Back from the 90s: Just the Cheese lightens up for today’s low-carb consumers

By Kristine Sherred contact

- Last updated on GMT

Owner David Scharfman and his father modeled their dried cheese snack bar after the crunchy cheese that oozes out of a grilled cheese sandwich. Pic: Just the Cheese
Owner David Scharfman and his father modeled their dried cheese snack bar after the crunchy cheese that oozes out of a grilled cheese sandwich. Pic: Just the Cheese

Related tags: Cheese, cheesemakers, Snacks, Innovation, New product launches, Sweets&Snacks Expo, Dairy, Low carb, keto, Atkins

A Wisconsin cheese maker refreshed its 90s-era dried cheese snack by removing extra ingredients and changing the shape. Now it's a top search result for ‘cheese snack’ on Amazon.

“The magic is in the cheesemaking and somewhat in the bake process,”​ David Scharfman, owner and general manager of Just the Cheese, told BakeryandSnacks. “There’s a reason that no one has figured out how to do this without adding stuff.”

The 22g (0.8oz) snack bars (RRP $19.99 for a 12-pack) list only one ingredient: cheese, made in Reeseville, Wisconsin by Specialty Cheese Company, owned and operated by the Scharfman family since 1991. Available in four flavors – Aged Cheddar, Mild Cheddar, Grilled Cheese and Jalapeno – the modern version satisfies both the keto and clean-label trends, according to Scharfman.

Scharfman started selling the bars on Amazon in January 2018, starting with 10 boxes a day. That number quickly jumped to 20, then 40, then 100.

We’re a cheese snack that happens to be healthy. If the keto trend goes away, I don’t have to convince people to try cheese: it’s pretty well established that cheese is delicious for most people. –David Scharfman, owner of Just the Cheese

Realizing he had a worthwhile product on his hands, his wife, Connie, helped position the snack under the ‘keto’ keyword on Amazon: “The headline is that Connie got us into the keto segment before keto was THE thing. Now it’s crazy crowded.”

Today, when searching for ‘cheese snack’ on Amazon, it is the top result and a bestseller in the ‘cheddar cheese’ category. According to Scharfman, the brand outsells competitors like Sonoma Creamery, which makes similar ‘cheese crisps’ both bagged and in bar form; Whisps, a dried cheese disc; and Moon Cheese, a bite-sized cheese snack produced through a proprietary drying technology​ called Radiant Energy Vacuum (REV).

None of these brands carry the site’s bestseller tag, though Moon Cheese has been labelled as ‘Amazon’s Choice,’ which claims to pinpoint preferred products based on a user’s search history. (Amazon has not revealed precisely how its algorithm chooses these products.)

“It’s been this really remarkable, positive progress,” ​said Scharfman. “Keto is a big thing, and that’s a big part of our business, but we don’t really present ourselves as a keto snack. We’re a cheese snack that happens to be healthy. If the keto trend goes away, I don’t have to convince people to try cheese: it’s pretty well established that cheese is delicious for most people.

[It’s] one ingredient. That’s the headline – this is just a really tasty snack.”

Turning cheese into Amazon gold

As a kid, Scharfman would relish the crunchy cheese that oozed out of his grilled cheese sandwiches.

“I asked my dad, as a cheese guy, ‘Why can’t you make cheese like this?’ Just the crunchy part. He – being a smart product guy – thought, that’s not a bad idea.”

The low-carb Atkins diet was in its heyday at the time, and fans flocked to the family’s dried cheese snack in flavors like Ranch, Sour Cream & Onion, and Pizza.

“When the Atkins fad cratered, so did demand,”​ said Scharfman, explaining that Specialty Cheese stopped making that artificially flavored product years ago. Then, in 2017, he noticed Whisps on a grocery store shelf.

Just the Cheese

“We used to do that – or something like it – and I wonder if we could do something like this again, and do it better," ​he told us, in part by removing all of the artificial stuff. "We still have the oven. We still could make cheese for it. This is clearly a thing again." ​Just the Cheese 2.0 is thus made simply from cheese.

Instead of bite-sized pieces or cracker-shaped chips, the company preferred the thickness of a bar format. The R&D team at Specialty Cheese perfected the technique and flavors, and Scharfman used his marketing background to exploit the Amazon system.

“There’s this keto diet thing that’s basically the new low-carb,” ​he said of the brand’s initial sales strategy. “Let’s go target those people in snack boxes. That on its own would have made the product successful.”

They added keywords to also target “yoga moms, guys that work out, runners, people that like beef jerky…a very wide range of people looking for your product – that drives your organic search results,”​ said Scharfman.

The next Rx bar?

Just the Cheese has dominated the ‘cheese snack’ category on Amazon for more than a year, according to Scharfman, and a BakeryandSnacks double-check confirms that it still rings true.

In addition to attending trade shows, Scharfman has been busy this year pushing the brand into brick-and-mortar retailers, using its success on Amazon as fuel. It seems to be working: Wegmans is launching the brand in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; Fresh Thyme will add it in Chicago, Indiana and Michigan; and HEB will introduce it in Texas.

The brand hopes it can find shelf space outside of the snack section. Scharfman sees it as a ‘grab-and-go’ snack that would perform well near the deli and salad bar, as well as in the jerky set.

“I genuinely believe that we could be the next Rx bar, in terms of – [we] came out of nowhere. We’re a family; they were just a couple of guys. It’s a great team effort, and especially for a company that does a lot of private label, it’s great to say, ‘Hey, we make that.’”

Scharfman said Just the Cheese is working on new flavors, such as a Jalapeno White Cheddar, and an organic cheddar. It also recently extended the line with bite-sized rounds served in 14g (0.5oz) single-serve packs (RRP $18.99 for 16 bags). In addition to the popular Grilled Cheese and Jalapeno flavors, the minis include three news flavors: Wisconsin Cheddar, White Cheddar, and Garlic & Chive.

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