Spreading The Word On Curds

August 8, 2012 05:39 AM
Spreading The Word On Curds

Expo plays key role in this co-op’s marketing strategy

With so many different food products competing for attention, gaining high visibility with the food-buying public can be challenging, especially for a small company that is located in a non-metropolitan area.

For the last 10 years or so, maintaining a booth in World Dairy Expo’s commercial trade show to promote its signature product—cheese curds—has been a major part of Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery’s strategy for meeting that challenge.

"At Expo, we come into contact with people from all over the country and all over the world," says Joe Hines, who has worked at the Ellsworth creamery for 45 years and is the current plant superintendent.

"We could market all year long and not get into 40 states. Here, there’s a good chance that we’ll meet people from all 50 states, and beyond, in a week’s time."

Taking its name from the small west central Wisconsin community of Ellsworth (population 3,300) where it is headquartered, the creamery is a dairy farmer cooperative. Around 490 Wisconsin and Minnesota dairy farms, located within a 100-mile radius of Ellsworth, supply the creamery with a total of 1.8 million pounds of milk a day.

Out of that total supply, the creamery makes 150,000 lb. of white Cheddar cheese curds
every day. A large percentage of the cooperative's daily production goes into 500-lb. barrels. The barrels are sold to other companies, which transform the curds into a wide variety of processed cheese products.

The remaining 10% to 12% of the cheese that is produced by the creamery each day is sold to retail and food service companies, including supermarkets, cheese stores, restaurants, taverns and other outlets. This segment of the market has been a major growth area for Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery in recent years. Last year, its sales of curds to the retail and food service sector were up roughly 19% over the year before.

"People are coming up with new uses for curds all the time," Hines says.

He notes that one of the creamery’s Wisconsin customers is buying 40,000 lb. of curds a week, breading them for deep frying and selling the product to fast-food restaurant chains like Dairy Queen and A&W.

More and more restaurants around the country are adding curds in some form to their menus. Poutine, an appetizer that is made by putting curds on french fries and then topping the blend with gravy, is becoming increasingly popular at eating establishments in the South and West. Curds are also showing up at state fairs, amusement parks such as Valleyfair near Minneapolis and Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, and several Major League Baseball parks and other professional sports stadiums.

The creamery’s emphasis at Expo is on familiarizing individual consumers with its cheese curd products. In a typical year, the creamery will hand out somewhere around 450 lb. of sample cheese curds at its exhibit booth, located in the Exhibition Hall. The curds are offered in five flavors: original Cheddar cheese, Cajun, taco, rich garlic and mild ranch.

Spreading The Word on Curds
In a typical year, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery hands out 450 lb. of sample cheese curds at its booth in the World Dairy Expo trade show.

During the five days it exhibits at Expo, the creamery sells around 2,500 lb. of natural and flavored cheese curds. "The sales at the show aren’t a huge moneymaker for us," says Tony Birkel, the creamery’s marketing and sales director. "What we’re looking for here is exposure, the opportunity to tell a large number of people all about our product."

While the creamery has ratcheted up its print and broadcast advertising efforts in recent years,the opportunity for face-to-face contact with potential customers at events like Expo is invaluable, according to Birkel.

"It’s the best kind of marketing there is," he says. "We believe that once you get someone to try a cheese curd, they’re going to be hooked. We see it over and over again. Someone will pop one into their mouth and say, ‘Wow, that’s great! I’ve got to go get my friend or a family member. They have to try this.’ From there, it snowballs."

Maintaining a presence at Expo gives the creamery an opportunity to connect with other market segments as well. "Expo is first and foremost an event for dairy farmers, but a lot of people from the restaurant industry, food service sector and retail food businesses are here as well," Birkel says. "This is a great place to connect with all of these people. It’s an absolutely great show for us."


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