Schuman Cheese has a passion for Parmesan

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Neal Schuman is perhaps the most ardent defender of Parmesan cheese in the United States. Incensed that some cheesemakers were adulterating grated Parm with cellulose, Schuman organized the True Cheese campaign, warning consumers and retailers that all was not right in shelf-stable grated Parmesan products.

Schuman carries a lot of cheese cred. He makes award-winning Parmesans and other cheeses at the company’s plants in Wisconsin (see related article). And his company imports and brokers the best cheeses from Italy, France and other European nations.

Schuman Cheese, based in Fairfield, N.J., got its start 70 years ago, when Neal’s grandfather started the business. Today, the fourth generation of the family is learning the ropes and bringing its own perspective to cheese, millennial consumers and clean-label foods. Allison focuses on sales, Ian on the import business and Keith on strategic analysis.

While consumers might not be familiar with the name Schuman, they do encounter the company’s cheeses in stores and restaurants. Cello is the company’s flagship brand and is most widely available. Yellow Door Creamery, Montforte and Bella Rosa are other brands sold in specialty cheese shops and supermarket deli sections. Schuman also serves foodservice customers and industrial users. Some of the product is exported.

Executive Vice President of Innovation and Strategy Ilana Fischer said the company is loosely organized into three business units: retail, foodservice and ingredients. There are also some product-based businesses (like snacks), the processing plants and export (which accounts for about 5% of sales).

Finding the right partners

Allison Schuman said the company’s focus is “not about the channels per se, because we’re in the business to sell cheese.” Instead, the focus is finding partners who value quality and the kinds of cheeses the company makes, she said.

“One of the key components for a company like ours, because we’re not a huge CPG company, is the selection of great partners,” Neal Schuman said. “If there is one overriding strategy that has served us well for many years, it’s finding the right retail or the right foodservice or the right food ingredient customers that appreciate the efforts that we make to make the product better.”

These long-term partners, he said, give Schuman credibility “just by having the product placed in their outlets.” One of those foodservice partners is a large fast-casual bakery that uses Schuman’s Asiago in its bread and bagels. Another is a national Italian restaurant chain that uses the cheeses in sauces or grates them tableside. The ingredients business sells cheese to companies making pasta sauces, salad dressings, pizzas and frozen entrees.

This summer the company added e-commerce to its channels of distribution by opening a first-party location online to sell Cello Whisps (a baked cheese snack). Schuman also sells its cheeses through Amazon and other third-party online retailers.

As a privately held business, Schuman does not report revenues. But Dairy Foods estimated 2016 sales were $575 million, placing the company No. 51 on our Dairy 100 list of the largest dairy processors in North America.

 Allison Schuman called the focus on partners a “double-edged sword, because we’ve done a lot of private label. We’ve created brands for certain retailers.”

Now the goal is to build a consumer-facing brand with national distribution, she said. Thus the introduction of Yellow Door Creamery in 2016. The alpine-style specialty cheeses under the brand are positioned as “adventurous” products for millennials and baby boomers alike. These made-in-Wisconsin cave-aged cheeses include versions of Gruyere, Abondance and Raclette. They were launched at the Fancy Food Show in New York City this summer.

“As you get older, you seek more flavor,” Neal said. He points to two trends in favor of the company’s approach. First: an aging population seeking variety and more intense flavor because their sense of taste is diminished. Second: the millennial generation’s search for products that are made cleanly and sustainably by companies they consider to be “good guys,” he said.

Allison put it this way: “The younger generations are more open to trying a lot of different foods and trying a lot of different types of cheeses. We’re seeing a big growth in specialty markets with authentic products or washed rinds, stronger types of cheeses which we’ve started to get into in LCD.” (Lake Country Dairy is a plant in Wisconsin.)

Using traditional and artisanal cheesemaking methods gives the company a story to tell. For example, the Copper Kettle Parmesan and the Alpine Collection are made in copper vats, a European method that imparts a special flavor to the finished product.

 “It lets us educate and talk about why products are special versus a standardized commodity that’s not nearly as exciting from a cheesemaking or tasting perspective,” she said.

A lot of the company’s advertising is online where it is easier and more efficient to target consumers, said Brand Manager Kareen Stephens. Public relations and reaching out to food writers at magazines and blogs helps to spread the word. Getting consumers to try something new or different is a matter of education. That means advertising and in-store demonstrations.

“It takes time and it takes persistence to say [to a consumer] ‘Okay, you might have been used to this.’ But once you try something a little bit better, it’s tough to go back down. But it’s easy to move up the quality chain,” Allison said.



