by Helen Brody
One axiom of the Co-op Food Stores is to “deliver outstanding customer service through friendly, knowledgeable staff.”
As a customer and member, I have always found the staff to “know their stuff” and, rather than make up answers if stumped, they have the good sense to find a fellow staffer who can assist.
As I perused the cheese department one day, I thought, “How in the world do the specialty cheese departments determine what cheese to buy from the many that must come to their attention? Beyond that, how do they become knowledgeable about all of the more than 200 cheeses they carry?”
Jacob Vincent, Merchandiser for Specialty Cheeses, says “We always begin by keeping in mind the Co-op’s triple bottom line of financial, environmental, and social goals.”
The social consideration assumes a particularly heavy weight in the case of local cheeses, a way the Co-op can support the farmers’ determination to preserve history, tradition, and community through cheesemaking efforts.
Recently, to help the dairy farmer sell more cheese, the Co-op lowered retail prices on a local cheese while continuing to pay the cheesemaker the same amount. Coincidentally, the stores’ primary distributor of local cheeses—Provisions International of White River Junction, Vermont—was putting the finishing touches on its “Cave-to-Co-op” program.
Provisions offered to drop its prices on different cheeses each month for the 20-member Neighboring Food Co-ops Association of which our co-op is a part. The reduction would last one month with different cheeses featured each month.
“From the first month of the promotion to the present” says Provisions Marketing Director Christopher Coutant “the demand for Cave-to-Co-op cheeses has grown ten-fold. And, equally important, after the cheese is out of the program, it continues to sell well.” The program has been deemed a great success by all concerned, particularly the cheesemakers who often are happily stretched to their limits meeting the demand.
Once the cheese is in the case, what does the staff do to educate themselves to assist the customers in making a decision? On the home front, they “huddle” each week with tastings, note taking, and the wine department giving their input on pairings. Matching and sampling a cheese with products from other departments is often part of the discussion. They also visit other stores in the area.
Last August nine staff members spent a Sunday attending the Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival at beautiful Shelburne Farm to taste cheeses and attend the lectures offered by cheese experts and cheesemakers. To get the greatest exposure, the group divided up to attend different classes, from Cheesemaking 101 to classes where cheese was paired with everything from dilly beans and beer to the better known accompaniment of wine.
The knowledge gained at events like the symposium is important because the cheeses most requested by customers are those from small regional farms. As one staff member put it, “Even though we have reduced the prices of local cheeses considerably, we still must explain the higher price per pound, and it’s an easy sell. Compare the flavor and quality of a cheese that’s pre-cut, wrapped in plastic, and shipped across the country to the quality of a local farmstead cheese from a farmer in your own neighborhood. Which would you rather support?”
The Cheese Department staff encourage tasting a variety of cheeses, taking note whether the milk is from cows, sheep, or goats; who the cheesemaker is; the location of the farm; and whether the cheese is aged or fresh. Each department sells a useful Cheese Journal to record your own cheese-tasting experiences and preferences.