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‘Local’ has taken on a new significance since the Covid-19 pandemic hit. With successive lockdowns keeping customers confined to their towns, many have sought to explore the shops that are sitting on their doorstep, opening them up to a range of regional specialities.
Local varieties exist in all foods, but in the world of cheese, regional differences are critical; they are responsible for making the UK’s cheese industry the rich and vibrant tapestry of cheeses that it is today. “We know that they are unique because of the terroir of where they are: the culture, the environment and the tradition,” explains Svetlana Kukharchuk of The Cheese Lady. Each of these factors can influence the flavour and feel of local cheeses, making them ripe for selling opportunities.
In many cases, your customers may already be drawn to your local cheese offering. “The number one question we get asked in all of our shops by any new prospective customer is ‘what’s local?’” says Lisa Goodchild, who runs Cotswold Cheese Co with husband Jon. They stock plenty of cheeses from the local area in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, such as Jonathan Crump’s Double and Single Gloucester, Rollright from King Stone Dairy and goat’s cheese from Windrush Valley Goat Dairy. “It is extremely important to promote locally made cheeses.”
Lisa describes the relationship between cheesemakers and cheesemongers as symbiotic. Shops and producers rely on one another to get the best cheeses possible out to the public – and by shining a light on your local cheeses, you can ensure customers take an interest in local offerings and that regional makers stay in business.
“Customers buying artisan cheese love to experience new cheeses and buy local. We have visited with all of our local cheesemakers and are proud to be supporting them selling their products,” says Lisa. “It is a symbiotic relationship, and we only support cheesemakers that do not sell their products to supermarkets, garden centres or other mass market outlets.”
Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy adds that encouraging shoppers to buy local cheeses helps keep money flowing in local rural economies, as well as giving customers something special to try, like the popular Apatha and Holbrook goat’s cheeses from Holker Estate Farm, which Andy describes as “hard to get a hold of, but worth the effort”.
“I always compare it to going abroad. When you go to the Savoie in France, you want to eat the local cheeses at their best. It is the same when people visit your shop,” Andy adds.
To discover the best way to promote regional varieties, you have to get inside the head of the customer. Take a look at your shop from a customer’s perspective and ensure signage is straightforward around your local specialities. “A simple sign, clear and easy: ‘Local’. That’s all it needs. That catches peoples’ eyes and opens the discussion,” Andy advises. “Under that you can write useful tips with maps – where, who and how far away – but just a simple signpost next to the cheese name, I think, is the best.”
Experiment with situating different products together so customers can easily sample a few local favourites. “We had lots of success grouping products together – ‘Taste of the Yorkshrie Dales’ and ‘Yorkshire Cheese Selection’ – which sell well as a group; the name of the region/locality seems to really help,” Andy adds. Hampers filled with local cheeses and other goods also offer an easy ‘grab and go’ option for customers that’s perfect for gifting.
Tastings can boost the profile of local specialities even further. Virtual or (eventually, post-pandemic) in person, it’s a surefire way to get cheeses flying off the shelves. “It’s amazing how many customers will come in when you put a sign outside: Free cheese tasting today!”
Another key to promoting local cheeses is education, and communication with customers is vital. “You have to remember that many customers may never have heard of a lot of your more uniqure, local cheeses. It is your job to introduce them to these delicacies as a good cheesemonger,” Andy says. “Cutting and wrapping cheese is not the important bit of cheesemongering – interaction with the customer, talking about a cheese, its provenance and what makes it special, is what makes the difference between someone who sells cheese and a true cheesemonger, in my opinion,” he adds. “It all starts with staff training.”
“We make sure when asked by customers ‘what do we recommend?’ we always stick to the local cheeses,” Lisa adds. Covid-19 has made this all the more difficult with limited in-store shopping, but the growth of online cheese sales offers another opportunity to introduce customers to local cheeses. Lisa explains: “Online, we promote local cheese by making sure they are at the top of each of our online categories and also prominent on our home page. We also have a cheese of the month, which we promote through social media and email marketing.”
Supporting local cheeses will not only help your shop, but it will also boost your local cheesemaking ecosystem, so it’s important to find high-quality farmhouses cheeses that you can sell with a real passion. “Just because it’s local does not mean you need to sell it,” Lisa warns. “Do some research, see where else it is sold, go and see the maker and try the cheese. If you love the cheese, your enthusiasm will rub off on the customer.”