By Vicky Boyd; PHOTOS BY KBC CREATIVE/KARA CHIN
Growing up in Cupertino, CA, before Silicon Valley had displaced fruit orchards, Trevor Thomas ate cheddar, mozzarella or Monterey Jack served during family meals. It wasn’t until he began a summer job at a specialty food store with a 45-foot-long cheese case that his eyes were opened to the plethora of cheese varieties throughout the world.
“Stepping foot in my first cheese shop was like entering another country,” he says. “So many different flavors, smells and sights. The packaging was so different than what was being offered domestically.”
This was before the days of researching subjects on the internet and before hundreds of books on cheeses had been published.
“This experience took me WAY out of my comfort zone, but my manager encouraged me to try everything, ask questions, share what knowledge I gained with our customers, and ask them how they used the product,” says Thomas.
Little did he know at the time, but that experience would open the door to a nearly 40-year career of promoting, marketing and educating people about the wonderful world of cheeses.
In his current role as senior manager of retail merchandising and training for the Lactalis American Group, Buffalo, NY, Thomas does just that.
From a home base near Sacramento, CA, he works with cheese brokers throughout the country to help them understand consumer trends, how to increase their sales, and learn how they can use contests and promotions to achieve their goals.
Before joining Lactalis in 2013, Thomas spent 20 years as a cheese retailer and deli manager for Northern California grocery chain Nob Hill Foods and eight years as a cheese broker, a job he jokes he never knew existed. In 2014, he became an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional and continues to give back by volunteering as chairman of the ACS Certification Committee.
During his industry tenure, Thomas has seen cheese evolve with the growth of domestic specialty production, the COVID-19 pandemic and social media. But he also foresees headwinds, at least in the near future, that include increasing labor and transportation costs.
The evolution of domestic cheeses
During the past few decades, Thomas has witnessed the growth of both artisan cheese production, and, to a lesser extent, farmstead cheeses in the United States. To be called “farmstead”, the cheese must be made on the same farm from which the milk was sourced.
Nicasio Valley Cheese, produced by the Lafranchi family from their organic cow milk in Marin County, CA, is one such operation.
On a broader note, Thomas says he views the term “artisan” as implying cheesemakers are implementing some old-world techniques. And he has seen that category grow dramatically, fueled by domestic cheeses.
When he first started in the cheese business, Thomas says the only fresh chèvre cheese came from France. Today, domestic artisan cheese producers offer an endless array of goat cheeses, and the category keeps growing.
He still remembers when Humboldt Fog, a goat cheese made by Cypress Grove of Arcata, CA, first hit the market. The pillowy soft cheese with the grayish ribbon running through it became so popular that the company where Thomas was working had to allocate supplies.
“It really showed what goat cheese could be — it didn’t have to be in this little log form,” he says. “I still remember when I first started, there were still a lot of people thinking that goat was a harder cheese.”
Domestic cheeses made from sheep’s milk, although not as common as those from goat’s milk, are nonetheless becoming more popular. Thomas points to Bellwether Farms of Petaluma, CA, which started with sheep-milk cheeses in the 1980s and has since expanded to also produce sheep-milk yogurts.
“It’s more expensive, but it’s very good for you,” he says.
Thomas also attributes the growth of artisan cheeses to evolving American palettes.
“Ten years ago, people thought the American palette tended to be more mild,” he says. “Today, people are enjoying bolder flavors that once were only found in old-world European cheeses.”
Much of the differences he views today between domestic and European-produced cheeses centers around packaging.
“They use more sustainable packaging and more biodegradable packing,” says Thomas of European producers. “They really look at the usage and if the size is appropriate for the use.”
Pandemic-driven opportunities and challenges
One of the biggest impacts on the cheese business during the past decade was the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which almost closed restaurants overnight and forced people to prepare meals at home.
