Kennedy churns cheese into success


Garrick Dixon

Jimmy Kennedy has grown fondly accustomed to the atypical questions asked by his peers at the Bass Pro Shops Bassmaster Opens.

“I get asked more about recipes and cooking than I do about what baits I’m using to catch my fish,” mused the Vermont pro.

Kennedy is happy to oblige with the answers and that pleases his employer. Kennedy is executive chef and spokesperson for Cabot Creamery, a 1,200-farm family dairy cooperative with members spread across New England and New York. Premium butter, cottage cheese, Greek-style Yogurt and sour cream are among the Cabot products. So are the brand’s well-known cheeses, bearing names like Seriously Sharp Cheddar Cheese.

What does cheese, cooking and bass fishing have in common?

The answers are how Kennedy found ways combine all three into a tournament sponsorship. That in turn led to his full-time job.

Kennedy was raised in Mississippi, where as a teenager he joined a club affiliated with the B.A.S.S. Nation while attending the University of Mississippi. Kennedy eventually settled in Vermont, where he opened the River Run restaurant in the village of Plainfield. The town’s original post office made the perfect setting for a quaint eatery with mismatched tables, chairs and chalkboard menu. He introduced southern comfort food to New England, long before it became chic mainstream elsewhere.

River Run earned high acclaim among restaurant critics from Boston to New York. A national best-selling cookbook, distinguished culinary awards, appearances on Food Network and other career successes never distracted Kennedy from his affinity for competitive bass fishing.

Eventually, the restaurant and bass fishing became engaged in a career tug of war. After 19 years Kennedy sold the restaurant and then came the next turn in this not so cheesy story.

Kennedy pitched a tournament sponsorship to Cabot. It was a tough sell for a Vermont-based food brand with a strong female demographic. Kennedy would be pitchman for an obscure customer distant far outside the brand’s identity and marketing comfort zone.

“I sold them on the idea of broadening their marketing presence in the outdoors, with me as the guy who could make cooking fun, more like a family outdoor activity.”

Cabot approved the sponsorship based on his reputation as successful restaurateur and talented chef. Kennedy’s culinary credentials landed him the deal. Now it was time to deliver on the outdoor end of the deal.

“They recognized the niche opportunity to market the brand and products to an untapped market,” he explained. “It was a risk but fundamentally the outdoors and cooking always have gone together.”

Wrapping his Skeeter Boat and Toyota Tundra were part of the package. So were cooking demos at supermarkets, festivals and VIP events near tournaments. Kennedy shared samples of cheese among peers. He was encouraged to be creative with his recipes.

Meat. Barbecue grill. Charcoal. How does cheese fit into this male trifecta of cooking?

“I got creative and thought like a man who likes to cook, since after all, that was our target market,” explained Kennedy. “I thought out of the box and came up with easy, unique recipes.”

Cabot Cheddar S’mores is an example of those recipes. Hundreds of thousands of the campfire treats have been served at outdoor festivals and elsewhere. Originating from the Cabot test kitchen are many other outdoor-inspired recipes. All have the same goal in mind. That is pinning the Cabot brand name on men that like to cook.

Kennedy eventually delivered on his pitch. Cabot also recognized his engaging TV personality, stage presence and recipe creativity. He was offered the full-time job as a result.

Kennedy’s role with Cabot continues to expand. Appearances on behalf of the brand happen in unlikely places. Recently he cooked at the World Trade Center for an event hosted by Bon Appetite magazine. Prior to the Eastern Open he served Cabot inspired dishes at a corporate VIP party hosted by Publix, the supermarket chain headquartered in Lakeland, Fla.

Coincidentally, nearby is the Kissimmee Chain where Kennedy is competing in the Open. Cooking demos or promotional appearances in other Eastern Opens markets are proposed. That is all part of the overall plan to continue building the marketing momentum.

Much of gauging marketing success comes from two channels. Those are financial success and intangible consumer brand awareness. Kennedy sees the latter at every tournament among his peers. Likewise, Cabot sees the value in a previously untapped market where cheese, bass fishing and outdoor cooking all go together.