A Renaissance in the Food Industry

A Renaissance in  the Food Industry

Americans’ palates have become more sophisticated, opines Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “People are educating themselves, learning about food and understanding what they’re putting in their bodies,” she says. “They’re sourcing food from farmers’ markets and grocery stores are providing more variety, whether it’s ethnic, organic … there’s a demand for it and the market has responded. It’s a renaissance in the food industry.”Between the selection of cuisines and ingredients available at restaurants, the Food Network’s televised gastronomy, and the explosion of cookbooks, novels, magazines and blogs about food, it’s no wonder Americans have become savvier about what they eat. And with their increasingly busy lives—empty wallets, too, in recent years—they want to prepare more healthy meals at home. A majority of respondents to the Food Marketing Institute’s 2009 shopping trends survey, 69 percent, said they’re eating out less. But that doesn’t mean they want to spend hours preparing food—48 percent of survey respondents said they’re looking for easy-to-make recipes.Fresh, Natural and LocalWilly Street Co-op, owned by over 14,000 local consumers, has picked up on that trend. The co-op is a fixture on Madison’s east side, and the organization plans to open a long-awaited second store in Middleton. Shoppers can order online (willystreet.coop) and have their purchases ready for pick-up; Willy Street even delivers in certain ZIP codes.”People don’t always come to the store with meal ideas in mind—they have enough going on that they may not have time to plan,” says Brendon Smith, the co-op’s director of communications. “We can give them ideas and take some of that burden from them.”Shoppers can use Willy Street’s “Rush Hour Recipe” cards, available in the store, in its newsletter or on its website, to prepare meals in under 30 minutes, including cooking time. “We also offer ‘$16 Squares,’ recipes for entire meals that serve four, for under $16,” says Smith. “You can find all the ingredients for the meals right in our store.”And shoppers can often taste those ingredients before buying. “We offer samples throughout the store periodically, and whenever possible we have the product producers doing the sampling, so people can connect and ask questions and learn more about where their food comes from,” Smith says.The store also holds a tasting event the second Saturday of each month. “We grill out when it’s warm, and when it’s cooler we use our community room,” explains Smith. “Sometimes we make our ‘$16 Squares’ meals, and in December we do a cheese tasting. It’s a big time for entertaining and we give people ideas about what they might want to offer.”The co-op is focused on offering natural, sustainably produced food from local and organic suppliers, with plenty of ready-to-eat options for busy consumers. “Our deli does a really nice job with things like salads, sandwiches, sushi and hot entrees,” Smith says. “We always have vegetarian and vegan options, as well as those featuring locally sourced meats. All the fresh produce used is organic; the cheese, milk and butter are from Wisconsin; and everything is made from scratch down the street from the store.”To increase people’s understanding of the local foods available to them, Willy Street Co-op will again hold its “Eat Local Challenge” this year, from August 15 to September 15. “We’ll challenge people to eat locally for a month, and then we’ll have a potluck at the end where people can share recipes and stories,” says Smith. “We’ll provide lists of resources like farmers markets and Community Supported Agri-culture (CSA) opportunities, and we’re hoping to get restaurants to offer dishes with local ingredients one night a week,” he adds. “There are so many local ingredients in Wisconsin.”Real FoodWisconsin cheese is one local item that’s a big seller at Willy Street Co-op, and at other area stores. “In the last 10 years, Wisconsin’s specialty cheese production has increased 250 percent,” Porter Engwall marvels. “Our cheeses win more awards than any other state or nation does—we’re getting worldwide attention. “Our cheese makers are really testing the limits in creating artisan specialty products,” she continues. “They’ve been doing so for over 100 years in generation after generation of family-owned businesses, but the growth reflects people’s willingness to buy those products. They want to buy the aged cheddar and mixed-milk cheeses, and cheese makers are responding to what consumers are excited about.” Even some basic cheeses are reflecting the artisanal trend. “Sargento Foods of Plymouth, Wisconsin, for example, has always done shreds and