“People couldn’t go out to dinner, their vacation destinations were shut down, so they invested this time in family meals, fixing up their homes, and … eating fine cheese,” says Thomas. “Across the country, retail cheese sales started to soar.”
At the same time, cheesemongers worked during the night when they’d have the least exposure to the public, cutting and wrapping cheese. Some retailers also reduced or limited their offerings, but Thomas says that time has passed.
“Retailers have the fine balance of continuing to carry classics that have a loyal following while trying to introduce new, smaller production cheeses,” he says. “These, in most cases, have a connection to the environment (or community) that they were created in.
“Learning about the cheeses, sharing their stories and sampling can bring life back to a cheese counter. It takes an initial labor investment, but embrace this and the cheese sales will follow.”
In the post-pandemic world, sampling has returned to many stores. But Thomas says cheesemongers must respect some customers’ lingering hesitancy.
“Why not start with a discussion?” he recommends. “Learn what they are looking for, how it will be used, then share with them their options. Let their interest peak, then offer to sample. Have a plan on how to sample — gloves, served on wax tissues, types of cheese, etc. — then don’t be afraid to set goals of how much your team can sell. Don’t make the selling the main focus of the sampling — it’s really about trying to create an experience for a customer.”
The growth of digital
The pandemic also bolstered e-commerce, but Thomas says he doesn’t see the technology making as many inroads as with dry goods because selecting cheese involves the senses. That’s not to say that software, enhanced by artificial intelligence or AI, is becoming more intuitive and making recommendations based on customers’ shopping patterns.
Cheese also is a living, breathing, perishable product and must remain refrigerated. That means the cold chain must be maintained during shipping to avoid product degradation.
Nevertheless, Thomas says retailers can borrow a page from popular social media platforms such as Instagram. The photo-rich site provides users with inspiration for entertaining, travel, cooking, experiences and other activities.
“Merchandising can reflect that, but you must try new methods of merchandising,” he says. “Gather perfectly paired items together. Signage is a must, and including QR codes can help explain usage, cooking and history. Constantly update and change your merchandising to create a ‘treasure hunt’ atmosphere.”
Changing demographics also may affect how consumers learn about new cheeses, how they use them and how they shop. Thomas recalls the TikTok baked feta pasta recipe that went viral on the short-form video platform.
By embracing this, retailers were merchandising the ingredients together — pasta, feta, cherry tomatoes and olive oil, he says. “Those younger shoppers would pick up on this right away.”
What about the older customer who may not be on TikTok or even know what it is? Thomas recommends printing up the recipe or creating signage that shouts “What’s for Dinner?” with a QR code that takes them to a website with the recipe.
Regardless of the customers’ internet prowess, he says savvy merchandising can break down the barriers.
Charcuterie boards are all the rage right now, but Thomas says chasing trends can be tricky. What’s hot today could be over tomorrow. Other current movements include sweet and savory, bold flavors, authentic products and ingredients, and food experiences.
But some trends, such as responsible packaging, smaller case pack size, and convenient sizes and uses, remain timeless.
“If it’s a current trend, get in early,” advises Thomas. “Help customers learn how it can make their lives easier, better or more enjoyable. If we’re looking at ‘timeless’ ones, educate your customers and your employees. Get them to buy in and make better lifestyle changes.
“Bottom line: Don’t let fear hold you back. If you believe in it, you can help your customers believe in it, too!”
Another trend that doesn’t appear to be going away soon is plant-based cheese-like products. Within the Code of Federal Regulations, the Food and Drug Administration has established definitions for cheese and cheese food products as well as for individual cheese types, such as Asiago, cheddar, colby, Gouda and Gruyere. In all cases, the ingredient list includes milk, whether from a cow, sheep or goat.
Public debate continues over whether plant-based products can carry the “cheese” moniker when they don’t contain milk from a mammal. Cheese retailers also face the quandary of where to merchandise plant-based items — in the cheese section or the produce section.
