I had the unique opportunity last week of accompanying cheese buyers for Sam’s Club on a trip to Italy.
The goal of the trip was to search for 24 of the best cheeses in the world for the purpose of bringing them into Sam’s Club stores to share with members.
I didn’t really know what to expect on the trip… I figured I’d be tagging along, tasting cheese, doing some writing and taking pictures. But it was so much more than that.
Before the trip, I figured that warehouse stores like Sam’s Club were most concerned about being thrifty… picking up inexpensive cheeses that they could sell for a good “club” price. As it turns out, Sam’s Club does a whole lot of research before selecting cheeses… making quality and taste their first priorities.
We visited four cheese producing companies on our trip to Italy: Monti Trentini (Asiago), Aurrechio (Cremona), Boni (Parma), and Igor (Novara).
We were met by company owners at each cheese company and given an extensive tour, with explanation of the processes involved in the making of their cheeses.
At the conclusion of each tour, I was included in a round-table discussion with the Italian cheese producers and the Sam’s Club buyers. We were shown all of the new products the companies were offering as well as any new labeling and packaging options that they wanted to share.
It was in these meetings that I discovered the real reason why they had asked me to accompany them on the trip. They asked for my opinion. They listened to me… as the “voice of the consumer.” They wanted to know which products were most appealing to the typical club shopper. Hopefully, I represented us well because they made some decisions based on my input!
Sustainability is very important to Sam’s Club. Every cheese producer was asked what they are doing to promote sustainability… regarding conserving energy, packaging efficiencies and managing waste materials (ie. whey is often sold to pig farmers).
And of course the best way to sample cheeses of the region was to dine throughout the region! Our local contacts pointed us toward their favorite places for lunch and dinner (places a tourist would never find on their own).
We were always treated to a platter of Italian meats at each meal (and plenty of pasta too).
Wine is a natural accompaniment to cheese, so it made an appearance quite often. Why is it that all red wine tastes so darn good in Italy? And how do the Italians manage to get through their day when they have wine with lunch? I’m pretty sure I’d be too sleepy to get back to work!
Sam’s already carries Asiago cheese from Monti Trentini, Provolone from Aurrechio, and Gorgonzola from Igor. Sam’s Club will be introducing a “Gourmet Fine Cheese Island” in their club stores with newly discovered, imported cheeses. The plan is to begin displaying the islands in about 1/2 of their clubs beginning in August, with a gradual roll-out to eventually include the cheeses in all stores. At the conclusion of our trip, the buyers moved on to England, Ireland and Scotland to continue their search for the world’s best cheeses.
Our group… from Sam’s Club and DCI Cheese Company (with me in the middle, trying to remain understated in a light shade of pink) + our Italian driver Giacomo (the one w/ the Italian leather jacket, of course)
What an eye-opening trip! I have a much greater appreciation for the art of cheesemaking. We discovered some wonderful new products that Sam’s is excited about purchasing and adding to their cheese collection. I’ll be sharing more information about those products as I write about each cheese tour (I really think you’re going to enjoy the behind-the-scenes cheese-making action!). Stay tuned for some great recipes that will feature these Italian cheeses.