There’s nothing cheesy about fromage.
Cheese is one of the most ancient man-made food products, dating back thousands of years. Today, it’s among the most popular ingredients in cuisine, with hundreds of varieties from dozens of countries around the world.
“When you talk about a food category, probably the most innovative one now is cheese,” says Richard Keys, a chef and cofounder of Food and Drink Resources, a restaurant consulting company with offices in Denver and Dallas. “There are more flavors, more artisan cheeses, than ever. At the end of the day, cheese has become the ultimate flavoring system—a great way to bring new flavors to a menu in an approachable manner.”
This provides a tremendous opportunity for limited-service restaurants. Not only is cheese an important flavoring agent that operators know how to handle, Keys says, but menu items tend to sell better with cheese.
Many factors go into the flavors and textures of different cheese types. The diet of the animal that produced the milk used for the cheese, including the grass it consumes, has a great deal to do with the final product. Adding acids or enzymes to the milk creates curds that are pressed into cheese. The processing methods and the time the cheese is aged also influence the final product, as does flavoring from spices, herbs, or smoke.
In the European Union, many native cheese varieties—Asiago, Feta, Gorgonzola, and others—are among foods that must meet certain geographic and production requirements to carry those names legally. The designations don’t carry weight in the U.S., so many domestic manufacturers make cheese in the style of these traditional European varieties.
The most mentioned cheese on American restaurant menus is Cheddar, followed by Parmesan, according to Food Genius Inc., a Chicago research and consulting company.
Cheddar, of British origin, appears on 63 percent of all restaurant menus, while Italian Parmesan is on 57 percent. Among quick-service and fast-casual spots, Cheddar clocks in on 56 percent of menus, while Parmesan is on 40 percent.
“It seems Cheddar is the real American cheese,” says Benjamin Stanley, cofounder and vice president of product development for Food Genius. The segment keeps growing, and “we’re starting to show many types of Cheddar separately in our database.”
That’s because Cheddar “goes with everything—with wine, with beer, with proteins, with vegetables,” Keys says. “It’s comforting. Yellow processed cheeses may be many Americans’ first experience with cheese, but Cheddar is the ultimate American cheese.”
Parmesan also has a sharp flavor. Two milder Italian varieties with sweet and sour notes, Mozzarella and Provolone, are the third and fifth most popular.
Swiss is on the menu at one-third of restaurants, making it the fourth most popular among fast feeders and seventh among all restaurants. The origin of the mild, sweet cheese is Switzerland’s Emmental region. Blue, Feta, American, and cream cheese are also in the top 10. Two related Southwest-style cheeses are in the final spot: Monterey Jack among all eateries and spicy Pepper Jack in limited service.
In recent years, quick-service restaurants have experimented with many cheese varieties, says Larry Lamb, national sales manager for national accounts and processors at Lactalis Culinary, part of French-based cheese-making giant Lactalis Group.
“As American consumers’ palates become more educated, they have been seeking more flavors,” he says. “Years ago, you would see something like Asiago only at white tablecloth restaurants. Now you find it at Wendy’s.”
Asiago is an ingredient in several Wendy’s items, including the Asiago Ranch Flatbread sandwich launched this year. The cheese “has a bite but is not overwhelming,” says Lori Estrada, senior vice president of research and development at Wendy’s.
Meanwhile, Burger King included Gouda in a breakfast sandwich. “Cheese adds value to the sandwich, both in quality and the price,” Lamb says. “It delivers more flavor than most other ingredients for a small actual cost.”
Asiago offers the flavors of Italy, Gouda brings a taste of The Netherlands, and Brie offers a bit of France, he says.
Although cheese is popular on pizza, salads, and in some soups, sandwiches account for a huge segment of cheese used in the limited-service universe. After all, the bread-and-cheese pairing has been around for thousands of years, well before the word sandwich was first used in the 18th century. Sandwiches with cheese have a long history at traditional delicatessens, and that continues at modern versions, such as at Ridgeland, Mississippi–based McAlister’s Deli. The 315-unit chain features five main cheese varieties: Cheddar, Swiss, Pepper Jack, Parmesan, and a Cheddar-Jack mix. Brie and Gorgonzola are on a few items.
“Cheese is an ingredient that makes anything a little more special,” says executive chef David Groll. “It helps us create great regular sandwiches and special items.”
Cheese has different qualities, in terms of flavor and texture, depending on temperature. With cooler menu items, the cheese helps balance other ingredients, like beef with Cheddar. In hot sandwiches, some flavors are amplified, and melting properties come into play. Most of McAlister’s sandwiches ($6.29–$8.99) feature at least one basic cheese variety, but the Four Cheese Griller has Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and a Brie spread. “It’s a fun flavor,” Groll says. “You’re creating an experience for $6.99.”
Gorgonzola, an Italian blue cheese, is on the Cobb sandwich with smoked turkey, smoked bacon, avocado, and other ingredients.
Cheddar and Swiss are important ingredients in the pantry at Arby’s, one of the nation’s first quick-service sandwich chains. Cheddar sauce has been on the menu for decades, and aged, natural Cheddar is used with some other sandwiches. Two types of Swiss are also employed. “We have a big Swiss with our French Dip [sandwich] and another Swiss with our Market Fresh Roast Turkey and Swiss,” says Len Van Popering, senior vice president of product development.
