US cheese industry on a roller-coaster ride during pandemic

By Beatriz Pascual Macias

Arlington, Virginia, Aug 5 (efe-epa).- The price of cheese has fluctuated wildly since the onset of the coronavirus crisis in the United States, where small retailers have had to adapt to sudden shifts in supply and demand for different varieties and find ways to mitigate revenue losses.

“Since everything sort of started, especially since we closed the doors to public, we’ve seen definitely a drop in our deli in terms of cut-to-order perishables,” Scott Freestone, the cheese and charcuterie manager at Arrowine & Cheese, an upscale store near Washington DC that offers rare wines, craft beers, artisanal cheese and tasting events, told Efe.

“We have a large frozen and grocery which has stayed on par, but cheese has dropped around 20 percent, would be my guess,” he added.

That small shop with a big yellow awning out front opened its doors 41 years ago in a residential Virginia neighborhood, an area whose single-family homes with lawns and mailboxes out front epitomize American upper-middle-class suburbia.

Freestone said that at the start of the pandemic most customers purchased large quantities of non-perishable cheeses like cheddar, Comte and Gruyere, while fresh products like Mozzarella, Burrata and goat cheese went to waste.

When the state’s stay-at-home orders were lifted in June and non-essential businesses were allowed to reopen, demand came back for fresh, delicatessen cheese.

But then the cheese industry, including stores like Arrowine & Cheese, encountered two obstacles.

Firstly, much less fresh cheese was available on the market.

Due to the drop in demand for that product at the start of the coronavirus crisis, manufacturing companies switched their production to aged, or cured, varieties, according to the Oldways Cheese Coalition, an organization of cheesemakers, distributors and retailers.

The second problem was the enormous difficulty in importing artesanal cheese from Europe due to the US’s and European Union’s restrictions on air travel between March and May.

Freestone told Efe that 85 percent of his store’s cheeses are imported from Europe, primarily from Spain and France, and that the travel bans led to a steep drop in sales of those products.

US cheese retailers have had to innovate to survive. At the start of the pandemic, Arrowine & Cheese’s employees received orders by phone and had to spend time describing a taste or a texture since customers were not able to try samples.

The store then created a website with photos of its 250 types of cheeses and each of its more than 1,000 varieties of wine and beer.

Freestone joked that the store has fared well economically thanks in large part to customers’ purchases of wine and beer while being stuck at home.

Jessica Keahey, founder of Sweet Freedom Cheese, the only cut-to-order artisanal cheese shop in the south-central US state of Arkansas, said her business has suffered a bigger economic hit from the coronavirus mitigation measures.

“When the (pandemic) hit, we definitely saw a huge reduction in our revenue to about 40 percent of our gross sales,” she told Efe via videoconference.

Keahey had been teaching in-person classes prior to the pandemic, including lessons on making homemade cottage cheese and Mozarella and tips on which cheeses to pair with different types of chocolate. To help preserve that revenue source, she is now providing that instruction online via the Zoom platform.

The dairy industry as a whole, meanwhile, has had to cope with wild price swings in recent months, Nate Donnay, director of dairy market insight at StoneX Group Inc., an international financial services network, told Efe.

“It has been the most volatile period that we have ever seen in US dairy prices. We started the year with CME block cheese, or 40-pound (18-kilogram) blocks of cheddar cheese … at around $1.80 a pound,” he said. “In April we dropped to about a dollar a pound, which … was almost a record low. And then by middle of June we were at $2.80 a pound, which was a record high.”

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