blends, but now they’re using artisanal cheese,” says Porter Engwall.Many artisanal cheeses are far from basic. There’s Dunbarton Blue, made by Roelli Cheese of Shullsburg, an English-style cheddar with a hint of blue cheese that’s cured on wood shelves in the open air. Bleu Mont Dairy of Blue Mound makes Earth Schmier, a havarti cheese that’s rubbed with a mixture containing earth, then aged in a hillside cave, giving it a limburger-esque flavor. Sartori Foods of Plymouth makes the Reserve Bella Vitano line of flavored cheeses, which are washed with substances from merlot to balsamic vinegar to New Glarus Raspberry Tart Beer.People are eating more of what is considered “real food,” Porter Engwall notes. “And cheese is all natural and contains calcium and protein. It can be used at any time of day, eaten alone or in recipes, and it doesn’t have to be consumed right away.”It can also be convenient. “We’ve seen packaging become smaller and re-sealable, and some companies package different varieties of cheese in one unit. There are snack-size packages—quick and convenient but still healthy and nutritious,” Porter Engwall says.More stores are stocking specialty products, so artisanal cheeses are easy to find. “We’ve also noticed a lot of cross-merchandising, where cheese isn’t just in the dairy area, but also in the deli, and sometimes the beverage aisle,” says Porter Engwall. “Some cheese makers are placing recipes right on the packages, so people can make decisions right in the store.”The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board also provides recipes and other tools to help educate people about using Wisconsin’s dairy products. “Our website (eatwisconsincheese.com) has information on food pairings and entertaining—it doesn’t always have to be time-consuming or complicated,” Porter Engwall says. “Our downloadable ‘Kitchen Kit’ brochure includes ways to incorporate cheese into your diet, ideas for including kids in the kitchen as helpers, and ways to provide healthy choices.”Flash frozen at the peak of freshnessMyMenu, too, which has five Madison stores, offers consumers information and guidance about healthy choices. Its website (mymenu.com) includes recipes and tips.And in its built-for-convenience one-aisle stores, product consultants stand ready to give shoppers free product tours, answer questions and share information that enables people to prepare snacks, individual or family meals or gourmet dinner parties. “We love to show our products,” says Jennifer Dodd, U.S. divisional vice president. “We open every box before you buy; it’s our opportunity to engage with you and talk about recipes and serving and entertaining tips. We get so excited when people come back and tell us how successful their meals or parties were.”MyMenu offers over 300 flash-frozen products, from hors d’oeuvres to desserts. Many are individually frozen, so people can remove as many servings as they need from a package and save the rest for another day. “Our products are fresher than fresh,” Dodd enthuses. “At the peak of freshness, foods are frozen very quickly to sub-zero temperatures, and we guarantee all of our products 100 percent. We guarantee our steak is the best you’ve ever tasted—we’re very proud of our filet mignon you can cut with a fork.”The stores target busy people with busy lives who want to get back to the dinner table with family and friends. “We can help them do that in a way that lets them get out of the kitchen quickly and be very proud of the quality,” says Dodd. And while MyMenu’s product consultants are happy to spend as much time with shoppers as they want, those in a hurry can be in and out of the store in 10 minutes, Dodd reports. “If you order online, we’ll pre-pack it in a box and you’re out in two minutes.”At MyMenu’s stores, shoppers can share their nutritional needs and staff can print out personalized lists of products that comply, whether you’re looking to meet a certain calorie limit, or you have nut allergies or diabetes. The stores also carry a line of products for the health-conscious, that are low fat and low cholesterol, with at least three grams of fiber. “They’re marked with a special emblem on our flyers,” Dodd says.Among the company’s top products are boneless, skinless chicken breasts; French onion soup—you just peel off the plastic and pour it in a soup crock—and multiple varieties of seasoned beef, pork and chicken kabobs—that you thaw in water for 10 minutes and then cook. “One of our newer products, beef pot roast in brown gravy, is really taking off,” says Dodd. “I cook mine in a crock pot and serve it with our mashed potatoes and vegetable medley. It’s a great combination.”


Left to right: Heather Porter Engwall, Brendon Smith, Jennifer Dodd