The Cheez Vault

SPECIALTY FOOD MERCHANDISING· FEBRUARY 1989:

Long Island Cheese - The Mouse That Roars

"Don't forget to show our trademark," Joseph Gellert called out at the conclusion of the interview for this article. "And, if you want a snappy headline, why not use our slogan, 'Long Island Cheese-The Mouse That Roars.'''

Cherubic mouse serves as trademark for Long Island Cheese.

Well, why not? Long Island Cheese does use a cherubic-looking mouse to identify itself as an importer-distributor of specialty cheeses and related products. And it has, since being purchased by Mr. Gellert in late 1985, more than tripled its sales to $10 million per year. Coming at a time of intense distributor competition and such sales-inhibiting factors as product recalls and prolonged weakness of the dollar, this increase is surely worth roaring about.

There is another way for the Hauppauge, N.Y.· based company to roar. It is by periodically making dramatic promotion announcements that are so bold and exciting as to force the entire trade to take notice. Such announcements as the expansion of its air delivery program, the largest for any cheese importer in the country. Or, the introduction of its Snow White program, which allows customers to obtain delicate cheeses faster, fresher and at lower prices than by conventional ordering procedures. After each announcement, Long Island Cheese has become better known and more talked about, with acorresponding increase in its sales.

Dedicated to specialty cheese retailers

While Long Island Cheese and Specialties, Inc. (its full name) sells to a number of supermarket chains located near its distribution center in the Eastern suburbs of New York City, the company's major marketing thrust is to the independent specialty cheese retailer. "We put these retailers on a pedestal," says Mr. Gellert, "and do our best to provide quality products and programs that will help them operate effectively. Furthermore, we have a single-price policy, whereby all customers pay the same amounts for merchandise, regardless of their type of business or size."

This policy extends to some 500 active accounts, which include up-scale independent supermarkets, gourmet food stores, cheese shops, delicatessens and gourmet take-out establishments. They are largely located between New Haven (Conn.) and the state of Delaware, which includes the Greater New York City market. There is also a sizable and growing number of customers elsewhere in the country, as far west as the Rocky Mountains.

To handle this business, the company fields a direct sales staff of four people working out of its Hauppauge offices, plus a fifth who is headquarted in Chicago. Experienced brokers are used for the Colorado and Arizona territories. Interestingly, all the direct sales people, with the exception of sales manager Richard Rosenberg, are attractive young women.

Joseph Gellert (left) and Richard Rosenberg, president and sales manager respectively at
long Island Cheese, work together in planning promotions for specialty store accounts.

Mr. Rosenberg explains this choice by pointing out that the women work very hard to learn the intracacies of cheese marketing and relate well to customers. "When a sales person is pretty and bubbly and, at the same time, reflects a keen knowledge of a retailer's business, it's difficult not to buy something from her," he observes.

The direct sales staff follows a routine whereby on Monday to Wednesday they contact all customers by telephone to inquire about reorders. On Thursday and Friday, they visit personally with accounts to discuss new products and promotions, and to resolve any problems that might exist. This procedure permits most customers to be seen on a 4-5 week cycle, while also providing time for the staff to canvass their territories in search of new business.

The long Island Cheese warehouse is open from Monday to Thursday, which permits all orders to be picked and assembled within eight hours atter they are received. Those headed for local customers go out in one of four late-model Mercedes trucks and are delivered the next day, except for Greater Philadelphia, where the merchandise arrives a day later. Shipments to more distant locations are sent via refrigerated common carrier.

The distributor also maintains two vans for emergency deliveries to retailers who may have had a run on certain products or overlooked something in their regular order. When necessary, it will drop off the desired merchandise on the same day as requested.

Carefully selected product line

Long Island Cheese takes particular pride in the variety and quality of its cheese line. These are the key characteristics, Joe Gellert feels, which differentiate between distributors that are oriented toward serving supermarket chains and those whose commitment is to the specialty stores. Put another way, Long Island Cheese makes available most of the hard and firm imported and domestic cheeses normally carried by the chains and which enjoy a reliable turnover without undue handling problems.

However, it also provides several hundred of the fancier, more delicate cheeses-the soft-ripened, semi-soft, triple-creme, goat's milk, sheep's milk and fresh var!eties-which only the specialty stores are able to properly handle and sell. Many of these cheeses are made at small family-owned firms, using the purest ingredients and recipes that date back hundreds of years. They appeal strongly to cheese lovers and others who wish to entertain distinctively, helping the specialty stores compete more effectively against the chains.

Another important customer service offered by Long Island Cheese is its air delivery program. First announced three years ago, this program has since grown to the point where the company is flying in a 5,000 lb. container of cheeses from France every week and a similar one from Italy every second week. Cheeses that would regularly take two weeks to arrive by boat now come in on the day after they are loaded onto the plane.

Much of this content has been pre-sold to specific retailers on a two-week cycle. The balance goes into the distributor's stock and is sold in the regular manner. Either way, the cheeses involved are much fresher than when delivered by boat, allowing more time for retailers to sell them.

Mr. Gellert's attractive wife, Ellen, loads up with merchandise
for an in-store demo promotion on Arnott's biscuits from Australia.

Last summer, Long Island Cheese unveiled Operation Snow White as a way for specialty store retailers to beat supermarket chains at their own game of priceoff promotions. Certain of the fastest-turning fancy cheeses, such as French Bucheron and Explorateur, were offered at the same price for air delivery as they would have cost if delivered by boat. Independent retailers could pass along these freight savings to the consumer, while presenting the high-demand cheeses at their peak of freshness and flavor.

Direct sales people at Long Island Cheese are well trained on the products handled,
helpmg them to provide a more efficient service to customers.