Brand building

Stephens manages Cello, Yellow Door Creamery, Montforte and other brands. When talking about the cheeses, the marketing message centers around taste, convenience and tradition.

“We make products that enhance everyday eating experiences,” she said. She talked about consumers making an omelet with “really good cheese” or desserts with “amazing mascarpone.”

The flagship brand is Cello, and its story is based around Old World cheesemaking traditions. Schuman Cheese talks about the made-in-Wisconsin Parmesan that is made with locally sourced milk in copper kettles. The wheels are aged 16 months.

The target consumer market is “people who really value good quality and the passion and energy behind what’s being presented,” she said.

Cello Whisps are baked snacks made from Parmesan, Cheddar, or Asiago and pepper jack. Schuman didn’t invent these; every nonna in Italy knows how to bake them, Neal said. The cheesemaker’s challenge was to find a baking process so that they wouldn’t turn rancid. The cheese is from Wisconsin and converted to snacks in Elgin, Ill.

Yellow Door Creamery “focuses on things that are truly unique,” Stephens said. “Having a distinct product portfolio helps set us apart from what else is out there and helps attract a different consumer.”

An example is habanero lime hand-rubbed fontina made in wheels. Fischer called this product a “conversation starter. These are things the sales team can talk to buyers about.”

Another product is the harissa rub, which Schuman developed quickly after a retailer said that white-wheel cheeses don’t stand out in a cheese case.

“We wanted something that would pop and help people orient themselves in that cheese case, because it’s really overwhelming,” Fischer said. “These products maybe are not supposed to be huge revenue drives but they are interesting.”

 She added that there was not a lot of traditional research on the viability of a harissa SKU but her team felt that there was demand for it.

“We try to be flexible in terms of being fast and going with our gut and being evidence-based,” she said.

Neal Schuman noted that innovation is as much about packaging as it is about cheese. The newest product is shaved cheese packaged as single servings. The eating occasion is snacking or adding the shaves to salads. Because the cheese is packaged as a defined serving in a four-pack and not in a tub, consumers aren’t likely to overindulge, Stephens said.

These are positioned as a product to eat on the go, add to a salad or snack on at home, she said.

Schuman’s insights into how people eat cheese led to the development of the shaves. The best-selling cheeses come in blocks or trays, Fischer said. It can be a hassle to rewrap the cheese after use, and consumers are concerned about the cheese going bad.

The cheesemaker’s breadth of product gives its sales people a lot to talk about, Fischer said. They can talk about private label capabilities or Schuman’s own brands. And they can steer the conversation to quality. Quality is important to the private label customer, Stephens said.

“I think traditionally people would think of private label as just a price play. But retailers are getting smart.” They are insisting on better presentations and quality to match their company image, she said.

Fischer said Schuman will never be the cheapest supplier, “but we will have the best quality.”

As head of long-term strategy and innovation, Fischer keeps an eye on the market, the competition and consumer trends. She also looks at the company’s internal capabilities; thus the push into artisan-style, hand-crafted small batch cheeses.

The aim is to stay ahead of the trends, not to follow them. Her innovation team includes sales people who provide info about what customers seek. She called the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board a “fantastic data source.” Schuman undertakes its own research (including focus groups), talks to consumers, attends trade shows and looks at flavor trends in the meat and beer categories.

Having exhibited at and walked the Fancy Food show, Fischer said she was struck by the health claims a lot of snack food manufacturers were making. While cheese, with its high protein and low carbohydrates, is on trend, “that’s never been the way that I’ve thought we should sell it,” she said.

At the Fancy Food show, Fischer saw a number of new foods with a sweet component. That could be an avenue Schuman pursues, she said.

Service to the industry

When Neal Schuman talks about international trade issues, he’s talking from an insider’s perspective. Schuman served as president of the Cheese Importers’ Association, a position once held by both his father and grandfather. He also served as a consultant to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The company’s roots trace to the 1930s. Schuman’s grandfather and a partner were agents and brokers of Italian cheeses and other foods. When World War II put an embargo on Italian imports, they turned to U.S. cheesemakers to produce Italian hard cheeses.

After the war, Schuman’s grandfather took the cheese business while his partner went with foods. His grandfather brokered Italian cheeses while Neal’s father began brokering cheeses from Argentina, which received many Italian immigrants who built factories there. He also began importing cheeses from France in the 1950s. In the 1980s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its client states, Schuman Cheese found opportunities in Poland. Also during this time, the company began importing from Uruguay.

