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As I write, the weather here on the Suffolk coast veers erratically from bright sunshine to biting winds and even snow blizzards – not exactly the picnic-perfect days we were hoping to enjoy with the easing of restrictions. However after the dismal months of the latest lockdown we are delighted to have both Slate shops open again and eagerly anticipate sunnier times ahead for our high streets in Southwold and Aldeburgh, and also our beach picnics! We can’t wait for the safe return of cheese-loving visitors to the area and for a flurry of wedding plans with a decadent tower of cheese at the heart of celebrations.
Despite this optimism, we face constraints that mean we must approach the next few months with continued innovation and energy to adapt. In particular, the full experience of visiting Slate remains restricted. The easy interaction with customers and exchange of tasters of which we were previously so proud is beginning to feel like a distant memory. Nothing sells a cheese like its taste, particularly when exploring new choices or discovering seasonal variations in taste. We have upped our game with vocabulary to describe our cheese range, rolling out Academy of Cheese training across the team to inspire with words from ‘brothy’ and ‘fudgy’ to ‘tropical’ and ‘farmyard’. We’ve also sought advice from colleagues across the cheese retail network. However with masks, screens and social distancing in place for the foreseeable future it seems tasters remain off the cards. And when rules are relaxed, it will be interesting to see whether customers feel comfortable returning to an in-store nibble.
Another area of connection we are keen to renew is with cheesemakers across the country. Their skill and dedication are encapsulated in each of the cheeses in our fridges, and without them our offering would be much less delicious! At Slate we see sharing stories about how and where cheeses are made as a key part of our role as cheesemongers: to act as a link between those who make cheese and those who enjoy it.
Visiting dairies or hosting a ‘meet-the-maker’ event at Slate was always a high point prior to Covid-19 restrictions and we can’t wait to set out on our cheese-travels again soon. Virtual events such as the brilliant British Cheese Weekender fill this gap to some extent, but getting hands on with cheese making is both a privilege and invaluable learning experience. Having producers in-store creates a fantastic buzz amongst both customers and staff. This storytelling is fundamental to what sets apart a visit to Slate from buying cheese at the supermarket. Our knowledgeable team is always on hand to guide customers in choosing an exceptional selection of cheese from a range of producers, to create a cheeseboard that is varied and balanced, interesting and enticing.
One of the greatest uncertainties we face is the future direction of online sales. Both financially and emotionally the surge in sales via our website has been an extremely positive aspect of the past year. As well as generating a welcome stream of revenue, it has been wonderful to send parcels of cheese to doorsteps across the country, bringing delicious treats to those tucked away and sharing the joy of cheese beyond our usual footprint.
With the exception of Baron Bigod and St Jude, East Anglian cheeses rarely make it further than the farm shops and local delis of Suffolk and Norfolk. With East Anglian selections proving to be our online best-sellers it has been fantastic to share these cheeses with a wider audience and bring happy holiday memories to those missing visits to the Suffolk seaside. During the pandemic consumers have become increasingly comfortable with the courier delivery of fresh food items. We have developed a core group of loyal online customers who trust that our ice-packed cheeses travel well and enjoy the ease of shopping from their own home.
However, what is the future for these sales? Once people are able to access local shops, freely and confident of their safety, will we still see these orders arriving in our inbox? To properly service orders at the current level we could do with additional space set up for the storage of packaging purchased in bulk and the efficient cutting and packing of daily orders. A short-term hire over the Christmas period made a world of difference to our capacity and efficiency, but would permanent investment in this area of the business prove a wise choice?
We are pushing forward to expand our online offering, recently acquiring an alcohol licence to introduce a line of English cheese and wine hampers in collaboration with fellow-Suffolk based Heritage Wines, but in months to come will the lure of the high street tempt shoppers away from Slate online? Oh for a crystal ball to see where the balance of online versus shop sales will reach equilibrium! Likely only time and a good dose of hindsight will tell.
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