Sargento adding value to dairy case and beyond

by Keith Nunes
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Within the supermarket setting, cheese products traditionally have been divided between the refrigerated dairy case and the in-store delicatessen, with bulk, sliced and shredded mozzarellas, cheddars, Swiss and American products in the case and the high-end, specialty products in the deli. During the past few years, Sargento Foods, Inc., Plymouth, Wis., has been working to blur the line between the deli and the dairy case as well as extend the company’s reach into the produce department of retailers.

Sargento has maintained a heady pace of innovation during the past few years with the introductions of its Limited Edition, Artisan Blends and Finishers product lines. All of the products are intended to be on trend with focuses on personalization, customization and regularly providing customers with new flavors.

"We are very aware of the fact we need to innovate in the dairy case," said Louie Gentine, president of the Consumer Products division of Sargento. "We have been very aggressive during the past two years, across our entire product line. In the past, Sargento, as well as others, would typically focus on one particular product line. The consumer love affair with cheese requires us to be looking at all of our product offerings so they continue to be on trend."

One of the company’s most recent introductions has been its Salad and Potato Finishers. The new items are toppings intended to add flavor during the in-home salad and meal preparation process. The line includes a variety of flavors, such as cheddar chicken, cheddar bacon and chicken Caesar for the Salad Finishers, and all American, au gratin and cheddar broccoli for the Potato Finishers. Adding to the new product concept is where they are marketed within the grocery store — in the produce department.

"We are obviously stretching beyond the dairy case," Mr. Gentine said. "Cheese is an important part of the product, but it is also a culinary solution. I think it is stretching our organization for the better."

Sargento is not the first food company to see opportunity within supermarkets outside its traditional display areas in the dairy case and deli. Tyson Foods, Inc., Springdale, Ark., a meat processor, began selling sliced chicken products in the produce department of retailers several years ago.

"People have a desire to eat healthy and want to include more vegetables in their diet," Mr. Gentine said. "Many people go to the produce section and grab a head of lettuce, or a bag of lettuce, or potatoes and they don’t know what to do with it. The Finishers products allow consumers to easily create something unique with significant flavor."

Partnerships are paying off

In August 2007, Sargento launched its Artisan Blends line of products. The product is marketed and distributed by Sargento, but manufactured by smaller, specialty cheese makers in Wisconsin. The initiative allowed Sargento to step into the artisan movement within the cheese segment, which it said experienced more than 15% sales growth within the cheese category over the past five years. The initial line featured such flavors as Parmesan, Parmesan & Romano, double cheddar, Swiss blend as well as others.

"(Artisan Blends) is definitely on trend and helps us in gravitating consumers to higher end specialty cheeses," Mr. Gentine said. "Before we introduced Artisan Blends, the higher end specialty cheeses were a major void in the dairy case. Now it is more of a destination in the store.

"We are trying to make it more accessible to consumers by bringing it into the dairy case at a value that is more affordable. I also think the Artisan Blends initiative fits with the premium nature of our brand. What we are setting out to do here is to communicate that cheese is not just cheese. We are trying to help consumers take the time to understand the varieties of cheese available to them."

Taking a page from the marketing of wine, each package of Artisan Blends cheese features the logo of the artisan cheese maker on the front and more information about the company on the back.

The idea to develop the Artisan Blends line was initiated by Sargento, Mr. Gentine said.

"We went to them (the artisan cheese makers)," he said. "We were working with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and they helped us develop a list of artisan cheese manufacturers in Wisconsin. We used that list as a starting point, met with some of them and worked to develop the idea."

Mr. Gentine said the notion of a potential competitor wanting to partner with the smaller company was a non-issue.

"They don’t see us necessarily as a competitor, because they are not in the dairy case," he said. "Their products are in the deli primarily. This was a way for them to grow their brand, partner with a company like Sargento and bring innovation in the marketplace."

The popularity of the Artisan Blends line has led Sargento to extend the line.

"The launching of a new variety has just begun," Mr. Gentine said. "It is a five cheese authentic Mexican blend and features three authentic Mexican cheese varieties."

He added that the company will continue to extend the line in the future.

Attracting the ‘food adventurer’

The concept of introducing limited edition products is not new. It is common in the confectionery, cookie and ice cream categories, and that is where Mr. Gentine said Sargento received its inspiration to develop its Limited Edition product line.

"We felt it was an interesting concept for consumers who shop the dairy case," he said. "For the food adventurer, it was something new to try. The Limited Edition line offers something new on a four- to six-month basis and each new variety comes in a shred, slice and snacking form."

Mr. Gentine described the food adventurer as consumers who enjoy cooking and have a desire to try new foods.

"They are trying to spice up their normal, every day with something new and they expect high quality," he said.

The initial Limited Edition line launched in early 2007 and featured Vermont sharp white cheddar, chipotle cheddar and an aged Provolone.

The introduction also has had an added benefit for Sargento Foods. The company is in the process of rolling out the Vermont sharp white cheddar, the first Limited Edition variety, on a national basis and as part of its regular line of products. But Mr. Gentine said test marketing was not the intent of developing the line.

"It is a good vehicle for a test market, but that was not the reason for doing it," he said. "We really are attempting to create the sense of excitement around high flavor cheeses the consumer may not normally find or even know about. It is a very on trend idea, because it offers continued variety, flavor and brings news to the cheese category."

The concepts of personalization and customization have been drivers throughout several food categories. They not only tap into the convenience trend that is dominating the business but also provide the variety consumers say they want in survey after survey. Adding to the market equation is the issue of the U.S. economy and efforts by consumers to stretch their food budgets. "The economy continues to put more pressure on all consumers," Mr. Gentine said. "They are looking for different ways to provide meals in a cost effective way and add variety.

"Our efforts at customization and premiumization, from a trend standpoint, are definitely on. Finishers is a great example of customization, and Limited Edition and Artisan Blends are products consumers may use to customize their salads, lasagnas, pizzas and Mexican foods."

Looking ahead, Mr. Gentine would not identify any products Sargento Foods is preparing to introduce.

"We always have things in the pipeline," he said. "We will be expanding our current product lines expanding into new platforms the way we have with our Finishers products."

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Dairy Business News June 24, 2008, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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