A garnish is meant to simply enhance the look of a dish or add a touch of flavor. Its job is to not interfere with the main ingredients.
There was a time when cheese was a garnish at Taco Bell restaurants – kind of like keeping your star quarterback on the bench for a big game.
Dairy checkoff food scientists who work onsite at Taco Bell’s headquarters, however, changed the game plan, and cheese has since earned its starring role on the chain’s menu. Cheese-centric offerings such as the Quesalupa and Grilled Cheese Burrito were created by the checkoff’s food scientists who work side-by-side with Taco Bell’s team.
“Cheese is now the hero at Taco Bell, and their customers have responded very positively to the menu,” said Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of wellness, insights, and innovation for Dairy Management Inc. “And your dairy checkoff made it happen.”
The strategy of working with and through major foodservice partners was launched by farmer and checkoff leaders in 2008. In addition to Taco Bell, globally recognized companies McDonald’s and Domino’s are longtime checkoff partners.
Ziemnisky said the strategy is working. Collectively, checkoff food service partnerships are selling an additional 2.2 billion pounds of U.S. dairy products annually (milk equivalent) compared to the start of our partnerships. Further, checkoff partners have averaged 3 percent growth since their creation. Equally important, he notes that partners outspend the checkoff by more than a 10-to-1 ratio on collaborative projects.
“Our foodservice partners allow us to accelerate growth and create platforms for dairy,” Ziemnisky said. “We’re able to get others to put their resources into the game, whether it’s marketing resources, human capital, or investment in equipment or infrastructure.”
Ziemnisky said it’s common for competitive foodservice companies to “follow the leader” and adapt successful strategies and checkoff partners are as big as they get. Domino’s is the No. 1 pizza company worldwide with 17,000 stores and annual sales exceeding $14 billion. McDonald’s serves 25 million customers globally each day.
He pointed to two checkoff-led successes that have made an impact. First, the McDonald’s McCafé line with about 90 percent of its beverages containing dairy has been matched by other chains. Second, others in the pizza category have followed the lead of Domino’s, which saw success by making cheese its No. 1 ingredient.
Now the checkoff is pursuing another new opportunity with partners in the chicken sandwich category, which holds great potential for cheese. Ziemnisky said more than 2 billion chicken sandwiches are served each year by foodservice restaurants that do not contain a slice of cheese. This is roughly 80 percent of a booming category engaged in its infamous “chicken wars.” By comparison, about 85 percent of hamburgers sold every year through these chains contain cheese.
Ziemnisky said that every 10 percent of sandwiches that add a 5-ounce slice of cheese would mean an additional 700 million pounds of milk moved every year.
“Our job as the checkoff is to unlock new growth platforms for dairy in areas that are under-developed and emerging,” he said. “We look for sustainable, incremental sales opportunities that can lift the entire category. We work to think big and unlock new spaces and execute that with other people’s money, resources, and expertise. Chicken sandwiches have been averaging almost ten percent growth over the last five years. They are a big opportunity to move a lot of milk for our farmers.”