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Cheese from California? Sacre bleu!

Oregon businesses launch counteroffensive to out-of-state ad blitz

Sean Blixseth, marketing director for Burgerville USA, couldn't believe what he was hearing: an ad on a Portland radio station touting cheese made in (gasp!) California.

Blixseth, whose popular Pacific Northwest-based fast-food chain makes a point of using regional products such as Walla Walla onions and fresh fruits and berries in its menu items, heard the spots often, sometimes up to a half-dozen times a day.

He learned that the radio ads were part of an extensive, statewide $1.8 million marketing campaign by the California Milk Advisory Board to turn Oregonians into California cheese eaters.

The amount is more than double the $750,000 spent each year by the Oregon Dairy Farmers trade group to promote all of the state's dairy products, not just cheese.

Blixseth was offended. California cheese in the land of Tillamook?

'With all the great cheese here, I was stunned they would run that (campaign) in this market,' he says.

Blixseth and Tom Mears, president of Vancouver, Wash.-based Burgerville, struck back with a campaign that defends Oregon cheese while simultaneously promoting Burgerville, which has 25 restaurants in Oregon and 14 in Washington.

Their weapon of choice was a new Burgerville offering: a blue cheese and bacon burger made with the famed Oregon Blue Vein cheese from the Rogue Creamery (formerly the Rogue River Valley Creamery) in Central Point.

The burger is being promoted on billboards around Portland with the message: 'California cheese? Surely you jest.'

Blixseth cheerfully notes that one billboard Ñ at the intersection of East Burnside Street, Northeast Sandy Boulevard and Northeast 12th Avenue Ñ replaced one that previously had promoted California cheese.

Besides radio ads, the California Milk Advisory Board's campaign Ñ featuring happy California cows producing rich California milk made into tasty California cheeses Ñ included grazing-cow billboards around Portland during March and April.

The campaign will continue through the rest of the year, bombarding Oregonians with TV ads, more radio spots and promotions in stores and restaurants.

Despite spending nearly $2 million, California cheese makers aren't trying to compete with Tillamook, the Rogue Creamery or any other Oregon cheese producer, insists Nancy Fletcher, the advisory board's vice president of marketing.

'One reason for going into the Pacific Northwest is that (Oregon cheese) production is only about half of what Oregonians consume,' she says.

According to her group's numbers, Oregon annually produces around 71 million pounds of cheese each year, not nearly enough to satiate Oregonians, who eat a total of 162 million pounds of cheese each year.

'Consumers in Oregon are real cheese lovers,' says Fletcher, adding that when it comes to cheese, 'Oregon is a sophisticated market.'

Fletcher says the California Milk Advisory Board has conducted similar marketing campaigns in other Western states, including Utah and Colorado, and has plans for one in Washington.

'What we've seen, in every state we've gone to, is that total cheese sales increase,' she says.

And that provides a modicum of comfort for Peggy Kern, marketing director for the Oregon Dairy Farmers, who oversees the group's pitiable-by-comparison $750,000 communications and marketing budget.

When the California board 'does cheese advertising, they raise the bar about everyone's awareness of cheese,' she concedes.

Besides, Oregon cheese producers have nonmonetary advantages that counter the California group's big-budget campaign.

For one thing, thanks to Tillamook, Rogue River and other small producers, Oregonians prefer fine, high-quality cheeses, Kern says.

Also, 'Oregonians are chauvinistic about their own cheese. We just have to encourage them to eat Oregon cheese.'

Rich Meyer, chef de cuisine at the upscale Higgins restaurant in downtown Portland, disagrees with Burgerville's view that the California campaign is an intrusion.

Meyer participated in a weeklong promotion of California cheese earlier this year, featuring three different varieties on the Higgins menu.

Higgins routinely uses both Oregon and California cheeses, Meyer says.

'We use Rogue River blue cheese here daily; it's the one we use on salads. We have cheese from Juniper Grove (Farm in Redmond) here throughout the year.

'I somewhat think of California as local in the cheese industry, instead of using cheese from France, Italy or Spain,' he says.

The California cheese campaign continues through the year. Next month, the Oregon Dairy Farmers will kick off a cheese-promotion campaign, which was planned long before California's began and will use TriMet bus ads in Portland and radio spots and billboards statewide.