Limited-time sandwiches have featured varieties like Asiago and Pepper Jack, which “reflect the changing of American tastes,” he says. “We absolutely would not have done them five, 10 years ago.”
The company is looking for other potential flavors, and improvements in processed cheese have opened the potential for additional options, Van Popering says. “The technology, the artistry has advanced pretty dramatically. That certainly helps foodservice providers access a wider variety of cheese where natural or aged had previously been the only options.”
Arby’s goes through a rigorous research and development regimen when considering new ingredients, says Neville Craw, the brand’s corporate executive chef and director of product development and innovation. That may involve multiple vendors. “Each vendor’s cheese is different in style and slicing,” he says.
No menu items rely more on cheese than grilled-cheese sandwiches, which are at the heart of several limited-service restaurants.
Diners at Boston-based Cheeseboy, an eight-unit chain in five Northeast states, can select one of 10 signature grilled-cheese sandwiches or create their own by choosing among four breads, four meats, seven vegetables, and six types of cheese, starting at $3.49.
“We look for ingredients that complement each other and mix well,” says Michael Inwald, founder and president of the four-year-old company.
Each cheese has properties that work on grilled-cheese sandwiches. American cheese is salty and stands up to strong meat flavors, while Provolone and Swiss are milder. Cheddar has plenty of flavor and melts without the stringiness others have.
One uncommon cheese used at the chain is Muenster, which “goes well with anything,” Inwald says. “It is easily paired, having a creamy, buttery flavor that is also more savory than a number of other mild ones.”
At the other end of the country, The Melt is making grilled-cheese sandwiches at more than a dozen locations in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. “The Melt is simply grilled-cheese happiness. That is our mission,” says Paul Coletta, chief marketing officer for the chain, which expects to grow in part through the addition of dozens of food trucks.
Only natural cheese from hormone-free milk earns a spot on The Melt’s menu. That includes Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Swiss, Provolone, and Fontina, which has a fairly intense flavor, “melts perfectly in terms of texture, and is very creamy,” Coletta says.
Some more exotic cheese varieties, such as goat cheese and Brie, have made it onto The Melt menu as part of limited-time offers. Melted cheese sandwiches are $4.75, and meat or vegetables—braised short ribs, for instance—adds another $2 or $3.
Cheese is also at the heart of macaroni and cheese. Most quick serves and fast casuals use a mixture of several cheese varieties, notably Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and processed American, in their mac and cheese, although a few add in other varieties.
MacDaddy’s, a mac-and-cheese eatery with two Connecticut locations, has more than two dozen offerings, featuring not only the usual suspects, but also Ricotta, smoked Gouda, Asiago, goat cheese, Gruyere, and Fontina in natural, aged, or processed form.
“We offer a lot of different cheese, a lot of blended cheese,” says Joseph Voll, chief executive at MacDaddy’s. “There’s no cheese that doesn’t work. It’s a question of using the right amount of each cheese, depending on what else is in the dish.”
Still, the most popular item is old-fashioned mac and cheese featuring Cheddar and topped with breadcrumbs.
Another American favorite is the cheeseburger, and the 37-unit The Counter features burgers topped with Tillamook-brand Cheddar, American, Brie, Danish Blue, Feta, Gruyere, Horseradish Cheddar, Jalapeño Jack, Provolone, or Swiss cheese. Most of these are also available at the Culver City, California–based company’s fast casual, Built Custom Burgers.
Cheddar is the most popular choice because it works well with beef, turkey, and veggie burgers, as well as chicken breast, says Andrew Evans, director of culinary operations.
“We use Tillamook Cheddar because of the flavor profile and creaminess on the melt,” he says. It is aged less than 60 days, so it slices better and doesn’t crumble. “And the cheese is mild enough not to offend, but has enough flavor to meet the profile we seek.”
At Built Custom Burgers, which opened its first restaurant in Los Angeles this spring, the kitchen manager chooses one special cheese monthly. A recent selection was Halloumi, a slightly salty choice from Cyprus with a high melting point. Another cheese was Manchego, made with sheep’s milk from Spain’s La Mancha region. “The buttery flavor complements beef, chicken, and turkey,” Evans says.
These and other cheese varieties are fair game for limited-service restaurants because “Americans aren’t afraid of trying them,” says Shane Schaibly, corporate chef of Front Burner Brands, parent of fast casual Burger 21 and the casual Melting Pot chain.
Nonetheless, American cheese remains very popular at Burger 21. “It’s not the most amazing cheese, but if you didn’t have it, guests would be puzzled,” Schaibly says.
The burger brand has other familiar cheese choices—Swiss, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Provolone—as well as Fontina, Feta and blue cheese spreads, and blue cheese crumbles.
Gouda is featured on the Tex-Mex Haystack with guacamole, bacon, onion strings, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle-jalapeño sauce. And one limited-time offer, the Alpine Spring Burger, includes Gruyere, “which has a nutty, earthy flavor,” Schaibly says.
“People are more adventurous, so they’ll try things like Gruyere or Fontina on a burger.”