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Before 2020, getting a customer excited about artisan cheese always started the same way – slicing off a piece and letting them taste it. Tasting could go a long way towards showing consumers what makes farmhouse cheese so special. But Covid-19 has done away with sampling and in-person tastings for the time being, leaving cheesemongers to find new ways to bring their cheeses to life for the customer.
For Daniel Williams, project manager at Godfrey C Williams & Son, the forced end to sampling has been one of the hardest parts of the last 12 months. “Our last shop sampling was a cheese and wine pairing on 14th March 2020, which now feels like a lifetime ago. There’s no easy way of getting around this, and I don’t expect that we’ll likely start sampling again until at least June or July,” he says.
Tastings and samples are one of the joys of independent retail. “An integral aspect of being part of the small and independent business industry is creating and maintaining positive and loyal customer relationships. Consequently, sampling the farmhouse cheeses we sell has always been an important experience we were able to offer our customers,” says Rory Mellis, director of I.J. Mellis. But sampling is not only a way to build relationships with customers – it is also a practical tool for a sector where the product isn’t mass-produced.
“We strongly believe in the ethos ‘try before you buy’ as it is common with farmhouse cheese that the flavours produced can vary slightly week on week,” Rory says. I.J. Mellis has been offering samples since the shop first opened in 1993, “so not only has this been an adjustment for our teams at I.J. Mellis but for our customers as well,” he says. “Although it was a little tricky at the start, like most businesses we have learned to adapt throughout the pandemic.”
How does one adapt to losing a key sales tool? There’s more to it than promising customers to take your word for it. Part of the answer is education. Teaching new customers a bit about the farmhouse cheesemaking process will help them understand the price differentials between an artisan shop and the supermarket, while educating shoppers about flavour profiles and pairings will give them everything they need to complete a purchase.
“All our cheesemongers continually taste the batches of cheese as they come in weekly, so now instead of our customers tasting the cheese our cheesemongers describe the flavours and textures that they can expect,” Rory says. “Like in most things, education and language can only be improved by practice. Therefore, tasting as many farmhouse cheeses as you can and being able to express your own opinion is probably the best advice I could give.”
With language having become an important tool for cheesemongers, conversations with customers will naturally lend retailers the opportunity to tell a story about the cheese they’re selling.
For that reason, getting to know your suppliers is critical. “All small-scale cheesemakers have different backgrounds, from ex-bankers to ex-retail assistants,” Rory says. “The life experience and stories of each cheesemaker are diverse and what makes the industry all the more interesting. Sometimes the best way to learn is to pick up the phone and have a chat or next time you are visiting one of our stores, ask our cheesemongers and they’ll happily share a few fun facts.”
Daniel agrees, advising cheesemongers to research the stories behind the cheeses they sell. “Start by studying their website and social media. See what they’re about, find out what makes them tick,” he says. When possible, organise a farm visit or meet your supplier at a cheese show. “If they’re a local cheesemaker, you might even find them at a farmer’s market just down the road.”
Championing local cheesemakers is another surefire way to ignite the imagination of your customers. “I always like to think of Tobler’s First Law of Geography: ‘Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things’. A cheesemaker just down the road from you is more likely to be relatable to your average customer,” Daniel says.
“Their farm is likely to be set in the same or similar landscape, the cows they have the milk from might be in a field that the customer drives past every day to work, the producer might even shop in the same shops as them! When the human element of the farmer’s story can be told in an approachable and relatable way, the link is closer, and therefore easier to make.”
Even going beyond the boundaries of your local region, promoting the best of British can help sales fly, with customers keen to swap their far-flung favourites for local varieties. “For us, recent events like Covid and Brexit have changed both the supply and demand of British cheeses and the way our customers think about where their cheese comes from,” Daniel explains.
“They’re actively searching for great British cheeses, ones that match up to (or exceed) their Continental cousins. By recommending something similar to French, Italian, or Swiss cheese that they’ve tried before, they have something to relate to, which makes your job a lot easier! Swap the Gorgonzola for Beauvale, Camembert for Tunworth, and Roquefort for Mrs. Bell’s Blue,” he recommends.
At I.J. Mellis, the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t stunted customers’ appetites for new and exciting cheeses. In fact, if anything, Rory says Covid has encouraged customers to try new cheeses more regularly.
“With the hospitality sector being closed, a lot of people have turned to dining at home and creating their own personal cheese experiences,” he says. “This has allowed the cheese sector the perfect opportunity to present new and existing customers with a range of cheeses they might not have tried before.
“I think if you provide good service and quality cheese, the experience will be positive regardless of where you choose to eat it.”
Daniel agrees, saying that cheese should, in effect, sell itself. If customers aren’t biting, take a look at your cheese counter during a quiet period in the shop and take an inventory of what could be changed or updated. “Could your counter labels be more descriptive? Has the cheese won any recent awards (within the past three years) that could be noted? Sure, you won’t be able to replicate the full ‘storytelling experience’ on a label, but it goes some way to helping.”
Creating an experience for customers to enjoy at your cheese shop will go a long way towards driving loyalty and repeat visits. “I believe that Covid has brought the cheese community closer together as we continue to support and buy from as many local and small producers as possible,” Rory says. And there is no reason not to extend that community to your customers, too, by bringing them into the cheese story.