Cheese Merchants of America Focuses on the Hard Italian Cheese Category by Expanding Production, Product Offerings and Increasing Sustainability Efforts
Getting to be “the big cheese” in any food segment requires quality, consistency, customer service and credibility. For Cheese Merchants of America, those four attributes are the pillars on which it has built a foundation and reputation as a hard Italian cheese specialist.
Pasquale Greco founded Bartlett, Ill.-based Cheese Merchants in 1998 with the goal of delivering fresh and quality Parmesan cheeses throughout the country. The company is now in the second generation of leadership and remains true to its founding principles.
“Being family-owned with the goal of being a long-term, multi-generational company, those four pillars are imperative,” Vice President of Retail Sales Jim Wittig says.
Rather than spread its focus over several different cheese types, Cheese Merchants focuses on producing and importing hard Italian cheeses. The company starts with these premium cheeses and converts them into the styles and sizes its customers need at its processing facility. Cheese Merchants grates, shreds, shaves, wedges and dries Parmesan, Romano and Asiago cheeses for packaging from 3-ounce shakers to 5-ounce fresh cups to 25-pound bags.
“We focus on being a specialist in hard Italian cheese instead of taking our eye off the ball by producing other types of cheeses,” Wittig says. “We want to be the best in a small segment rather than be a jack-of-all-trades and get in every segment.”
Wittig says staying laser-focused on hard Italian cheese is Cheese Merchants’ first competitive advantage. The company’s second advantage is being vertically integrated, overseeing everything from production and aging to processing, packaging and transportation.
“Being vertically integrated is a significant advantage for us,” Wittig says. “If you are going to have quality and consistency as your pillars, then you better be vertically integrated because you have to have oversight, from production to getting it to the customer.”
Cheese Merchants supplies foodservice providers, manufacturers and retailers. Wittig joined the company eight years ago when Cheese Merchants launched its retail channel business. Wittig and Tom Duba, director of retail sales, have led the development and growth of the company’s private brand.
“I came in at the beginning with the opportunity to build the business from the ground up,” Wittig says. “That was exciting for me. We have now built a private-label hard Italian cheese business in retail throughout the entire country.”
Cheese Merchants is focused on expanding its portfolio of shakers, fresh cups, fresh wedges and bags to include exact weight wedges, gusseted bags and club channel packaging. In 2015, the company moved into a customized and state-of-the-art 277,000-square-foot facility that it knew would sustain further product line growth.
“Being a family company that has foresight, their objective was to move into a building of that size to grow and expand our production in the future,” Wittig says. “That’s just another example of the great advantage of being with a family company that’s thinking about multi-generations and growth.”
Cheese Merchants continues to reinvest in the business. It is adding a 300,000-square-foot warehouse for more aging capacity and moving all shipping to this location. This will allow for increased space dedicated to production and automation at its processing facility. In January, the company will add a multi-million-dollar fresh cup line to allow for a significant increase in capacity.
Adapting to a Changing Landscape
Cheese Merchants says its biggest challenge day to day is the changing retail and consumer landscape, which has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. “The pandemic is driving more business to e-commerce, grocery pickup or delivery,” Wittig says. “It has also driven the store brand trend higher as some national brands have struggled with supply.”
Even prior to the pandemic, Cheese Merchants says it has always kept its finger on the pulse of the changing landscape. Being able to quickly react is a game-changer for the company.
“Because we are a family-run company, we can react to changes quickly,” Wittig says. “A lot of time consumer trends can be a flash in the pan, and for those in our business that take a long time to react, the trend might be in the rearview mirror before they execute.”
Wittig says Cheese Merchants has done “an outstanding job of handling the massive retail increase in demand to the tune of greater than 98 percent on-time and in full orders.”
Every employee all the way up to Cheese Merchants’ leadership offers “best-in-class responsiveness” to its customers, Wittig says. “When we have situations that need high-level attention, our company president gets involved,” he adds. “President Bob Greco engages with our sales team and customers regularly. He gets on conference calls and attends customer meetings, often with short notice. Pride and a strong work ethic have been instilled in the Greco family by their father.”
Planning for a Sustainable Future
Greco’s plans for Cheese Merchants’ future are to focus on sustainability, plant safety and increased automation/efficiencies. Sustainability has been a big focus for the company as it continues to implement green initiatives throughout the operation.
For example, Cheese Merchants converted its case packs from full cardboard boxes and trays to flat spot pads, which has reduced its packaging by 60 percent. The company also implemented an automated film application to its cases that uses 20 percent less film.
For its scrap cheese, the company found partners to use this as animal feed to eliminate land waste. Cheese Merchants also recycles 100 percent of its raw material cardboard boxes and shrink.
While the company continues to move forward, “Cheese Merchants will continue to operate by the founding principles and pillars that have driven our success over the past 22 years,” Wittig says.