Volume 5 | Issue 1 | Year 2009

Anyone who ever viewed it can’t forget the screamingly funny Monty Python “Cheese Shop” sketch. To refresh the memory, here’s the setup: A customer walks into the shop, hoping to purchase a bit of cheese (he’s feeling a bit “peckish”).
Initially, he asks for a bit of Red Leicester. No luck, the proprietor indicates: The shop’s currently out of stock.

No problem; Tilsit will do. Again, no luck. The customer, obviously a connoisseur then proceeds to run through a list of cheeses. But with each mention, the proprietor has a ready excuse for why the shop is “fresh out.” Red Windsor? Stilton? Ementhal? Gruyere? Norweigan Jarlsburg? Lipta? Lancashire? White Stilton? Danish Brew? Cheshire? Sorry, sir, don’t have any.

Undaunted, but getting a bit frustrated, the customer continues: Dorset Bluveny? Brie? Roquefort? Bruson? Camenbert, perhaps? Still, no luck with any request.

Gouda? No. Edam? No. Smoked Austrian? No.

You do have cheese, don’t you, the exasperated customer asks? Of course, sir, the proprietor replies, we’re a cheese shop.

Okay, then: Parmesan? No. Mozzarella? No. Cheddar? No.

Not much of a cheese shop, then, is it, the customer finally comments, making an understatement for the ages.

While Arthur Schuman Inc. (ASI) is not the kind of street-level cheese shop depicted – it is, in fact, a multi-divisional, major importer and producer of cheeses – it boasts an always available and extensive product line that would satisfy the pedantic customer’s craving. Offerings include imported Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, imported Argentine cheeses, imported Italian Grana Padano, imported Uruguayan cheeses, imported Italian Provolone, Conaprole Uruguayan cheeses, Bufala Mozzarella and a wide range of specialty cheeses, among many others cheese manifestations.

In business for more than 60 years, ASI, a fourth-generation, family owned company headquartered in Fairfield, N.J., has strived to be the best hard cheese company in the United States. In meeting its mission goals, ASI now offers the highest quality cheese in every price category, whether the cheeses are self-produced or sourced from long-term partners. As a result, ASI cheese products have captured a significant market share.

The company was founded in 1946 by Arthur Schuman, former co-owner of an imported cheese company and grandfather of current company president Neal Schuman. At the outset, the company served as a broker and agent for Italian cheese products. Later, Schuman’s sons, Jerome and Harold, expanded the business to include sales of products from South America.

Many still think of ASI as an importer, which is an understandable assumption, as the company is the largest U.S. importer of hard cheeses. However, as Neal Schuman indicates, the company became a leading producer of domestic cheeses. “Today, on the supply side, we maintain a leadership position in hard cheeses imported from Italy and South America, but we’ve also evolved into the largest producer of hard cheeses in the United States,” he relates.

ASI operates its own production facility in Turtle Lake, Wis., which houses special production of the company’s signature Parmesan wheels, a premium offering made in special vats and according to time-tested, traditional techniques. The cheese is aged more than 10 months – sometimes as long as 24 months – to generate a product that demonstrates the highest levels of flavor and quality. (Moreover, the company’s implemented production techniques elevated hard-cheese standards in the United States.)

In addition to the Wisconsin facility, ASI operates licensed cheese factories in Minnesota, South Dakota and Idaho, where cheeses products, including Parmesan, Romano and Asiago blocks and wheels, are created to exacting standards. More than 60 million pounds of blocks are produced each year according to rigorous technical specifications. As a result, these facilities have not only elevated ASI to top-rank status as a producer of hard and semi-hard domestic cheeses, but their output complements the company’s imports.

Besides its production sites, the corporation operates state-of-the-art processing facilities in Fairfield; Elgin, Ill.; and Vernon, Calif. “Products, both imported and domestic, are processed in one of these three facilities,” says Schuman.

These plants, which process more than 80 million pounds of cheese each year, were established to meet industry needs: Historically ASI offered cheese in bulk, but, eventually, all industry segments the company serves needed products that were much more convenient to use. “These sites provide us the ability to cut, grate, shred, shave, cube, slice, dice, wedge and dehydrate,” informs Schuman.

These capabilities enable the cheese to be used in innovative formats – some of which ASI helped pioneer – including bags, cups, PET jars and wedges. Further, ASI supports its production and processing capabilities with world-class service and logistics. The company operates two world-class national distribution centers (in Edison, N.J. and Elgin, Ill.). It has also implemented a multi-faceted, sophisticated warehouse management system, comprised of complementary products, which enables ASI to meet even the largest customer’s demands for just-in-time deliveries and cost-effective distribution. Both facilities operate 24/7 to receive and distribute products. At Edison, more than 190 million pounds come through the facility, which includes more than 4,300 inbound containers and cheese loads each year. The company estimates that 20,000-plus annual customer orders are processed and shipped.

Schuman indicates that the company’s organizational structure evenly divides ASI into three business divisions: retail and club stores, industrial/food manufacturing, and food service and restaurant chains.

Its club/retail division offers customers a full line of traditional and innovative products in the premium Italian and Italian-style cheese categories. Within its industrial/food manufacturing division, ASI supplies some of the largest U.S. food manufacturers with cheese products. Through its food service/restaurant division, the company is a leading supplier for national and independent food service companies and restaurant chains positioned across the country.

For all customers, ASI provides a broad range of unique and core products, available in sizes and packaging formats that meet their individual needs. “All the while, we focus on our core competency of vertically integrated hard cheese conversion and production,” adds Schuman.

As a vertically integrated company, ASI supervises all production, within the U.S. as well as abroad. As such, it isn’t involved in any spot-buying of cheese, a claim that no other importer can make, the company reports.

A 650-employee company that has enjoyed about 12 percent annual growth in recent years, ASI is closely monitoring current economic conditions, particularly as it relates to credit. “The current credit crunch could significantly impact an industry such as ours, where long holding and financing is required for production of a finished product that needs to be aged about 10 months,” says Schuman. “So there is a potential in the cheese business, or the wine business, or any business that requires long holding, for credit to not flow as readily into these items as it has in the past.”

So far, ASI is weathering the storm. “We’ve been around for more than 60 years, and we have well-established banking relationships and partners that understand our unique needs,” Schuman relates. “To date, we haven’t encountered any substantial issues from that sector, but we remain vigilant. If the country’s credit crunch continues, some casualties could include, to some extent, companies involved in long-hold products.”

Also, in general economic terms, ASI has witnessed how consumers, particularly in the final quarter of 2008, have become much more concerned with how they spend their money. “Spending is moving away from some of the traditional markets and toward the club-store environment, where consumers find better value and lower pricing,” says Schuman.

ASI is well positioned to go with the drift. “As we’re not focused on just one business sector, but across all business channels and trade classes, we can move to where the consumers are spending their money,” says Schuman.

Even more, the company purveys a product that is almost recession proof. “Historically, hard types of cheeses have performed well in recessionary times, primarily because pasta topped with grated cheese is a relatively inexpensive but tasty meal,” says Schuman. “But at the higher end, our products perform well because of their distinct flavor. People who can appreciate it aren’t going to give it up. It’s a little luxury that they can afford.”

Looking ahead, ASI plans on solidifying its market positions with new cheese flavors and products that will emerge from its Wisconsin and California facilities. These include Montforte Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola, string cheese and Mozzarella. That should be enough to satisfy Monty Python’s cheese connoisseur’s palate.

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