Cheese and dairy remain as popular as ever with consumers and retain their reputation for versatility among menu makers. It highlights just how ideally positioned this food category is for the near term, when the world is still dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products present opportunities to keep restaurant dishes and retail displays interesting, and to selectively market health cues and premium attributes. Recent Datassential research shows four out of five consumers (and including 88% of Boomers) said they do not want to go without dairy products. Moreover, these consumers indeed would pay the higher price if only premium cheeses and dairy products were left at grocery stores.

Newer insights from Datassential’s Cheese and Dairy Keynote Report show that consumer satisfaction with cheese and dairy tends to significantly outweigh barriers to purchasing, across many aspects. For starters, more than half of consumers say they usually or always include cheese on their pizzas, burgers and sandwiches, pastas, and breakfast and handheld items.

When consumers avoid dairy, most often it’s because of preference rather than a health concern, such as lactose intolerance. Most people consider cheese a good value rather than a splurge. Other dairy categories have a lot going for them too. Yogurt eaters consider it suitable for any daypart, and 84% of consumers agree that nothing can compete with the flavor of real butter.


Let’s Get Cheesy

People often experiment with new cheeses or dairy products, and they’re looking at things beyond brand names or premium descriptors. Many retailers and restaurant operators could try to add sales by focusing on convenience and added-value attributes like package sizes or formats like cubed and shredded cheese.

Familiar cheeses like mozzarella, American, and cheddar are hardly the only options. Menu trends indicate that people are open to globally influenced cheeses like halloumi or chihuahua, or regional varieties like pimento from the South and cheese curds from the Midwest.

But dairy can be trendy as well, and like any other culinary trend, it overlaps with what’s emerging overall on menus nationwide. Trendsetting chefs are doing everything from loading cheese and sour cream on tater tots and other shared appetizers; to layering sandwiches with burrata; and topping steaks with cultured butter.

Yogurt could be another growth opportunity. Its use is up 44% on fine-dining menus during the past 10 years, and it has increased 74% on casual-dining menus during that same period. Most people have never tried new global varieties of yogurt like skyr or kefir, which continue to pop up in more grocery stores and restaurants.


Health is Secondary

Most of us recognize that dairy is high in protein in calcium, but only 5% of people say healthfulness is the top reason they eat cheese. Consumers and restaurant operators also have widely varying opinions about what makes dairy healthy, so menu makers need to be discerning if they’re going to make health claims to generate demand.

Non-dairy milks will continue to be the tip of the spear for plant-based alternatives to dairy. But even there, nine consumers out of 10 who use non-dairy alternatives also continue to use traditional dairy products. So a coconut milk option for creamers at the self-serve beverage station should supplement rather than replace the half-and-half at most operations.

Importantly, the top-ranked reason for choosing a non-dairy alternative doesn’t have anything to do with calcium or protein or a restrictive diet. One in five people ranked great taste as the No. 1 consideration when opting for a plant-based dairy substitute.