Five Observations from Day 1 of the Salon du Fromage
While I’ve been to a lot of conferences for my day job, this was the first true industry show I’ve been to outside of market research. It’s in that comparative light that I reflected on day 1 at the Salon du Fromage. Below are five observations from a long but satisfying day.
1: A Fantastic Day for the Industry
The best industry-wide conferences do three things. First, they are inclusive and reflect all the variation—big and small, new and old—that the industry offers. Second, by doing this, they make participants want to be part of the scene, imbuing them with a sense of pride and greater purpose. Third, they deliver on the promise of that pride and purpose in the form of genuine participation. People go and do and talk and engage with each other. I saw all this on offer at Day 1 of the Salon.
2: The Small Guys Steal the Show
Cheese is a massive business in France, but the people who really drive its dynamism and will ensure its future are the small players. It’s great to have them there and great that they can come. More importantly, it’s something the Salon should cultivate (which they may do, I’ll need to find out). By the way, this isn’t just the French I’m talking about. I saw small Italian, Belgian, Dutch, and Irish producers there yesterday as well.
3: Magnificent Organization
The show was very well organized from my point of view. Registration went largely without a hitch, guides were easily available, and there was no shortage of things to taste! It was particularly pleasant from my point of view as the Salon had a special program for about eight of us bloggers that allowed us to see some of the inner workings of the show.
4: Success for the Future Will Blend Old and New
I asked a number of people about the future of the industry, from small affineurs like Grégory Sévie from Le Père Bafien to Eric Lefevbre mof. They expressed a common theme, namely that the industry’s success will come from blending the best aspects of the fabrication of cheese—local natural ingredients, the savoir-faire—and modernizing its execution to appeal to more contemporary tastes and modes of consumption. There is a natural interest springing up that in part is related to perceptions (and reality) of food quality in a globalized world. As one person expressed it, people want to have confidence in the product they are buying, and for many this means having a person they can interact with. This would be good news to new cremier/fromager who are springing up. It seems most likely to me at least that product innovation will be most driven by the small producers.
5: Failure for the Industry Will Come from Two Sources
As a practitioner of the study of consumer behavior, it occurred to me that the industry isn’t doing enough to drive penetration and increase its customer base, particularly among younger demographics. These potential customers are primed to want local wholesome food, but are shopping and learning about products in entirely new ways. It’s hard to see evidence that the industry is dealing with this through proactive marketing.
It also seems to me that the small producers—the “fermier” producers or small affineurs—play an essential role in a competitive supply chain that is increasingly difficult for them to manage. While they certainly could sell direct to customers via the internet, their main hope is through the wholesalers who, in their words, become a bottleneck in the process. They are few in number and yield the ultimate power in terms of market access, and they’re not so interested in small batches.
To my eye, this is an obvious problem of the “public good.” Small farmers and affineurs do three things for the industry and the economy in general. First, they produce excellent product. Second, they contributing jobs to the economy particularly in the rural provinces. Third, they are preserving France’s rich food heritage (its patrimoine) and way of life. Items 1 and 3 are related and form the essential foundation of the “value proposition” of cheese. Put differently, if the small producers were to founder and disappear, one could be virtually assured that the production of this outstanding aliment would become further industrialized and globalized in a way that would detract from its essential quality.