Assessing market demand for Finger Lakes specialty cheese
This is the last year of this project. The focus this year was on identifying new demand for Finger Lakes Cheese both in the Finger Lakes and in the NYC Metro Area. Additionally, the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail has considered the need for re-branding to correctly reflect the groups purpose to promote Finger Lakes cheese regionally and build a brand that has broader recognition in NYS and beyond. To this end, the group has changed it’s name to the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance since it does more than just operate a trail. Promotional efforts to support the branding include the very successful Finger Lakes Cheese Festival, held for the 5th season and attracting nearly 5000 visitors.
1 – Assess current markets and potential to expand within those
An effort was made to evaluate whether the trail members have the capacity to grow to meet additional demand by current markets. Scaling up seems to be a challenge for many of the smaller trail members. Many are meeting their current demand. Additionally, the success of the Cheese Festival has absorbed much of the current production as some producers have increased volume simply to have enough cheese to sell at this event. Linkages with winery and cidery events provided additional venues for business exposure and sales.
2- Identify new market opportunities in the Finger Lakes and in the NYC metro area
The focus this season was on evaluating potential new specialty food outlets/shops in Syracuse and Rochester, along with cheese shops and retail shops in NYC. Outlets were identified through online searches of cheese and specialty food shops. This resulted in visits to 6 shops in Syracuse; 4 Rochester stores (including a visit with the Wegman’s cheese buyer); and 14 NYC/Brooklyn shops. Based on the visits and conversations, opportunities exist to sell more cheese to certain shops depending on volume and availability of the cheese and prices that the producers are able/willing to accept.
3- Develop a marketing plan/strategy
The Finger Lakes Cheese Trail has become a brand, but calling the group of cheese producers a trail is a misnomer that has presented problems as only one of the farms has regular hours, others are infrequent or not open to the public at all. Additionally, the group is interested in being more than just a destination, but rather wishes to develop a regional brand identify – so as a first step, they are re-branding under the name – Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance. This preserves the Finger Lakes as part of the brand while removing the trail concept that is confusing to the public. The goal of the Alliance is to market to a broader audience than just visitors to the area. A marketing strategy that goes beyond direct marketing has yet to be developed but it needs to be based on branding cheese by type and capacity to supply volume at the price a wholesale expects to pay, all the while maintaining producer identity under the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance regional brand.
1- Expand current sales – this has been primarily accomplished through the successful development and growth of the Finger Lakes Cheese Festival. The 2015 Festival held on July 25 attracted over 5000 visitors, up from 3500 in 2014. The host farm organizers and cheese makers were better prepared to handle the crowds and had more cheese available for sale based on the fact that many ran out in 2014. Sales through other venues did not seem to shift much from prior year but farmers markets, on farm sales, sales at regional events, and the annual Cheese Trail Open House did not seem to change much from prior years. In some ways the festival has reduced the interest among the producers to seek wholesale markets beyond the Finger Lakes. There are a few restaurants that feature a local cheese plate and an effort could be made to expand this thru collective marketing.
2- New Demand – within the Finger Lakes, there are a few specialty food stores that are seeking specialty local cheeses but at present the demand is not significantly expanding. It seems that the current group of retail outlets is well served while a concerted effort could be made to identify new markets in the region, there has been a shift among the distributors to carry fewer and larger producers mostly because of volume and consistent supply. According to a local specialty food distributor, retail outlets want to have the product on the shelf regularly whereas a specialty shop has a little more room to feature products on a revolving basis.
In NYC there are many cheese shops and specialty food stores that offer much more sales opportunities. The shops are interested in Finger Lakes and other NY cheeses and will showcase them as they are available. Challenges for the producers will be — getting the product to the shops on a regular basis and finding an acceptable price point.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Market expansion in the region has primarily been through the success of the Finger Lakes Cheese Festival.
A new partnership in 2015 was during Finger Lakes Cider Week held in September at various cideries and other venues. Cheese Alliance members were invited to join in at cideries for tasting. Additional emphasis was put on Cider and cheese pairing – a brochure was produced that paired cider made in the region with cheese from the region.
Research on additional/new market outlets in the Finger Lakes and NYC metro area revealed that opportunities exist for direct sales to small cheese mongers and specialty food stores though there are challenges with supply, distribution and pricing. Though demand for good Local/NY/Finger Lakes cheese is strong in the NYC metro area and there are easy linkages that can be made for distribution. Some of our FL Cheese Alliance members already have built relationships and the cheese mongers were enthusiastic about the cheese…there may be a preference for a creamy ripe cheese over hard cheddar types. Typically producers were paid at about half of the retail stores selling price (e.g. wholesale price at $7 would sell retail at $14/lb) depending on the cheese, the normal price of the type and the interest of the buyer in carrying the cheese. Higher producer prices could be negotiated for unique types.
As the Finger Lakes Cheese Alliance moves forward to build its brand and expand into new markets, it will need to pay attention to offering consistent high quality products to buyers as well as the discerning cheese consumer and and for visitors it is important that a quality experience is offered at area farms and the Finger Lakes Cheese Festival. Standards and expectations will need to be set and members will need to abide by these so that the brand that is built has integrity and becomes widely valued.
Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Co.
5491 Bergen Rd.
Trumansburg, NY 14886
Office Phone: 6073873108
Small Farm Specialist/Small Dairies
Cornell Cooperative Extension/CU Small Farms Program
60 Central Ave.
Cortland , NY 14850
Office Phone: 6077535213