Super string theory

 

FOOD BUSINESS:The Cheestring is one of the Irish food industry’s greatest success stories, with worldwide sales of ¤80 million a year keeping a factory in Co Cork running 24-hours a day, five days a week. CATHERINE CLEARYgoes behind the scenes to try and discover its secret recipe for success

THIN WALL OF stainless-steel screens is all that separates me from one of the biggest industrial secrets in the Irish food business. The air smells of baked milk. I’m wearing a hairnet, a bright orange jacket, and disinfected white shoes.

If I dived to the floor I could peer underneath. Roald Dahl would have a thousand squirrels behind here playing cats’ cradle with lengths of molten cheese. But only people who have signed a confidentiality agreement are allowed to see what really happens.

Welcome to the home of the Cheestring, an €80 million a year success story and one of Ireland’s most successful food exports. It’s located in a windowless building in the middle of the Kerry Foods complex in Charleville, Co Cork. At one end of the production line, sofa cushion-sized blocks of cheddar curd are being warmed into a molten, rubbery mass that falls steadily from a large funnel into a stainless steel vat.

Then comes the secret part, in an area roughly the size of a tennis court. Here the warm bubble-gummy cheese is somehow being turned into sticks of cheese that will peel into strings when cold. This is where the straw that is raw curd is spun into gold.

In the final section a machine is spitting Cheestrings into a brine river where they float around stainless-steel bends to cool before they’re packed and shipped. Within days they will be in millions of lunchboxes in Ireland and Britain, and fridge doors of families in Holland and France. In this small factory roughly a million Cheestrings are made and packaged on a relentless 24-hour production line, day and night, stick of cheese after stick of cheese.

Cheestrings are like playgrounds or headlice. You are unlikely to experience them if you don’t have a primary school-age child in your life. They are a brand marketed at children with a nod to their time-pressed carers.

Cheestrings are a fascinating story of adding value to milk, Ireland’s primary agricultural product. They are adored by children and vaguely distrusted by adults. In their 14 years of existence they have changed their message and their ingredients to chime with the zeitgeist and grow the brand. And they are marching ever forward.

The key man behind the phenomenon is the affable Kerry Foods cheese marketing director Denis O’Riordain. He sat in an office in Canada 16 years ago and heard about a string cheese product. He was an executive with Golden Vale (since swallowed by Kerry Foods) searching for a brand that they could use as a battering ram into the lucrative world of the British lunchbox.

Ault Foods in Canada (since swallowed by Parmalat) had an innovative chief executive and two new ideas, a filtered milk and the Cheestring. O’Riordain and his board went for the cheese. The manufacturing process was tricky enough to prevent copies hitting supermarket shelves for at least six months. They invested €2 million in the plant and the same again in marketing before a single Cheestring was sold.

O’Riordain was wondering if he had just gambled €4 million when he heard the magic words in a supermarket in Glasgow. Small twin girls being wheeled in a trolley down the cheese aisle. “Mum. Mum. There are the Cheestrings,” they said. And he knew it was going to work. Cheestrings launched in Britain in 1996 with a TV ad showing a dancing child playing with the product and the tagline Real A-peelable Cheese. And Cheestrings went viral with sales of €16 million in the first year. The Golden Vale team soon learned to ask supermarkets to reposition them from the coveted top left hand corner of the aisle to the child-reach position of the middle shelf. “The basic concept got traction from day one,” O’Riordain explains.

“Everybody tries to get your lunchbox. You’ve got a basic sandwich, a bit of fruit and you want something else. Kids want the treat item to be fun,” he says. Parents want to try and give their children healthy food. The Cheestring tries to be both, O’Riordain says.

By 2001 Cheestring sales had reached €25 million in Ireland and Britain but things were leveling off. The marketing team realised the window was too narrow. Children were starting to eat them at the age of four or five and stopping at seven. A new ad ran showing an older child faking a calcium deficiency to hoodwink his gullible adland mother into rushing out to buy Cheestrings. They also discovered through focus groups that kids were playing with the packaging. A numbering system printed on each Cheestring for traceback was being used as a game to compete with each other over who got the highest number in the pack. “The kids had invented a game that we never thought existed,” O’Riordain explains. So they started putting games and trivia on the packaging, “adding another layer of entertainment”.

