In only its third year of business, Just the Cheese, launched by Owner and General Manager David Sharfman in 2018, is weathering through the storm of COVID-19 which has caused significant challenges for food manufacturers that have been in business for decades.
Just the Cheese produces dried cheese snacks, which are sold through national retailers, as well as e-commerce channels, including Amazon and its own website. Though its e-commerce presence is helping the company continue sales, it’s not without its downsides. Typically, fulfillment by Amazon had been easy, Sharfman said. “But under such strain, it’s been difficult to manage our e-commerce supply chain.” In the past, product would be picked up within two days, then be in the Amazon warehouse in 48 hours. So, if it was picked up on a Monday, it’d be available by Friday. “But now we’ve had shipments take up to 20 days,” he said. “So sales are low but not because of lack of product.”
Just the Cheese is one of three businesses of the family-owned Specialty Cheese Company which, since 1991, has manufactured ethnic cheeses, primarily for foodservice.
The pandemic’s main impact on the company was the disappearance of its foodservice business, which includes cheeses such as queso fresco and paneer for bodegas, delis, etc. “All that went away,” Sharfman said. But because the retail and foodservice cheeses are manufactured in the same plants with the same vats, the company was able to “tweak” its product and shift from making five-pound foodservice to 12-ounce retail cheese blocks. So, he said, “The loss of foodservice has been big, but because we were able to adapt other products, we weathered it better than most.”
In fact, he said, the company saw a spike in baked cheese retail sales, Sharfman said. “So we ran overtime for two weeks to keep up.” It also was able to get funding from the SBA coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program, so no workers had to be furloughed.
In addition to protecting its workers’paychecks, the cheese company took steps to protect its workers’ health, primarily through a strong focus on increased sanitation. Sanitizer was added at every door to the facility. Workers were to sanitize their hands, punch the keypad for access, then sanitize again. They were to go directly to the lunchroom and put away their lunches, etc., then wash their hands. Anyone working in the high-care area washes to the elbow, then dons arm sleeves, gloves, hairnet, and beard net (as needed). Because the facility is SQF3 certified, he said, “Our employees are used to that level, we just added some additional handwashing.
“Masks are tricky because it’s not easy to get disposables,” he said. “We’re an essential business, but we’re not essential enough to get masks.” So employees brought their own, but the company provided in-house industrial cleaning of the masks.
Social distancing was implemented where possible, but, Sharfman said, there are areas where workers can’t be six feet apart. And no visitors were allowed in the facility.
As to expectations for the future, Sharfman said, “I think the sanitation upon entry will probably stay permanently. We have lots of high-care areas with bacterially sensitive product, so let’s keep that step.” He also expects to further ramp up the company’s e-commerce. “We were already big into e-commerce. This reinforces that, but we’re also exploring ways to make fresh cheese available,” he said, explaining that he expects that the way customers will start looking at buying foods will change, with more people willing to buy staple foods online.
As such, Sharfman said, it will be really interesting to see how consumer preferences change in the next 18 months and whether they will continue to buy products online when they no longer have to.
Sharfman contributes the continued success of the company to its team. “I’m proud and impressed with our workforce and team. They’re not first responders, but they come in every day,” he said. “When shelter in place went into effect, we didn’t know what expect. But everyone is happy to have a job. We’re extremely blessed to have such dedicated people.”