Secrets of Cheese Signage

Cheese Signs at Talula's Daily in Philly

Cheese Signs at Talula’s Daily in Philly

What inspires you to pick up a cheese and take it home for the night?

I’m asking because this question has been keeping me up at night. It’s the subject of a talk I agreed to give at PASA’s Farming for the Future Conference on February 7 — a talk called “Describing Products for Market: How to Write for Readers and Customers.” Eeep! Writing for readers is one thing, but I don’t think of you as a “customer,” and yet you are. If you read this blog, you probably take risks on cheeses when you shop.

So, what makes you step out of your comfort zone and buy something other than the old familiars…mozzarella, jack, havarti, cheddar?

Are you inspired by…

  • clever signage (remember Jeff Gordinier’s NYT article on ripe prose)?
  • a conversation with a cheesemonger who offers you a taste?
  • creative labeling or savvy packaging?
  • pairing suggestions?
  • context — like seeing a picture of the farm where the cheese is made? or happy cows?
  • social media imagery from particular vendors?

I’d like to share your feedback with Pennsylvania cheesemakers — picture Amish beards, farmers’ market vendors, future cheesemakers, old creaky cheesmakers, people without marketing degrees or brand managers. If you could offer a tip from your experience as a buyer (or as a cheesemonger who works with buyers), drop me a comment.

This is a conversation I’ve wanted to have for a long time. After all, I buy an indecent amount of cheese, and I witness a lot of studious lurkers around the counter. I see them scratch their chins and hear them hem and haw. Buying cheese strikes me as a very different kind of purchasing decision than, say, picking out craft beer — which is cheese’s soul mate.

Lovers of the rind, what should cheesemakers communicate to you as eaters?


Look for more on this topic in coming weeks. Together with my new interns (whee!), we’re delving into something beyond my usual scope of nibbling, tippling, and trekking out to farms. In 2015, we’re looking to explore the connection between curds and communication — not for personal gain but to deepen our own civic commitment to small-batch cheesemakers.

For upcoming appearances at PASA and at the Philly Chef Conference, shimmy over to Events.

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11 Responses to “Secrets of Cheese Signage”
  1. Amanda says:

    Could they have you write all the descriptions? That would be a good start!

    As a buyer, I generally do buy what the monger gives me to taste. This is a probably a function of having access to quality mongers, but there is also that pressure of buying after the free.

    I am more likely to buy if the cheese has a good story (local, pairs perfectly with…, sailed on a ship from France and aged here, only made in small batches by one dude). As I write this, I realize I am a bit of a sucker, but it’s true—I like my food to have something specialness going on, especially if I’m paying $40/lb.

    Having said that, if it tastes amazing, I’ll buy it if it’s called “Boringness” and looks like Kraft Singles.

    • Amanda says:

      And, please excuse the many, many typos there. Reading back through in the tiny box on my phone is never a good idea 🙁

    • phoebe says:

      That’s great, Amanda! I’m with you. As much as I appreciate a sample I often feel guilty into buying it but for me that behavior might be a personality inadequacy. Cheese can be a sizable investment in a grocery budget and it’s almost like adopting a new pet… you want to know the story, what can I expect of it, will it get along with others, which others… I love shared recipe tips that gives a little out of the cracker box or off the salad topping inspiration.

    • tdarlington says:

      Thanks, Amanda. Much appreciated.

  2. Robin says:

    Sampling and getting to ask questions is the best way to get me to buy a cheese.

    Descriptions are very helpful – Where it was made, what type of milk, dominate flavors/textures and what it’s similar to if the name or look of it doesn’t make it obvious. (a blue cheese looks like a blue cheese but so many things look like cheddar to me)

    Pairs well with… is a big help, too. pairing suggestions for food and beverages are helpful. If someone took the time to suggest a wine and a beer with a cheese, I’d pay more attention than just a wine.

  3. armymum says:

    I recently went to a wine and cheese tasting at a local farm in November and had a BLAST! It was a free event given by the owner of a local wine and cheese shop. Each cheese was paired with a specific cracker, wine and other misc (nuts, fruits, or chocolate). She gave great descriptions of the cheeses, the farms they came from (all local) and was obviously passionate and engaging. The Farm where the event was given carries some of her products from her store. After the tasting, she gave us all a sample of one of the cheeses (a cheddar) to take home. I went downstairs to the farm store and purchased 2 of the four crackers that we sampled and an additional cheese (blue) I liked. Fast forward to the weekend before Christmas, and I decided to go to the actual cheese shop and get some more of the cheeses (one for a gift and on to have on hand over the holiday). Totally different experience at the store. I knew the cheese I was looking for but also wanted to see what else they had & might be interested in. I spent some time wandering around the store looking (gift baskets, craft beers, cheese making kits, wine openers, wine charms…etc) 2 women behind the counter were chatting with a regular customer. Owner of the shop (who had given the event at the farm) was putting together gift baskets off to the side, 2 or three other customers in the store. No one said “hello” or greeted me, asked if they could help or if it was my first time at the store. I spent a few minutes looking for the cheese in the case I knew that I wanted, but didn’t see either of them. I ended up leaving frustrated/disappointed and emptyhanded, partially my fault for not asking for help, and maybe partially the timing when I went (holiday hustle & bustle) although the store wasn’t overly busy or crowded….

  4. Jodi says:

    I like reading about the living environment of the animals ( convince me that your animals are loved and happy and well cared for), how the cheese is prepared, and an imaginative description of its texture and flavor. Suggestions for food combinations and some snappy graphics help a lot too. And get creative with the name!

  5. mike says:

    the monger vibe is most important to me. Im accustomed to being spoiled in Philadelphia, especially at Dibruno bros. but when I am at a shop that ignores me or has nothing to tell me about the cheese, it’s not likely I’ll purchase unless I was there on a mission to begin with. Also a vegetarian friend of mine pointed out that small cheesemaking farms, like Birchrun Hills, are vegetarian dreams, as they are surely better to their animals, so it’s a selling point.

    As far as signs, yeah, have at least one sentence describing it would likely result in a lot more sales for people less extroverted and avoiding monger (self-imposed guilt) interaction.

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