By 2002 one in every two households with children in Britain was a Cheestring consumer, according to O’Riordain. In 2004 they crossed the English Channel to France. There were some cultural teething problems. “French children were finding it difficult to pronounce. And it was embarrassing because it was reminding them of a word for female underwear,” O’Riordain says. After 18 months Cheestrings were rebranded as Ficello (after ficelle the French for string). The other cultural barrier was the French palate. The red cheddar was “positively disliked” by French children and they wanted a softer string. A Gouda Emmental cheese mix was tested instead and it went down a treat. In Holland, the plain Gouda cheese also went down better than the British and Irish cheddar version.

“In France the lunchbox doesn’t exist,” O’Riordain says. “So the ‘home-from-school-and-starving’ moment was the one which we were playing for.” Today Ficello is in 7.5 per cent of French households, according to Kerry Foods estimates.

Between 2001 and 2005, concerns about fast food began with Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, then came Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Finally in 2005 Jamie Oliver waved a Turkey Twizzler at millions of television viewers during his campaign on school dinners. The snack-food industry was in the spotlight.

“Every snack brand in the world took a hit and everybody responded to it in different ways,” O’Riordain says. So came the McDonald’s salad, and crisps that were baked instead of fried. In 2007 Cheestrings quietly dropped the smokey bacon and pizza flavours. “It was part of a genuine effort to make the brand a cheese only.”

Joan Tobin, the head of technical development at Charleville, has been working on Cheestrings for 10 years and is the expert on the kind of milk needed to produce them, 24 hours a day, five days a week. “They are two-thirds of the fat of normal cheddar,” she says. They contain salt, but that has been reduced by 10 per cent. And she says they will do what they can to reduce it further as food scientists research new production methods. “But then if you don’t have salt you don’t have cheese.”

But are Cheestrings dumbing down a generation’s palate by giving them an anodyne experience of cheese? As a mother of young children, Tobin doesn’t believe that a child who likes Cheestrings will turn up their nose at “proper” cheese later. “My boys will eat both. It’s the saviour in the handbag when you’re going anywhere. It’s a great way to get them used to cheese.”

And so the brand weathered the health concerns about children’s diets. Then, earlier this year, Cheestring Spaghetti in a Chocolate Button-sized bag came out. The new product (shoestring-sized cheese strings that look like cold pasta) and a huge preschool promotion pushed the factory into overdrive in the run up to the back-to-school stage.

But why are they so expensive? Despite being a mass-produced processed food, Cheestrings are equivalent in price to most artisan cheeses produced in Ireland. A Cheestring costs between €18 and almost €30 a kilo, depending on the quantity, the most expensive option being the Minis, which at €1.79 for 60g take it into the gourmet cheese price bracket of €29.80 per kilo.

One of the reasons for the high cost, Tobin says, is the high protein curd needed to make them. Most people don’t think of milk as a seasonal product but in the winter months, when many cows are taken off grass and housed, the protein content of milk falls. The result is a less frothy cappuccino and a less stringy Cheestring.

“We have a bespoke blend made for us and it has to be used in 48 hours. What’s milk on a Monday will be a Cheestring by Thursday,” Tobin says.

The high protein milk curd comes from Welsh, Northern Irish and west Cork cows. So while the product is made in the Republic much of the raw material comes from farms outside the Border.

Cheddar plants close down over the winter months, Tobin says, to deal with the seasonal drop in milk protein. It has been one of the company’s biggest challenges. “Only in the last couple of years have we minimised the effect of seasonality.”

Back on the production line the Cheestrings fresh out of the brine river are even more fibrous than they will be by the time they are on supermarket shelves. The cheese is tearing into hair-sized filaments and tastes salty. They will taste less salty and be less stringy after a few days, Tobin explains. The cheeses are shuttled along a production line, lifted by robotic arms, adapted from a German car manufacturer, and finally packed on to pallets for shipping.

Outside the plant, Charleville is a town built on cheese. The milk plant is its largest employer and supports several other industries, including stainless-steel fabricators. A new sculpture of a cow made from galvanised steel has been put on a patch of grass near the plant with “Charleville Says Cheese “ painted on its ribcage.

By positioning itself as the least of the evils in the array of children’s snacks, the Cheestring has triumphed. Blessed are the cheesemakers, it seems, especially those with clever marketing strategies.