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While cheese may not always be the most top-of-mind ingredient when consumers look for burgers, sandwiches, salads, pizza, or other menu items at restaurants, it’s certainly a key component in giving food the flavor people love.
Some 90 percent of limited-service restaurants mention cheese on their menus, according to market research firm Datassential. And it’s not just familiar varieties like Cheddar, Mozzarella, Parmesan, and American making an appearance, either. There’s Feta that provides a Mediterranean twist, Cotija to give a Mexican flourish, and Asiago for a robust flavor in melting or grating.
More restaurants are specifying the type of fromage being used in their menu items. Rather than labeling something as simply Cheddar, operators are qualifying with words like sharp, jack, or white. Instead of blue cheese, menus mention Gorgonzola or Maytag. Even the cheesemaker may be mentioned.
“Restaurants are trying to make more clear what the cheese is that they’re using and where it’s made,” says Claire Conaghan, senior account manager at Datassential. “The descriptors for cheese have become important.”
Most operators choose varieties that have a flavor they’re seeking at a price they can accept. But it’s also about setting themselves apart from the competition, Conaghan says, with not only specific cheese varieties, but also sources, such as those that are local, organic, or artisan.
Salads, which are often trend-forward items, have long featured various types of cheese. And the rise of better-burger eateries has led to a wave of various cheeses—Feta, blue, Brie, and more—in the limited-service space.
“Cheese is not only the American standard for burgers, [but] it’s also a way to elevate burgers and make them stand out,” says Steven Banbury, a general manager for Austin, Texas–based Hopdoddy Burger Bar.
More recently, the explosion of fast-casual pizza has led to more chains adding cheeses beyond Mozzarella and Parmesan, including Gorgonzola, Fontina, and goat cheese.
One reason operators are expanding their cheese repertoire is that more cheeses are increasingly available. Additionally, “there are more varieties of meat, and certain cheeses work well with specific proteins,” says Nora Weiser, executive director of the American Cheese Society. “If you’re using lamb, for instance, Feta is perfect, while Cheddar is better for a stronger meat, like beef. A milder cheese may be best for chicken or turkey.”
The society represents a number of artisan and specialty cheesemakers whose products are sought by restaurants as “something consumers really want. People are more adventurous than they were even five years ago,” Weiser says. Restaurants seeking to project a local flavor may choose nearby cheeses and point that out on their menus, she adds.
American cheesemakers are continually coming up with new takes on traditional fromage and increasingly infusing existing varieties with vegetables, herbs, alcohol, and other ingredients. For example, a popular derivative of Monterey Jack is Pepper Jack, made with spicy chilies and herbs.
When it comes to burgers, as with sandwiches, American cheese is still a popular choice. The processed product, made with at least two types of cheese, has long been a staple thanks to its familiar flavor and good meltability.
“There are some misconceptions about American cheese,” says Quinn Adkins, director of menu development for Culver’s, the 560-unit restaurant company based in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. Unlike wrapped single slices that aren’t really cheese, blue-chip American is made with Cheddar sliced from a large block.
Culver’s uses “the highest-quality” American cheese on several burgers, including its top-selling offerings, Adkins says. “It’s not as sharp as Cheddar, and it’s definitely sweeter and softer on the palate,” he says.
The restaurant company also features Cheddar and Swiss cheese on other burgers and sandwiches, with Monterey Jack, Colby Jack, and Pepper Jack as limited-time offers. All the cheese, no matter the restaurant location, comes from Wisconsin. “That’s our heritage,” Adkins says.
Burger places keep expanding their cheese choices. Datassential reports that the biggest cheese penetration growth in the burger category over the past four years has been Parmesan (up 180 percent), Gorgonzola (110 percent), and Pepper Jack (89 percent).
Burger giant Wendy’s, for instance, has featured burger and chicken sandwiches with blue cheese, Mozzarella, and Gouda—varieties more typical in fast casual. Customers will find Gruyere, Pepper Jack, and blue cheese on the patties at Shula Burger, while Smashburger features aged Swiss, blue cheese, goat cheese, Pepper Jack, and sharp Cheddar.
Hopdoddy has five signature burgers using Cheddar or Pepper Jack from Oregon’s Tillamook County co-op, and mentions that on the menu. “The flavor profile of this cheese is outstanding and matches our burgers very well,” Banbury says. The saltiness and level of sharpness “adds another level of seasoning, plus it melts really nicely.” In addition, Tillamook lines up with Hopdoddy’s core values by making cheese from sustainable, hormone-free milk, he says.
Hopdoddy also has Texas goat cheese on several burgers and Blue Jack and Provolone on others. Brie is part of the Primetime Burger highlighted by Texas Akaushi beef. “The Brie brings an earthiness,” Banbury says. “It’s not a beginner’s cheese.”
Tillamook Cheddar is on several burgers at Blazing Onion Burger Co., a seven-unit Seattle-area chain that features natural and sustainable ingredients.
“People in Seattle are really familiar with Tillamook,” says Lorri Jones, Blazing Onion’s co-owner. “It’s just a richer flavor. It’s a more natural product, too.”
The chain’s menu also has Swiss, Gorgonzola, Mozzarella, Pepper Jack, Provolone, and Feta—many from regional providers—on turkey, wild game, and non-meat burgers and chicken sandwiches.
