Cheese Cravers: Artisan cheesemakers on the front lines with consumers

June 8, 2009 07:20 AM
Debbie and George Crave say news events, even those unrelated to dairy, can affect their cheese sales for good or ill.

The E.coli/spinach debacle in the fall of 2006 proved to be an object lesson in consumer behavior for the Crave brothers of Waterloo, Wis.

The four brothers, Tom, Charles, George and Mark, milk 1,100 cows and produce artisan cheese in their farmstead factory just across the road from their dairy. Within days of the E. coli/spinach outbreak, orders for their fresh mozzarella started dropping.

The reason: Consumers stopped eating spinach and virtually all greens, putting the kibosh on salads. It took months for the market for salad greens, fresh tomatoes and the Craves' fresh mozzarella to recover.

It taught the Craves that consumers react instantly to media coverage of food scares and that events with no direct link to dairy can impact their sales in a big way, says Debbie Crave, George's wife and vice president of marketing for Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

But news reports can help build awareness—and cheese sales as well. In March 2008, the Crave Brothers Dairy Farm was featured in the "Making a Difference” segment on NBC Nightly News.

An NBC correspondent spent a day at the farm, filming the dairy and the conversion of feed into milk and manure and methane. "Enough people saw it that they started Googling Crave Brothers,” Debbie says. "We got e-mails from people around the country telling us they wanted our cheese.”

When tour groups come through, the Craves often get questions about cattle handling and whether they graze. "We put our heifers on pasture, but it's not practical for the number of cows we milk,” George says. "Here in Wisconsin, we can't grow grass from October through May anyway. Once people see how we take care of our cows, they accept what we're doing.”

Crave Brothers produces four types of cheese: fresh mozzarella in various-sized balls; hand-coiled mozzarella rope that pulls apart into strings; classic Les Frères and Petit Frères, a European-style, rind-encased cheese with an earthy, robust flavor; and mascarpone, a silky, sweet dessert cheese.

Because these cheeses are high-end, retailing for up to $20/lb., the more discerning consumers can ask unexpected questions. For example, What kind of rennet is used: vegetable, animal or microbial? Answer: Microbial.

Even high-end chefs are taking notice. Jasper Marabile of Hen House Restaurant in Kansas City and Judy Francini of Divina Cucina, an Italian cooking school, have told Debbie her Les Frères and mascarpone are as good as Italian specialty cheese. Such praise bodes well for keeping the Craves' other customers happy.

Bonus content:

Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese

Crave Brothers on NBC Nightly News 



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