As the company was looking at imports and domestic production, it saw an opportunity in exports.

“When I started in ‘72, imports were 4.5% to 5% of the total consumption of cheese in the United States. Today, imports are 4.7% of our total consumption — in good years. Exports that were almost zero in 1972 are now well over 7% of our total consumption.”

 The barrier to making hard cheeses is fairly high because of the long time it takes to get the cheese to market, unlike fresh or soft cheeses like mozzarella, which can be sold right away.

“We’re in the aged-wine business,” Schuman said. “If you have a lot of grapes and you need cash, you make wine that you could sell tomorrow. It’s only a few people that’ll sit around and hold the wine for many years before they bring it to market. Well, that’s the business we’re in. It’s highly capital-intensive. It is not a fun business, because nobody makes it well in the very beginning.”

For those reasons, finding dairy processors to make hard Italian-style cheese was difficult, he said. So he decided to become a cheesemaker.

“It became incumbent upon us to go ahead and produce here in the United States,” he said.

In 2006 it bought Lake Country Dairy in Turtle Lake, Wis., where it makes Parmesan, Romano and Asiago wheels, and mascarpone. The Imperia Foods facilities in Montfort, Wis., and Green Bay turn out blue and Gorgonzola cheeses.

The company’s commitment to quality and ethical practices led Neal Schuman to start the True Cheese initiative. He was bothered by processors adding cellulose to canisters of grated Parmesan or using imitations and passing them off as Parmesan. (See Dairy Foods, June 2015.) Adulterating Parmesan hurt the reputations of all domestic producers of Parmesan. Schuman said his campaign did catch the attention of retailers and restaurateurs. While adulteration has abated for now, he said he expects the practice to resurface. Thus, the campaign is ongoing.



Service to the community

Besides giving back to the cheese industry through service with associations and the True Cheese campaign, Schuman Cheese gives back to charitable organizations.

“We’re really proud of the efforts the company is making with the charities that we have selected,” Neal said.

Three years ago the company dedicated itself to serving two national programs: Susan G. Komen and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. With Komen the company works on breast cancer awareness issues and raises funds. Last year the company organized a golf tournament that raised $230,000 for St. Jude’s.

In addition to these efforts from the corporate headquarters, each of the manufacturing facilities works with food banks in their communities. The plants give back extra food, and employees volunteer energy, time and money, he said.

What’s next?

Schuman Cheese seems to have all the bases covered. It imports cheeses from Europe and makes cheeses domestically. It serves multiple channels and develops products for its customers. The company’s branded cheeses have put it in a good position to succeed.

“Your everyday cheese eater isn’t thinking they should go buy European cheese,” Neal said. “They’re buying American cheese. But their quality expectations and flavor expectations are going up. Domestic cheeses that are really good are very well set up for success.”

The company is paying close attention to the millennial generation, especially its preference for clean-label foods. For that reason, it is sourcing non-GMO conventional milk and organic milk. Schuman said he is taking an “early adopter strategy” toward the opportunities in the milk supply.

“We need to be early and understand where non-GMO is going to be positioned in the marketplace. Is it viable? Is it not viable?” he asked.

He said he does think these are long-term trends and not present-day fads. But what is unknown is the price-value relationship. Will the consumer pay a premium? It is too early to tell how great the demand is for high-end specialty organic or non-GMO milk products, he said.

“What we’re trying to do is have an organic and a non-GMO-verified that are better than or just as great as any conventional specialty cheese on the marketplace,” Allison said.

The millennial generation, Neal said, will spend a higher percentage of their budget on food than baby boomers. They want “real” food. Fischer said she sees this among its prepared food customers. These food manufacturers are replacing artificial cheese flavors with real cheese.

The company has the ability to make artisanal cheeses on a scale that makes them affordable, Neal said.

 “We’re in this interesting spot. We’re not the guy down the street with 50 cows, but we’re also not a factory. We believe we’re creating the best cheese in the marketplace. Having people taste it and walking them through flavor profiles and through education is incredibly valuable for us.”

“We’re really proud of our production,” Allison said, pointing to domestic and international awards from various competitions.

“Like craft beer or like chocolate or coffee, [cheese] is one of those foods that people really are passionate about. They want to share it with their friends. So the very specialty business of even 10 or 20 years ago is becoming more mainstream in the marketplace and our palates are maturing,” she said.

Allison, Ian and Keith – the fourth generation of the Schuman family – are carrying that passion to their peers. They are developing their own cheese cred which will serve them well as they step into leadership positions.

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