Cabot taking steps to stay sharp
Dairy cooperative works to convince customers quality is worth the cost
CABOT, Vt. - For the first time in their 90-year history, Cabot farmers across the region are opening their doors tomorrow to try and drum up support for the Vermont brand best known for its naturally aged cheddar cheese.
The move comes as Cabot tries to maintain its edge - it lost 6 percent of its market share in Boston in recent months - and farmers are struggling with record low milk prices. Cabot, which is owned by a cooperative of about 1,200 dairy farmers in New England and New York, is hoping to convince budget-minded consumers that the premium products are worth the price by introducing them to local dairy farmers and plying visitors with free cheese and coupons.
“This is a very, very tough year,’’ said Mark Duffy, a Cabot farmer in Carlisle, Mass. Faced with low milk prices, Duffy has had to slash expenses, including laying off several workers, delaying the purchase of new equipment, and taking fewer trips.
“It’s a price-competitive business. But our goal is not to be the cheapest, it’s to be the best,’’ Duffy said.
Cabot, founded in 1919 by 94 farmers, faces a unique set of challenges. Agri-Mark, the cooperative that owns Cabot, turns a small profit that is returned to the farmers. That leaves little money to make major investments to expand the brand beyond hundreds of stores along the East Coast. Agri-Mark’s board of directors considered outside funding earlier this year, but decided against it because the cooperative worried that investors would not be as committed to quality - like the expensive natural aging process for cheddar - and keeping farmers in business. And unlike larger national brands like Cracker Barrel, which is owned by Kraft Foods, Cabot does not have deep pockets to pay slotting fees to gain more shelf space at supermarkets or aggressively offer coupons.
“We have to be very selective in how we spend our money,’’ said Douglas DiMento, a spokesman for Agri-Mark.
Kevin Griffin, publisher of The Griffin Report of Food Marketing, said there are few companies in the food business that are thriv ing. Private label and store brands are becoming more prominent and eroding share of more expensive established brands that do not have the marketing money needed to compete at many large grocery chains.
“Competition is fierce - manufacturers are fighting for market share and shelf space - retailers are battling inflation, transportation cost increases, and a very finicky consumer who is looking for any way possible to save money on the total costs of feeding their families,’’ Griffin said. “But Cabot is a very strong regional brand, and they will have to continue to promote their premium brand by communicating effective marketing messages that hit home with their customers.’’
Cabot is hosting open houses tomorrow between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at 29 farms in New England, including at Massachusetts farms in Carlisle, Hadley, New Braintree, Great Barrington, and Granville. Details can be found at www.OpenFarmSunday.com.
Over the past year, Cabot has taken its cheese on the road to supermarkets and hotels along the East Coast, offering shoppers samples, the opportunity to test products, and brochures on the award-winning cheddar (Cabot was named the world’s best cheddar in the 2006 World Championship Cheese Contest). Cows raised in New England produce milk that is subtly flavored by the local environment, and Cabot says it chooses milk with optimal levels of butterfat and protein for the best flavor and texture.
At the factory at its headquarters in Cabot, Vt., more than 44,000 pounds of milk are turned into 4,400 pounds of cheddar cheese for each batch using mechanical devices that look like fingers to stir the curds. The cheddars age in carefully monitored, temperature-controlled rooms. After the cheese is aged four months, Cabot’s cheese graders beginning tasting samples and determining whether the cheese is best suited for sharp (aged up to 12 months), extra sharp (aged 10 to 14 months), or one of the select cheddars such as “Old School Cheddar’’ that ages for 5 years. Like wine tasters, the graders sniff the cheddar first and typically spit out the sample to fully grasp the flavor profile - and avoid ingesting too much cheese, according to Earle Elliott Jr., one of the graders.
Cabot has learned that one of the best ways to win consumers is by lobbing cheese chunks at tourists, and the cooperative has opened three retail stores in Vermont where visitors can sample about 25 flavors, including chipotle, chili and lime, horseradish, and Tuscan-rubbed cheddar.
Randy and Pam Beck of Cleveland had never heard of Cabot before their visit to Vermont, and by the end of their vacation this week, they had visited two Cabot’s stores to load up on samples and buy cheese to bring home.
“I never paid so much attention to brand names on the cheese,’’ Randy Beck said after the Cabot factory tour. “But this gives you a real appreciation for what they do here. I’d buy this now.’’
Jenn Abelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.