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Diet creates big demand for little cheese company
AP photo - Bob Gilbert, president of Bel Kaukauna Cheese, sits in his office at the company's corporate headquarters Thursday in Little Chute, Wis.

LITTLE CHUTE, Wis. -- Cheese maker Bob Gilbert is struggling with his good fortune and his misfortune.

Thanks to a mention in ''The South Beach Diet" book, demand for his Laughing Cow cheese has soared beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't make enough of the cheese to meet demand.

''If you are an old cheese warrior like me, this breaks your heart," said Gilbert, president of Bel/Kaukauna U.S.A. ''I fought and clawed for every pound I could get in this business and it breaks my heart that we aren't able to ship more."

Sales of the sweet-tasting, individually wrapped, tiny cheese wedges are up 250 percent from a year ago, primarily because the South Beach Diet introduced it to Americans wanting to lose weight, Gilbert said.

''I told my management, 'I would rather be lucky than smart.' The lucky part is we appeared in the diet book. We didn't expect it," said Gilbert, whose company is the American subsidiary of Fromageries Bel, a Paris manufacturer of cheese products.

Bel/Kaukauna, headquartered in this community not far from Green Bay, expects to sell 12 million pounds of Laughing Cow cheese this year, in part by importing more from France and by expanding U.S. production at its Kentucky plant, Gilbert said.

Demand is double that, he said.

Jann Marks, 45, is frustrated the company can't make more. Marks, who has lost 27 pounds on the South Beach Diet, eats only two or three wedges of the snack each week.

''Honestly, I would probably eat it every day if I had enough. But I can't because I can't get it," said Marks, of the Chicago suburb of Darien.

She has taken some extreme measures to get the cheese. She found out when her neighborhood grocer had a shipment arriving and sent her 70-year-old mother to get in line and grab six packages.

The South Beach Diet, a modified-carb plan that shuns mostly sugar and refined flour products, recommends one three-quarter-ounce wedge of Laughing Cow light cheese with a pear as an afternoon snack in a sample meal plan.

Each wedge has 1 gram of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fat and about 35 calories.

Kathryn Severance, 67, of Black River Falls, Wis., has had no problems buying the regular version of Laughing Cow cheese but can't find the lower-fat variety in her town of 5,000 people. Even so, she has lost 15 pounds since she started the diet in April, in part by snacking on Laughing Cow three times a week, she said.

Elisa Zied, a New York dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she isn't surprised the cheese quickly became popular because of the diet.

''People are always looking for the magic food, the miracle food, the quick fix," she said.

The South Beach Diet may be relatively new, but Laughing Cow has been around for a while. The cheese, which Gilbert said tastes like a creamy Swiss, was developed in the early 1900s in France.

The Laughing Cow brand was registered as a trademark in France in 1921, using the symbol that was the insignia of a French Army unit that resupplied soldiers with food during World War I, Gilbert said. The smiling cow was on the side of the military's chow truck.

A package of eight Laughing Cow cheese wedges sells retail from $3.49 to $4.49, meaning the delicacy costs nearly $10 a pound, said Gilbert.

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John Umhoefer, executive director of the trade group Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said the low-carb diet craze also is helping makers of string cheese and natural cheese snacking sticks.

''Members tell me they are expanding production for those cheeses," he said. ''There is no irony here. We knew it was healthy all along."

At the height of the Laughing Cow shortage last spring, one package of the wedges was offered on eBay for more than $20, according to Gilbert.

He expects the high demand won't last forever.

''If other fads are any indication, if other diets are any indication, people will tend to slip away and fall away," he said. ''But hopefully when they do, they are going to remember that Laughing Cow tastes great."

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