Gurth Pretty loves cheese. He’s particularly excited about goat cheese and the possibilities he sees for Ontario’s goat industry to supply a growing consumer demand for local product.
That’s good news for Ontario goat farmers: Pretty is the deli cheese category manager at Loblaw, Canada’s largest food retailer. He’s also a chef, a former president of the Ontario Cheese Society and author of several books about cheese.
“Local cheese is sexy, Canadian cheese is sexy,” he said in a presentation at Ontario Goat’s annual meeting in March. “Food should be so great and so amazing it creates memories and new sensations. There is a real need for goat’s milk for making cheese.”
His goal, he added, is to get more cheese, including Ontario cheese, into the different Loblaw stores and making the retailer a destination for cheese.
Goat cheese is in the company’s top five categories for cheese and showing double digit annual increases. Key to the success of goat cheese sales is knowing consumer needs and working to meet those needs, as well as understanding the relationship between the different steps of the supply chain from dairy farmers to cheese makers to distributors.
According to Pretty, there are three main consumer groups who buy Ontario goat cheese products.
These are gourmets who love food or people who only want to buy food produced within a certain radius of where they live. They want to know where food comes from and who is producing it. For these consumers, quality matters. Pretty advises farmers to talk about their goats, their product and their farm with pride when they’re dealing with cheese makers – it will give them a story they can use to help market their cheese when they’re selling it to distributors or retailers.
- Health conscious:
Goat cheese is lower in fat than cow’s milk cheese, as well as being a great source of vitamins and minerals. Goat cheese is also more easily digestible by people who are lactose intolerant. Three quarters of the adult world population has more difficulties digesting dairy products as they get older. Ethnicity also plays a role in this, said Pretty, explaining that dairy is not as prevalent in the diets of Asian cultures as it is in northern Europe, for example, so many Asian consumers tend to be more lactose intolerant.
- New Canadians:
Many people who are new to Canada are not familiar with cows and cows’ milk products. However, goats are part of their cultures and their diets, and they are actively seeking out familiar food products when they are shopping in Canadian stores. There are many opportunities to serve the ethnic markets, particularly in larger urban centres.
Despite its growing popularity, Pretty said goat cheese continues to battle some familiar demons when it comes to consumer acceptance. Many people still think that goat milk and cheese is smelly or “goaty”, for example. They also tend to associate goat milk only with feta or chèvre, but aren’t aware of the many other varieties of goat cheese that are available. Loblaw is training its in-store staff to be more knowledgeable about the cheeses they sell, as well as making recipe booklets available, Pretty said.
“At Loblaw, we just recently did a promotion with goat cheeses from Ontario to raise awareness, such as goat mozzarella, spreadable goat cheese, goat cheddar,” he said. “We need to do a better job of telling people about the many different cheeses available. The potential for growth is definitely there as more people become aware of our product.”
Ontario goat cheese could benefit from the development of a brand, similar to how Ontario Corn-fed Beef and Black Angus have brought commodity-style brands to the meat department, said Pretty, so that customers know when a product is locally made.
He sees a natural partnership between Loblaw and Ontario Goat to help with promoting goat cheese products, through activities like sampling, recipe card development and providing information on the different varieties that are available. A good website is essential so consumers can easily find information they’re looking for.
“Ontario Goat has a vested interest in promoting Ontario goat cheese products so how can we work together?” he asked. “The more cheese is promoted to consumers, the more they become aware of it and will want to buy it.”
“We are actively looking for new varieties of cheese being produced from goat milk, such as havarti, cheddars, goudas, a hard cheese – all the different types that are possible out there,” he added. “But we need the marketing and promotion for the customers to know about it and that’s where I see Ontario Goat being a good partner for retailers like us.”
Pretty said he’s interested in hearing from cheese makers and farmers with new ideas for products, even at low production volumes, but cautioned that it can take a long time to establish a relationship with a retailer and get a product onto the store shelf.
“You don’t have to be able to provide me with cheese for all my stores, let’s start off with a few and see what we can do,” he said. “Retail works at a slow pace but I want to work with the cheese makers and with the dairy goat industry so it is a win-win situation for everyone.”
This article was prepared by Lilian Schaer based on a presentation at the 2013 Ontario Goat annual general meeting, held March 22, 2013.