Like the program before it, Operation Snow White has been a huge success. Customers responded to it so favorably that, after a few months, the distributor was able to offset its subsidy on the freight differential by achieving the economies of scale in its own purchases of the featured cheeses. The numberof cheeses in the program grew to 19 by the end of the year and is expected to reach 50 during 1989.

At an earlier time in its corporate history, Long Island Cheese used to blend and market its own natural cheese spreads. It presently orders such spreads from several quality vendors and makes about two dozen varieties available in 5 and 10 lb. tubs for deli counter merchandising. They are particularly popular as a party tray item and represent an important source of business to the distributor and its customers.

Rounding out the company's inventory is an extensive range of cheese-related products. Excellent for generating add-on sales, they also make it easier for customers to achieve freight-free deliveries and simplify their ordering and receiving procedures. Included are such lines as Citterio Italian-style meats; les Trois Petits Cochons and love at First Bite pates; Stefano's stuffed breads; Neal's cookies; Bonne Maman preserves and Krinos Greek specialties.

Consumer-packaged baked products are also featured in some profusion. Among them are Carr's, Red Oval, Bremner, Kavli, Wasa, Finn Crisp and House of Aulesbrookes crackers and crispbreads; Burns & Ricker bagel chips; J.J. flat breads and Rubschlager sliced ethnic breads. Still another line in this category, which was introduced several months ago by Long Island Cheese to the U.S. market, is Arnott's biscuits from Australia. Handsomely packaged and delicious tasting, the biscuits are enjoying a strong acceptance throughout the distributor's territory.

Distributor uses late-model Mercedes trucks for local deliveries, equips them with
double gas tanks so that they can travel more than 500 miles without refueling.

Targeted to a single market

Long Island Cheese was established in 1964, under the name Long Island Provisions. It was the brainchild of Richard Fiscina, a former deli route jobber, who recognized the difficulty of New York City and New Jersey specialty cheese distributors trying to service the widely dispersed Long Island suburban market and felt a locally-based firm could do the job more efficiently. The new company achieved a dominant position in this market and was beginning to expand into the city, when Mr. Fiscina passed away.

Recent improvements in company's Hauppauge, N.Y.
distribution center resulted in a doubling of storage capacity.

Initially sold to adistributor of Greek foods, Lipco was sold again in 1984 to Atalanta Corp., a much larger importer-distributor of perishable and dry food specialties. The head of Atalanta's cheese marketing department, Joseph Gellert, was put in charge of the new acquisition. His first task was to stem the loss in the company's annual sales, which had dropped 60% to $3 million after Mr. Fiscina's death.

Over the next six months, Mr. Gellert developed the strategy that would eventually restore the company's growth: emphasis on serving specialty stores, top quality products at competitive prices and innovative marketing programs to boost retail traffic and sales. In addition, the company name was changed to Long Island Cheese and Specialties, to better reflect its product line.

However, before this strategy was too far underway, another fateful event occurred. George Gellert, chief executive of Atalanta and Joe's elder brother, decided to move the parent finn away from distributing and to concentrate on marketing its proprietary import lines. Rather than see Long Island Cheese sold to an outsider, Joe Gellert decided to purchase it himself.

Over the past three years, Mr. Gellert has had the chance to put most of his plans into action. He has also drawn on his engineering studies at Cornell University to help revamp the racks in his 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse, doubling its storage capacity. And, he has improved the company's service to customers by adding delivery trucks and instituting a computerized inventory control system.

Administrative matters are handled by a capable office staff.

In the traditional manner of most growing distributor businesses, Mr. Gellert can often be found in the warehouse maneuvering a fork lift or helping unload a newly arrived ocean or air container, His attire is more likely to include jeans and sneakers than a business suit, Frequently, his wife, Ellen, is called on to conduct an in-store sampling demonstration or help man the Long Island Cheese exhibit at a trade show.

Helping further in the company's success has been Richard Rosenberg, a dynamic and capable young sales executive who worked with Mr. Gellert at Atalanta before coming over to Long Island Cheese, and Florence Link, a dedicated young woman who handles the many administrative duties that come under the heading of office manager. Along with the direct sales, office and warehouse staffs, these people work hard and efficiently to give long Island Cheese the aura of a firm several times its size.

Promotes in an aggressive manner

Distributing to retailers is one thing, but helping them re-sell to the consumer is quite another. This is the area where long Island Cheese has been particularly active and for which its slogan, "The Mouse That Roars," most applies.

Every month the company makes a broadside mailing to customers, which not only updates its price list, but features a multiplicity of special buys, dealer incentives, display allowances and other promotional offers. There seems to be an offer for everyone, whose sizable savings is designed to have an immediate impact on the retail selling floor.

"Our competitors hate it when these mailings arrive," advises Mr, Gellert. "They think we're giving away too much and aren't afraid to tell us so. But, the facts are we buy sharply, operate a tight ship and are willing to go the extra mile to give customers a promotion that works."

Long Island Cheese also cooperates with its vendors and the various overseas food consulates on promotions initiated by them. It distributes point-of-sale materials, conducts in-store demos and follows through on dealer sweepstakes. As a matter of company policy, all special vendor offers get passed along to customers and are often supplemented by the dis tributor's own funds.

Dramatic trade advertising, which ranges from colorful product presentations to hard-sell institutional copy, completes the company's promotion arsenal. Generally appearing against a bright yellow background, the Long Island Cheese ads are eyecatching and to the point. Invariably, they enjoy a high degree of readership,

"Once specialty cheese retailers get to know us and the benefits we offer," says Mr. Gellert, "we're halfway home to making the sale."