KANSAS CITY, MO. -- No one was immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some businesses, such as grocery stores, struggled to keep up with increased demand, foodservice bore the brunt of the economic impact of social distance guidelines and stay-at-home orders. The dairy industry as a whole had to rethink its strategy to get product where it needed to go.

However, amid the chaos, some smaller companies found ways to innovate to not only survive during the pandemic, but in some cases, thrive. 

Changing course

For many processors, large and small, foodservice was a main pillar of their business. Once lockdowns began, restaurants were forced to close, severely limit capacities or turn their businesses to take-out only operations. This meant business slowed significantly for processors as well.

Processors also had to take the well-being of their workforce into consideration in order to continue operating. They had to adjust how employees worked in the plants and ensure that while working, they were safe from contracting the virus, said Sebastien Lehembre, senior marketing manager for Savencia Cheese USA, New Holland, Pa., makers of Dorothy’s soft-ripened cheeses. Their facilities implemented social distancing practices early on while providing masks for all employees.

While many retailers slowed shipments of artisan products to make more room for essential commodity goods at the beginning of the pandemic, in response to shoppers stocking up, Laura Chenel, Sonoma, Calif., decided to open an online store to get product directly into the hands of consumers. Their online store is now a core part of their business model. 

“It became essential to refocus our efforts on other channels like retail and e-commerce,” said Manon Servouse, marketing director at Laura Chenel. “Our retail sales grew as a result. Ecommerce sales also boomed as more people began doing their shopping online.” 

But the company didn’t forget about the restaurants that had been essential to their business up to that point.

 “It was important to us to use this platform to show support for the restaurants that have partnered with us for so many years,” Servouse said. “We donated 3% of all online sales to Restaurants Care, an organization helping restaurant workers impacted by COVID-19.”

They weren’t the only ones to embrace retail and e-commerce as a way to continue to operate during such an unprecedented time. Savencia launched cheeselovershop.com which is a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform of their cheeses. 

“We wanted our consumers to know that while the pandemic was going, they could still indulge on their favorite cheeses while ordering them safely,” Lehembre said. “Our e-commerce platform is here to stay and we can only hope to see more and more online demand.” 

Bothwell Cheese Inc., Bothwell, Ontario, Canada, also experienced strong growth among the retail sector during the pandemic, especially with their specialty and flavored cheeses. Bothwell operates under three brands: Bothwell Cheese, Paradise Island Cheese and Sunny Dog cheese, with production facilities in Manitoba and British Columbia. 

“Some of our best-sellers and award-winning cheeses ... continue to pique interest among our consumers,” said Milena Zekic, marketing manager at Bothwell Cheese. “Our production facilities worked full time during the pandemic, as we were trying to keep up with an increased demand for our cheeses.” 

Product innovation

As more people began to enjoy the experience of cooking at home with their families, many artisan processors took the time to re-examine their products and get creative.

Laura Chenel renovated their existing 5.4oz goat cheese log line and launched a new line of 4oz logs more aligned with market trends, Servouse said. They introduced three new flavors: cranberry, sun-dried tomato and basil and added a small format of their original goat cheese log.

“Goat cheese is incredibly versatile and enhances almost any kind of recipe, from breakfast to dessert,” she said.

Dorothy’s Diggin’ Truffles soft-ripened cheese was awarded Best New Product in the cow-milk category by the sofi Awards from the Specialty Foods Association. In February 2021, the company launched Dorothy’s Holy Smoke which is a soft cheese infused with smoke flavor. 

During fiscal year 2021, Bothwell Cheese launched its first non-GMO brand called Sunny Dog Barkin’ Herbs & Garlic Cheese. This brand is meant to target millennial consumers, looking for a flavorful, cheddar cheese that is made with 100% Canadian milk coming from cows fed non-GMO crops. The brand is part of Bothwell’s non-GMO lineup that started in 2017, as the first and only non-GMO cheese made by a Canadian brand. 

Bothwell Cheese is also celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, which will be commemorated by new and exciting products, said Zekic. The company’s Paradise Island Cheese brand is working on packaging updates to rejuvenate the brand, with a strong focus on lactose-free cheese, shredded cheese and feta cheese line ups.

Looking forward

As foodservice businesses start to recover and more restaurants reopen, many of these artisan processors are hopeful that portion of their business will return to pre-pandemic levels.

“We anticipate e-commerce will slow slightly as people return to shopping in-store, and that retail sales will stabilize,” Servouse said. “In the year ahead, as people begin to entertain again, we’re confident that the demand for artisanal cheese will rise.” 

Looking to 2022, Bothwell Cheese has defined goals to grow in its main sectors: retail and foodservice, with a strong focus on innovation, while maintaining the growth of its everyday cheese sales. 

“The foodservice industry has pivoted the ingredient and meal programs since this sub-category is on a rise and more and more consumers are looking into buying their cheeses and other ingredients online and preparing their food at home,” Zekic said. “The concept of cooking and enjoying food at home is a trend that is expected to remain among us until we go back to ‘normal.’” 

For Savencia, the company hopes to continue to foster a safe environment for its employees. They are also focused on a number of initiatives, including sustainability. They aim to have all their packaging recyclable and sustainable by 2025. Shipping boxes for orders from their e-commerce site will be recyclable and sustainable by this coming summer. 

Laura Chenel welcomed several new members to their leadership team over the past year and have recently made investments in equipment that will allow the company to produce their log line at a higher capacity and with more consistency. 

About one-third of Laura Chenel’s workforce went remote during the pandemic, Servouse said, and the company has embraced the work-from-home culture and incorporated a more flexible work schedule where possible. 

“In the long term, we have learned the importance of keeping a diversified customer base and will continue to work on developing options for a variety of different channels,” Servouse said. “We took the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to re-examine our practices, work on increasing our efficiency and build up our team. We’ve prepared for sustainable growth in the coming years.”

This story is featured in the June 2021 issue of Dairy Processing.