Burgers have been on the menu at Wing Zone for years, but when the company created a better-burger lineup, cheese played a big role, as did Angus beef and applewood-smoked bacon, says Dan Corrigan, director of marketing.
“We think cheese really helps make these burgers special,” he says.
Three new burgers all use existing ingredients or appetizers. The Mac ’N Cheese employs the chain’s fried mac and cheese wedge appetizer, while the Big Southern has the Smokin’ Q sauce and fried pickle appetizer with either Pepper Jack or Cheddar and the Black n Bleu uses blackened voodoo rub and blue cheese crumbles. Guests can customize their own burgers, using any of the sauces and cheeses they want.
Cheeses at Hopdoddy and Blazing Onion are also in their salads. For St. Louis–based Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop, an organic salad and pizza concept, “cheese is a necessary component of what we do,” says chief executive Chris LaRocca.
The concept’s crafted and build-your-own salads feature six types of cheese: Gorgonzola, Cheddar, Feta, goat, Parmesan, and Pepper Jack. Some are from nearby producers.
For the Wild Spring Salmon salad, goat cheese was chosen because it fits best with the chilled wild-caught salmon, oranges, cucumber, red onion, toasted almonds, spinach, romaine, and sesame ginger dressing.
“The star of the show is salmon,” LaRocca says, “so we need ingredients that complement salmon, not overpower it. Goat cheese is creamy with a great mouthfeel.”
The cheese for Crushed Red’s pizzas is a proprietary blend of six varieties, including Mozzarella. “We were looking for a little bit of saltiness, a little bit of creaminess, a little bit of nuttiness,” he says. “What we have is really a superior product.”
The Mozzarella at Seattle-based MOD Pizza, which has about 130 units in some 15 states, is sourced from Cedar Valley Cheese in Wisconsin.
“When we started the concept eight years ago, we did a number of blends with red sauce and dough, and the milkiness of this Mozzarella really comes through,” says Chris Schultz, vice president of operations. “Eight years later, we still think it’s the best.”
The cheese provides a balance of saltiness, the right creaminess, the desired stretch and color when baked, and is priced fairly, company officials say.
MOD is one of numerous wholesale customer accounts for Cedar Valley Cheese, which makes Mozzarella and Provolone largely to clients’ specifications, says Jeff Hiller, president and third-generation owner of Cedar Valley.
Mozzarella is a commodity and the most consumed cheese in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “But we are more in the specialty Mozzarella area, because we make it so many different ways,” Hiller says. He adds that specific cheeses have different fat content, acidity, salt, aging, and other qualities.
In addition to Mozzarella, MOD Pizza employs Asiago, Feta, Gorgonzola, and Parmesan, Schultz says. On a pizza like the Tristan, Asiago “brings a nice level of salt and intensity” to the pizza, which has roasted red peppers, mushrooms, and pesto. Gorgonzola adds a cooling bite to the Calexico, which has chicken, hot sauce, and jalapeños.
Some pizza parlors, like Aliño Pizzeria in Mooresville, North Carolina, feature imported, pricey Buffalo Mozzarella, due to its flavor. Others, including Vapiano’s U.S. units, stopped using that cheese because the shops didn’t get much credit for offering it.
Gatti’s Pizza, based in Fort Worth, Texas, went another way. It has used Provolone since the company began more than 40 years ago.
“There weren’t the big mainline suppliers we have now,” says Charlie Kaminsky, vice president of product quality and development, of when the brand started. “At the time, Provolone had more consistency.” The smoky, salty flavor of the Provolone was also preferred, he says.
Gatti’s, which has about 140 locations, also uses a Parmesan-Romano grated cheese mix that goes on pizzas before they’re baked, Kaminsky says. Regular and white Cheddar are used as toppings on certain pizzas.
“We use white Cheddar on our BBQ Chicken pizza because it’s a little milder, so as not to overpower the chicken,” he says.
Newk’s Eatery features 12 varieties of domestic and imported cheese in all kinds of menu items, including sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, in addition to its cheese-forward Mac and Cheese options and its Pimento Cheese Sandwich.
“We are looking for the best taste profile and texture,” says Angel McGowan, director of purchasing. “We are not afraid to spend money for taste.”
A number of its sandwiches, including the popular Newk’s Q with white barbecue sauce, features Ammerlander Swiss cheese from Germany. “We looked at several types of Swiss and we found this one did everything we wanted from a flavor profile,” McGowan says.
Belgium-made Maasdam Gouda is part of the Farmer’s Market Grilled Vegetable Sandwich. “The cheese melds extremely well with the grilled zucchini and yellow squash,” she says.
Greek Feta, made with sheep and goat milk, provides the slight saltiness and color that works well with watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries in Newk’s Red, White, and Blue salad. And whipped Ricotta is used as a sauce in a new pizza featuring Prosciutto di Parma.
Monterey Jack and other Jack varieties, usually from American cheesemakers, are common at Mexican-style restaurants. Costa Vida Fresh Mexican Grill, based in Lehi, Utah, uses a mix of Jack and Cheddar from Wisconsin’s Great Lakes Cheese.
“It lends us a touch of sharpness,” says Geoff Alter, executive chef for the 75-unit chain. “We use a really nice, almost angel hair shred, and so it melts really, really well.”
Costa Vida features coastal, Baja cuisine that includes many Mexican ingredients, including Cotija, which is known as Mexican Parmesan. It is sprinkled on dishes like the Chile Verde Plate that has pork and tomatillo sauce.