These cheeses are aged and ripened to achieve the perfect flavor. Domestically, specialty cheese consumption is on the rise, with local markets appearing ripe for artisan cheese. About 50 percent of consumers either already eat artisan cheeses or are interested in doing so.

Missouri offers the right environment to take advantage of the growth in the artisan cheese industry. Missouri has 1,530 licensed dairy herds and is the 25th largest milk-producing state in the U.S. At least seven artisan cheese producers have established niche markets in Missouri and are well on their way in sustaining and expanding their businesses.

This report provides market information to help current and emerging dairy producers conceive ideas and concepts to better meet consumers’ wants and needs. Based on responses to a 2013 grocer survey conducted by the University of Missouri Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics,  it describes consumer purchasing patterns and product preferences in addition to revealing opportunities for local artisan cheese producers.

Commodity vs. specialty cheese

There are two main types of cheese production: commodity and specialty. Commodity cheeses are produced on a large scale and tend to be used more for cooking and baking. Examples of commodity cheese include cheddar, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses that are produced in large quantities. Specialty cheeses are value-added products that have a high-quality flavor and appearance, are produced in much smaller quantities than commodity cheeses, and demand a premium price from consumers.

Artisan dairy products are often handmade, or they’re made using relatively small-scale specialty techniques in small batches. “Artisan” captures the uniqueness and special identity of each product and of the artisan who makes it. Artisan cheese may also be farmstead cheese if it is made on a farm from the milk produced on that farm.

Survey results

For more information

Download the Missouri Value Added Center's complete Missouri Artisan Cheese Market Study (PDF).

In 2013, Missouri retailers were surveyed about artisan cheeses. The survey results showed that if supply were more reliable, local producers could gain a stronger presence in grocery chains to reach consumers. Out of about 975 grocery store locations in Missouri, 12 locations were extensively interviewed. Of these, two were classified as natural markets and 10 were considered grocery chains. This survey identified opportunities for local artisan cheese producers to connect with retail channels in their areas.

Stores selling artisan cheeses

Retailers can be reluctant to stock a specialty product that may be inconsistent over time, even if overall product quality stays high.

Table 1
Stores selling artisan cheeses.

Type of storeSells artisan cheesesPercentage of total stores operating per category
Grocery chainNo, but did in the past20%
Not at all20%
Natural marketYes100%

Respondents mainly cited poor supply availability — supply is inconsistent, or no artisan cheese is available to be sourced — as the reason stores have never carried or have stopped carrying artisan cheeses.

Sources of artisan cheeses

Although a majority of grocery chains (100%) procure “locally,” the same share (100%) also procures elsewhere in the U.S., and about half procure internationally. Given the retailers’ varied definitions of local, cheeses from California or New York could be considered “local.”

Table 2
Sources of artisan cheeses.

Type of storeSources of artisan cheesesPercentage of total stores operating per category
Grocery chainLocally produced100%
Produced elsewhere in U.S.100%
Imported from abroad60%
Natural marketLocally produced50%
Produced elsewhere in U.S.100%
Imported from abroad50%

Supplier attributes

All respondents mentioned that cheese quality and supply dependability were important factors that would influence a store’s purchasing decisions. Supplier reputation was also somewhat important. Customer familiarity with the brand wasn’t as important.

Most of the retailers emphasized the importance of educating consumers about artisan cheeses, pricing, and ensuring consistency of supply.

Table 3
Important attributes of artisan cheese suppliers.

 Supplier attributeshPercentage of total stores operating per category
Grocery chainQuality of cheese100%
Dependability of supply100%
Price of the cheese and potential margin100%
Customers’ familiarity with the brand50%
Natural marketQuality of cheese100%
Dependability of supply100%
Price of the cheese and potential margin50%
Customers’ familiarity with the brand0%

Challenges and opportunities

This study found that Missouri grocery stores are far from being saturated by artisan cheese varieties. Supply availability issues coupled with apparent demand for artisan cheeses imply a significant market potential for artisan cheeses within Missouri.

Table 4
Summary of challenges and opportunities for artisan cheese producers in Missouri.

Consumer awareness/product familiarityConsumer preference for local products
Product seasonality, supply availability and taste consistencyIncreased accessibility (grocery stores instead of seasonal farmers market)
Higher priceConsumers’ increasing preference for healthier food types

Stores follow different procedures when establishing relationships with new artisan cheese suppliers. Eight out of 10 larger chain grocery stores mentioned that local cheese makers would have to contact the chain’s corporate office in order to supply cheese to a local store. Some stores have a more rigorous process that involves taste testing, product analysis, and consultation with relevant decision makers such as food chefs and category managers. Grocery chains with a more decentralized decision-making process only need suppliers to visit with the deli manager. Natural grocery stores stated that supply decisions are made at the store level.

State funds for this project were matched with federal funds under the Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program of the Agricultural Marketing Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.