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Virtual events provide opportunity for education, spur continued demand

Laura Werlin

Laura Werlin, whose particular expertise is American cheese, is the author of six books on cheese. Her primary focus and passion is bringing awareness of American artisan cheese, which she does by way of cheese and wine presentations at food and wine festivals and as an instructor at The Cheese School of San Francisco.

Editor’s note: This column is the third in a 3-part series.

As it is often said, desperate times call for desperate measures. So it is in the cheese business, too. Even though the phrase “desperate measures” may be overstating the case when it comes to some of the creative ways cheese community members have marketed their product or that of others, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to most in the industry to turn to virtual tastings and expect to find an audience. But here we are.

Until now, the level playing field for marketing has been social media. Even with its low barrier to entry, however, it’s an avenue many cheesemakers

in particular have not found a comfort level with or had time to explore. That’s why, when lockdowns were instituted, Philadelphia-based social media whiz and ardent cheese lover and expert Tenaya Darlington didn’t miss a beat. What if she convinced a local cheesemaker to package and sell cheeses in advance and distribute them via a pop-up drive-thru, all promoted through Instagram? Meet: Dairy Drive-Thru.

The idea was that the cheesemaker would make available three different cheese offerings, with different prices for each. Those interested would place their orders and pay for the cheese via the cheesemaker’s Venmo account, after which the cheesemaker, in this case Sue Miller from Birch Run Farms, would package the cheeses using sterile gloves, put them in a cooler and take them to the makeshift drive-thru for pickup.

Cheese booster Darlington took the idea along with her formidable social media savvy straight to her 13,000 Instagram followers, where she is known as @madamefromage, to let them know about the three-hour event.

They were instructed how to go about buying the cheese and how and where to pick it up. They learned there would be beer, wine and other takeout options thanks to the particular pickup location Darlington had chosen for the cheese hand-off. The cheese sold out. The cheesemaker lived to see another business day, and Darlington, well, she walked away with satisfaction and a bucket full of good will.

Added bonus: The pickup location itself, gastropub Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, benefited by being able to sell some of its own takeout options alongside. Dairy Drive-Thru was so successful that Darlington and Miller repeated it a couple of weeks later with the same stellar results.

If anyone doubts that social media has an impact, think again. Having someone as dedicated and skilled as Darlington in your corner helps — a lot — but when few other marketing options exist, there’s little choice.

Like Darlington, Michael Landis, Certified Cheese Professional, wanted to help cheesemakers as well as specialty food producers when their businesses fell off the cliff. Also like Darlington, he had a skill. His was in the virtual realm. He had begun doing virtual retailer trainings when he was no longer able to travel for that purpose, so the foundation was in place to expand his offerings.

As American Cheese Month (May) was approaching, Landis had the idea to gather American cheesemakers around the virtual table to tell their stories and taste their cheeses with them. He reached out to cheesemakers like Sheila Flanagan from Nettle Meadow Farm whose animals were in full milk production mode for whom the sales channels for the cheeses made from that milk were suddenly dry. As a producer of mostly delicate soft-ripened cheeses, the Nettle Meadow cheeses couldn’t sit around.

Virtual discussions and tastings like Landis’s, who not only tasted, paired and talked about his guest’s cheeses in mouth-watering detail but who also put the videos on YouTube for anytime viewing, offered a means of getting the word out about the struggles Flanagan and other cheesemakers were facing. Equally, the videos were educational and engaging because viewers were able to hear from the producer directly, and in Flanagan’s case, learn about her animals, farm and animal sanctuary. For anyone selling cheese, that segment, along with the numerous others, was and remains must-see TV.

Landis has a dedicated YouTube channel aptly called Michael Landis Cheese, which interested viewers can watch any time and, if they’re motivated, buy the list of cheeses Landis lists alongside the video synopsis so that they can get the full experience of the video by tasting along with Landis and his guests. He reports that many retailers have gathered their teams to watch the videos so that they can learn firsthand about the cheeses they’re selling.

In my own experience leading virtual tastings, the interest in learning about and tasting cheese seems almost insatiable. My foray began when “Planet Cheese” publisher Janet Fletcher and I were looking for a way to support American cheesemakers during American Cheese Month. We partnered with online gourmet foods retailer igourmet.com to create four cheese collections — one per week. They brought in the cheeses, and Janet and I designated, sold them, and every Thursday night, cheese-buyers, a guest cheesemaker, a guest winemaker, and Janet and I would gather to talk and taste. Participant attendance ranged from 225 to 425 people each week throughout the four-week event. Since then, Janet and I have continued these sessions in our local northern California area, where we’ve partnered with two sister cheese and wine shops to do fulfillment, moderate the Zoom portion of the event and be on with us to talk about wine.

In honor of National Wine & Cheese Day on July 25, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) partnered with Sartori to send cheese out to no less than 750 members of DFW’s formidable consumer base, called Cheeselandia, for a 75-minute cheese tasting, cheese quiz, cheesemaker interview, and cheese and wine pairing whiz bang fun session that left a whole lot of good feelings in its wake.

In the absence of in-person events and the fact such events do not seem to be coming back anytime soon, virtual events are likely to be the only means of marketing and communication available for the foreseeable future. The choice is whether to dismiss that and hope that conventional means of marketing will be enough, or hop on board and give it a try. Social media is the lowest bar to entry, but virtual tastings — fulfillment for which can be done by local pickup or shipping — are likely the best way to not only keep people talking about cheese but also keep cheese sales channels in motion.

Whether cheesemaker, distributor or retailer, Austin’s Antonelli’s Cheese Shop should be held up as the poster child for what can happen when ingenuity, community engagement, and enthusiasm for cheese are packaged together (See column in last week’s issue). With well over 6,000 cheese plates served up by the Antonellis and their team since mid-March, all for the purpose of virtual tastings, it’s hard to negate the power of getting cheese into the mouths of consumers even when those tasters have never entered a store.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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