Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
Cheese tastings have been an unfortunate casualty of the Covid-19 pandemic, but savvy cheesemongers can still get their products in front of customers by taking their talks online.
Virtual tastings and events not only offer cheese sellers an excellent opportunity to maintain their hard-earned relationships with customers and the perfect platform to share their expertise, but they can also become a viable income stream for their business.
Hosting a virtual tasting for the first time can be intimidating – after all, new technologies can be tricky to learn – and the logistics involved with sending out dozens of packages of cheese is significant. But for those willing to take the plunge, the payoff can be game changing.
Gemma Williams of The Little Cheesemonger had never held an online event before the pandemic hit, and she admits that if it wasn’t for Covid-19, she never would have ventured into digital tastings. “At first I felt really uncomfortable,” Gemma says, but after holding her first event she was surprised by how simple it was. “I think they’re actually easier to do than a public event.”
Without the chattering and organising of attendees, Gemma found the events ran more smoothly. Svetlana Kukharchuk, who runs The Cheese Lady, agreed that online tastings are generally easier to run. “Everybody is in their home, they feel very relaxed, and they don’t need to drive.”
Plus, in virtual events other experts can join a talk just by dialling in. “For the majority of my events, I like to partner up with another expert in their field,” Svetlana says.
“You could do everything by yourself if you wanted to, but it would get repetitive,” adds Gemma.
As well as keeping tastings interesting and taking some of the presenting pressure off of yourself, teaming up with cheesemakers, vintners or suppliers of cheeseboard pairings such as chutneys and crackers will add more value for your customers. Stephen Fleming of George & Joseph, who has adapted virtual tastings into his business model, says that attendees appreciate hearing from the people behind the cheese, wine and other foods they’re tasting.
“Customers in the call really love hearing from a real live cheesemaker,” he says. “It gives a bit more interest, and makes it less of a lecture and more of an interactive event.”
At a virtual event, conversations don’t flow as naturally as they do at an in-person tasting, so preparation is even more important. “It’s a different delivery mechanism to doing it in person because you haven’t got the interaction of having everyone in the same room and people chatting with each other,” Stephen explains. “I’ve had to do more preparation for online events, because there’s more of me talking than there would be in a room.”
Patricia Michelson, owner of La Fromagerie, agrees. “Don’t go off on a limb. Choose a subject that you know about,” she suggests. “Stopping and starting and umming and ahhing does not go well in tutorials. You’ve got to have that flow going. You’ve got to know your subject and your cheese inside out.”
Patricia recommends running a few practice sessions to feel your way around the new format and writing down notes ahead of the event. “Detailed preparation, good notes, and then you’re off,” she says.
Logistics can also pose a challenge if careful preparation is not undertaken. Svetlana says partnering up with a good courier is invaluable. “Some of them have been a big letdown, and they don’t want to deal with perishables, so you just have to find a courier that is reliable,” she says.
But even with a good courier on board, things may still go wrong. “You just have to be prepared for that,” Svetlana says. “Logistic companies weren’t ready for something like this, quite frankly,” Patricia adds. “I think logistics have to be rethought now.”
In France, she says Chronopost, which is part of delivery giant DPD, offers tailor-made parcel delivery for food products. “All the chilled stuff, like cheese, meat, fish, all of that can then go overnight, and be much safer rather than an overnight courier, which is ambient,” Patricia explains.
“If you had proper logistics in place it would make it much better, and if online is going to be big, we need to address that,” she says.
Although there are still some details to iron out with virtual tastings, they offer a fantastic opportunity for those cheesemongers who are willing to try something new to grow their customer base. “I never used any kind of visual technology until this year, but it’s been great,” Svetlana says. “I feel like now the horizons have expanded for us.”
• Gemma Williams, The Little Cheesemonger: “Don’t be too frightened of it. Technology can be unnerving to people, but it’s actually probably easier than they think it’s going to be.”
• Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy: “Think about how you can streamline. If tastings sell out, I tend to run another one on the same week of exactly the same tasting.”
• Patricia Michelson, La Fromagerie: “When you dial in, introduce yourself and set out a few housekeeping tips, like ‘turn off your microphone when I’m talking’ and ‘when you want to ask a question, either put your hand up or put a message in the comment box’.”