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Independent retailers have played a huge part in helping cheesemakers keep their heads above water during this very difficult time. They all had to respond in their own way, which has also been very challenging, and cheese shops and speciality food retailers should be in no doubt that they were absolutely on the front line.
It may sound strange to be using wartime terminology, but that’s precisely how it looked and felt. In the early days, we were faced with two very frantic forces: the public who were uncertain whether contact should be had at all, and cheesemakers who were desperately trying to save their businesses at the same time as having to adapt to an entirely new way of operating.
Neal’s Yard Dairy works very closely with a lot of mission-based businesses, and so the decision to do what we all could to support the struggling industry was made very quickly.
We know a lot of the individuals, the families, the characters and the stories behind the cheeses that we sell, and these relationships galvanised us and the wider industry to do what needed to be done. The industry as a whole took on a mission: to look out for the preservation of cheesemakers.
Proximity to the source played a big part in this, and the cheese industry is relatively unique in that farmers are so closely connected to cheesemakers, and cheesemakers to retailers. It thrives on personalities and relationships, and retailers were powered by an understanding of exactly what cheesemakers needed from them in order to survive.
A lot of cheese businesses and retailers started to think differently about how they could reach their customers, and during that process and with the mood of support and urgency that was around, a completely new demographic of consumers was reached. The response to the quality of the cheeses that we were supporting was universally appreciated, and that made me realise that there was a vast, previously unknown, array of people that would support what we did – and all we needed to do was put the cheeses in front of them.
A lot of these people would usually purchase their cheese from a supermarket, but independent retailers found that by being smarter about how they sold and marketed their cheese, by evolving the language they used around the cheeses they sold to make it more approachable and less exclusive, they could expand their engagement and customer base by a huge margin.
We were seeing bigger numbers than I had given the market credit for, and the only reason that this hitherto unknown customer base wasn’t buying from us was because they didn’t know about us. I now have confidence that there is a strong market out there of people in the UK who really love good cheese, but just don’t know it yet.
This new audience has refreshed the way we run our business for the better. I now think differently about how we engage with our audience in terms of approach, presentation, language and price point, and I believe other retailers feel the same.
Thanks to the efforts of independent retailers across the UK, pretty much all of the cheesemakers that we work with are still here today. This has been the most difficult trading period since World War II, and thanks to retailers and in no small part thanks to the public, the Covid crisis has left the industry in a surprisingly strong position and with great swathes of new ground to cover.
Without cheesemakers, businesses like Neal’s Yard Dairy – and indeed a lot of independent retailers – would be no more. One doesn’t exist without the other, and it’s this interdependence which has allowed the cheese industry to pull rank, to support each other, and to survive this hugely challenging period.
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