Thomas says retailers faced a similar decision when tofu first became mainstream. In the end, the retailer for whom he worked at the time put it in the produce section. Thomas says he also sees that department as the proper location for plant-based cheese-like products.
“I think it should be over (in produce) — there’s no question because it should be based on the ingredients,” he says.
Whether a trend or just an economic adjustment period, inflation is currently affecting both the cheese business and the consumers on which it relies.
“Inflation has hit just about every level of our economy,” says Thomas. “Fuel and energy costs have risen. These are not an option for those who have to commute to work. Also, the record high heat across the country has pushed utility prices to new highs.”
Cheesemakers are not immune. Employee wages continue to rise, and the cost for milk, packaging, transportation and energy also are on the upswing. As a result, he says cheesemakers must raise prices to stay in business.
Retailers face similar pressures to offer competitive wages and benefits while trying not to price themselves out of the market. In addition, a strong U.S. dollar may bring value to European cheese imports, but Thomas says it’s at the expense of domestic cheese producers.
Cheese as an inspiration
The passion for unique cheeses, their flavors and their backstories that first captured Thomas’ heart in his youth continues today.
“Cheese can express the very best of what other cultures have to offer to us,” he believes.
Thomas says he is fortunate to live in an area that not only offers air freight cheeses from Europe but also from small, domestic artisan producers. This makes the cheese case more of a treasure hunt in the best possible way.
“I can see cheese counters becoming ‘inspiration centers’ for customers who like to entertain, who like to cook, and who like to try different cultural experiences,” he says. “I’m hoping that through continued diversity educational opportunities comes cultural food sharing.”
That cultural exchange occurs as Thomas lives in a diverse part of the country where he can visit Mediterranean markets or bakeries, African American food festivals, Sikh parades and Greek food festivals, just to name a few. And in each of these, he always looks at the cheeses and how they’re being used.
As a cheese educator, Thomas continues to share his knowledge, recommendations and occasional wit with cheese consumers through his online Cheese Traveler blog at www.cheesetraveler.com.
The online prose came at the suggestion of his boss in 2019 who thought it would be a good way to let people “Ask the Cheesemonger.” But it has evolved far beyond that.
As a genealogist for more than 25 years, Thomas says he likes to research the story and tell it from his own perspective.
“I write about what interests me, where I travel, and things and cheeses I see,” he says. “The stories can end up being longer than a ‘2-minute read,’ but I take the time necessary to really tell the whole story.”
One recent blog dealt with pimento cheese, typically a mixture of grated cheddar, mayonnaise and pimentos, that’s a mainstay sandwich and cracker spread in the South.
Thomas said he got the idea while visiting his sister in Atlanta, GA, and seeing the wide variety of pimento cheese products in the grocery store. He promptly bought seven different renditions and conducted a taste test.
In his post, Thomas explores the history and lore behind what some have referred to as the “pâté of the South” as well as some of the modern-day twists. His blog has followers in more than 50 countries, and he enjoys some of the responses he receives.
When Thomas first started writing it, he was told he’d get to a point where he’d have trouble finding topics. But he says he’s nowhere close and has dozens of stories started and even more ideas in the pipeline.
His one issue is finding the time needed to write them all. For others wishing to start their own blog, Thomas recommends being authentic and being original.
“Don’t go for what’s popular, go for what’s in your heart. Mine has never led me astray.”
So what does a self-proclaimed foodie and cheese educator of nearly 40 years who has traveled the world and tasted countless cheeses call his favorite?
“Fourme d’Ambert. You know, that little cheese from the volcanic region of France?” Thomas says with a grin. “That’s right! This cheese has been thought to exist in the Auvergne region since the eighth century. Using a tall, slender cylinder, these fudgy, dense blue cheeses can grow wild (mucor) rinds and ‘smell like licking a cave’ — musty, moldy and minerally. It’s available but can be hard to find unless a retailer brings it in. I try to buy some whenever I can find it.”