Rory Mellis, IJ Mellis: “Local businesses have a chance to flourish”

12 August 2021, 07:30 am

Rory Mellis of Scottish cheesemonger I.J. Mellis explains how the brand's local, community focus kept business booming through the pandemic

I.J. Mellis Cheesemongers have always had close ties to the community in Scotland. From our first shop on Victoria St. in 1993, to the opening of our cheese lounge in the back of our Morningside shop in 2018, our family has always focused on serving a loyal local customer base. It’s what keeps us thriving.

With most of our shops located in secondary trading areas, away from tourists, we’re able to regularly speak and interact with our neighbours that visit. Building these interpersonal connections has also enabled us to better understand and cater to the needs of the locals that buy from us.

The shift in consumers’ buying habits over the past few years has also helped. Increased popularity of shopping locally and independently has given local, small businesses like ours a chance to not only survive, but flourish. In the last year, independent food businesses have benefited from an increase of new customers, with many of them coming from larger supermarkets. As a result, we’ve been able to play around with our range, adding new products that reflect and cater to local tastes. And in response to shortages in larger retailers, we also adapted our offerings to include staple pantry items we hadn’t previously stocked like pasta and milk – these were two of our most popular products (other than cheese) sold in our shops during the lockdown period.

For the past 28 years we have always tried to support the community where our shops are based. When we opened on Victoria Street in 1993, the demographic was different to what it has become now. Most customers used to be local, but now we’ve seen far more tourists visit the shop. Although we’ve experienced a change in our customer base, we have never changed our ethos or our small-scale farmhouse cheese and local product ranges in the shops. We stock a lot of local produce and cheeses in the Victoria Street branch as it’s a great opportunity to showcase our Scottish heritage and promote Scottish cheesemakers and other small-scale producers.

In our other shops, we rely on our regulars who come in and shop with us 3-4 times per week for the essentials – bread, eggs, cheese, and milk. Not only is it nice to see a familiar face, but it’s part of what makes the atmosphere of our shops so welcoming. And as a result, our staff and regulars get to know one another. This familiarity with our regular customers allows for us to change our cheese and product offerings to keep them interested.

In recent times, the second trading areas have slowly become a destination for many visitors and popular living areas for those from the area. Even in the last year, there has been lots of new local coffee shops, delis and bars open nearby to support the residential communities in Edinburgh and Glasgow specifically. This really gives the area a sense of community as all the businesses work together to help recommend places to eat, drink and shop – it’s a great way of keeping the area thriving.

Over the past 15 months, we have seen a significant change in consumer spending habits. We had a particularly hard first month back in April 2020 with all the hospitality sector closing.

A large part of our business is direct supply to restaurants, bars, and cafes in Scotland and afar. This obviously came to a standstill during the pandemic. This inspired us to launch a free local delivery service using the drivers we employ for our trade sector. The sales increased online and balanced the loss of our trade customers which helped us massively. It allowed us to keep our team employed and supply the IJ Mellis customers who were shielding. Although the past 15 months have been hard, with having to adapt to new guidelines to ensure that customers feel safe shopping with us, we’re so grateful for the continual support we’ve received.

The future for us here at IJ Mellis looks bright, thanks in massive part to our customers – old and new! We recently reopened our Cheese Lounge, and have received fantastic reviews so far, as well as reopened our Victoria Street store just off the Grassmarket.

With so many new customers discovering the world of farmhouse produce over the past year, we can only hope that people will continue to shop small and support their local producers. We have all had more time over the past year to appreciate the skill, time and effort put into the making of farmhouse produce, with many of us opting to shop small in the hope that these businesses didn’t disappear for good throughout the pandemic. We are also more conscious and considerate regarding where our food comes from than ever before. We hope that this current trend in shopping habits and appreciation of small-scale and farmhouse produce continues for years to come.

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