From enhanced yogurt smoothie drinks and ice cream with hidden vegetables to blended chickpea and cheese spread and lactose-free cottage cheese, Kristiana Alexander from Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) shared examples of these food trends during the annual Innovation Forum at the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit.
“People use food and beverage for a momentary, fun escape. Fun and indulgent flavors bring excitement to dairy products,” she said. “They can add permissible indulgence where you treat yourself without guilt.”
For large dairy brands, they have responded to this trend of indulgence by making mini dark chocolate ice cream bars or poppable frozen Greek yogurt balls, Alexander said. However, for local creameries and smaller dairy processors, it can be difficult to determine which consumer trends are worth investing in and how these types of products fit into your business model. Strategic partnerships – whether it’s to create a buzz-worthy dairy product or to improve environmental sustainability at the farm level – are ways dairy businesses can work together to strengthen dairy’s competitiveness in the marketplace.
During the Innovation Forum, several panelists shared how creative partnerships have benefited their businesses and helped them reach consumers in new ways.
Beer cheese and marketing potential
For Caputo Brothers Creamery in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, their approach to making cheese was born out of their relationship with local dairy farms and their passion for creating hand-crafted, authentic Italian cheeses. According to Rynn Caputo, one of the forum panelists, they have not only found success making Italian-style mozzarella and ricotta cheese, but they have given several family dairy farms a new market for their milk as well.
After working with a cheese buyer from Giant Food Stores LLC to get their dairy products in regional grocery stores, they began building brand recognition with consumers. Caputo says that’s when their cheese buyer approached them with the idea of forging a partnership with Tröegs Independent Brewing, a brewery in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
“They introduced us to the idea of a beer cheese. We were really passionate about our mozzarella and ricotta, so we were a little nervous that if we strayed away from our strategic vision, we would lose something,” Caputo shared. “But the Trogner family worked side by side with our cheesemakers – and together, we came up with this idea of introducing one of their most popular beers to a cheese like Gouda and bringing it to all 180-plus Giant stores. For a creamery our size, it was a big undertaking.”
While it was a large project for a small creamery, the impact the partnership could have on local businesses, as well as dairy farms, was clear.
“I remember having some reservations until I started working the numbers and seeing what those numbers could mean. We had a local dairy farm that was getting ready to disperse their herd, and they had about 60 days until they had to make the decision to [sell the cows],” Caputo said. “We thought if we have local dairy and local beer, we could do local good.”
The beer cheese was so successful the partners began making other varieties of beer cheeses that matched the beer season. They also brought in other local businesses such as a local roaster to roast the espresso for one of the cheeses and local chocolate and spice companies.
“Originally, this [partnership] started as a way to highlight dairy farmers and do something interesting with milk. The thought was to bring in something like beer to make dairy more interesting,” Caputo explained. “As the partnership has developed, Tröegs has come to us to create a cheese to help them launch a new beer. It isn’t just about beer saving dairy – it’s now about dairy having a place in the beer world and offering marketing opportunities. I thought that was a really exciting evolution in our partnership.”
Limited edition flavors and social media buzz
At Turner Dairy Farms, a dairy processor in western Pennsylvania, they have been driving innovation the last seven years with limited edition, flavored milks. They release different flavors at certain points of the year, including eggnog, red velvet, birthday cake, chocolate banana and more. During the Innovation Forum, Chuck Turner shared how they created a unique partnership with Eat’n Park – a restaurant chain with 63 locations that are known for their sugar cookies topped with icing in the shape of a smiley face.
Eat’n Park and Turner Dairy Farms decided to collaborate on a limited edition “smiley cookie” flavored milk that would be sold at Giant Eagle grocery stores in their area. Because local consumers have a fondness for the sugar cookies, the product was fun and indulgent for families. Turner says their goal was to gain social media traction from the excitement as well.
“The goal was to generate buzz – that was what our partners wanted. We also wanted to drive traffic to all the stores,” Turner shared. “Marketing was what drew our partners to the idea and the opportunity to get a lot of social media buzz.”
With out-of-the-box promotions like bringing a calf to downtown Pittsburgh, the partners enjoyed being creative with social media posts to help promote the limited edition milk. According to Turner, their sales were strong as well, and it was the second-best-selling pint for the dairy processor. The project also helped boost employee morale, especially during trying times.
“In just 10 months, think about how much more emphasis the world puts on employees and happiness in the workforce,” Turner explained. “Our three organizations were really trying to do that. During the pandemic, it was huge to have something fun to work on.”
Sustainability and improvement
For many consumers, environmental stewardship and sustainability are just as important as indulgence and innovative flavors. Hannah Walmer, sustainability specialist at Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, shared how they partnered with Turkey Hill Dairy to make significant strides with sustainability and conservation.
“Our sustainability journey started about five years ago. We were approached by Turkey Hill Dairy with the idea to bring all the farms supplying milk to Turkey Hill Dairy into conservation compliance,” she explained.
Since then, their team has received significant grant funding to assist dairy farms with developing their manure management and conservation plans. With the Turkey Hill project, they serve more than 260 farms that supply to Turkey Hill Dairy and have worked to implement over 80 best management practices on those farms, including manure storage, barnyard stabilization, roof runoff control and more.
Over time, the partnership has led to impressive accolades, including being awarded the 2020 Outstanding Supply Chain Collaboration Award by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. Walmer says one of the greatest impacts has been seeing the direct impact these sustainability projects have had on local dairy farms.
“It has been great to see us put some money into facilities for producers. It can change their life in terms of time and energy they no longer have to put in every day,” she said. “It’s not only good for the water, but for their animals and their families.”
In many cases, opportunities in dairy are stronger when we work together. After building successful partnerships and measuring the impact of innovation, the panelists shared some of their biggest takeaways from the projects.
Find common goals. “You want to have something where everyone is satisfied with how things ended up and everyone can have their goals accomplished,” Turner said.
Support one another. “There’s no way we could have done it, and expected farms to [implement these practices], without the help from our partners.” Walmer said.
- Keep products relevant. “A lot of times when you’re looking at partnerships, what is your purpose? What is your goal? If it is truly to do the most good, then let’s find something that marries well with the market and keeps people coming back over and over again. That type of relationship with your partners is really important. Partnerships keep dairy relevant in a lot of ways. It keeps dairy in the conversation,” Caputo added.
PHOTO: Panelists in the Pennsylvania Dairy Summit Innovation Forum included (left to right): Kelly Kundratic (moderator); Chuck Turner of Turner Dairy Farms; Hannah Walmer, sustainability specialist at Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association; and Rynn Caputo (on screen), Caputo Brothers Creamery. Courtesy photo.
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