Cheese expert Justin Tunstall offers his Christmas 2021 tips

03 December 2021, 07:57 AM
  • If we can be sure of anything this year, it’s that that uncertainty is now a given. Justin Tunstall, cheese consultant, describes how cheesemongers can prepare for plans A, B and C
Cheese expert Justin Tunstall offers his Christmas 2021 tips

In the last couple of years everything seems to have been turned on its head, so it is reassuring that the British public will still have its enthusiasm for cheese at Christmas. It’s as expected as the bumper Radio Times, Noddy Holder’s bellow and It’s A Wonderful Life.

Stilton will fly out of the chiller, and the cheese-buying public have consistently shelled out for bumper orders of cheese at this time of year – even last year! If certainty is now a mythical construct, one thing of which we can be sure is that this year, not everything will go exactly as planned.

A supply chain used to be a trade term, unknown to the general public, but now it’s as likely to be discussed down the pub as the football scores. There are so many variables at play, from production levels, delivery of stock in (and onward mail-order despatch), plus the timing and nature of consumer demand.

This time last year, a lockdown was not on the cards, but it still happened. Hopefully we’ll not see a repetition of that, but it’d pay to have a fall-back plan. Just in case.

This year, Christmas Day falls on a Saturday, giving a full working week for just-in-time deliveries out to consumers, then a strong weekend followed by another robust week, until dusk on Friday, Christmas Eve. That’s the kind of intensive trading that I love. My chillers and storage space would be turned over two to three times over a good Christmas fortnight, which meant canny ordering, particularly in the timing of top-up deliveries.

It pays to try and tie down advance sales and orders as much as possible – whether by incentivising early delivery and collection or establishing cut-off dates for pre-orders. This year, stories about potential shortages will galvanise some shoppers to organise themselves early, but there’ll still be some hunting for blue cheese after lunch on Christmas Eve. During lockdown, a lot of shoppers turned to mail order for previously untried product areas (including cheese) and ‘your’ customers are likely to be targeted by a variety of online sellers, so make sure that you speak to them early about their Christmas orders and gift hampers. It’s got a lot more competitive out there, even if you are 20 miles away from the next nearest cheesemonger.

As far as deliveries into the shop are concerned, I found it best practice to have a small number of suppliers for lines of importance to the shop. Having alternatives, but enough ‘clout’ with each one is important, especially if courier and delivery drivers continue to be in short supply. Equally, any goods that you are despatching need to be sure of getting there.

For a while I had a signwritten shop van, used for local collection and deliveries. I’d make sure that the petrol tank was full this year, and be prepared to put some miles in, if I couldn’t get courier collections.

How are your staff? There seems to be a shortage of good workers across hospitality and retail at present. If you have good people, you’ll want to keep them. Make sure that they are committed by discussing rotas early on and perhaps promising a post-Christmas incentive for lasting the course, whether that’s a party, hamper or bonus. Do you have reserves in case staff get sick over these crucial weeks? Perhaps retired ex-employees, college students or someone who left to tend children?

Yuletide profitability comes from minimising wastage, as much as boosting sales. Writing off stock is heart-breaking. After one particularly snowy pre-Christmas weekend, I ran out of ‘friends of the shop’ to receive a New Year gift of cheese. My old boss used to say “Let’s fall in that river when we come to it”, and don’t obsess, but an idea of what you might do in such an event reduces the shock!

Knowing what cheese needs selling, and when, is vital, but also applies to accompaniments. The finer the food, the fewer the preservatives; biscuits, chutneys and preserves may run out of shelf life during the quieter weeks in the early New Year. Consider matching that stock with cheese now, both in hampers and through cross-selling, rather than letting fate run its course. If you have stock to move on, try to get some benefit from it, either in cash (a contribution to cost will be better than a write-off) or goodwill, by offering it to a food bank or homeless shelter.

It’s not really a seasonal thought, but there’s a major difference between a murderer committing a ‘crime of passion’ and a professional assassin. The impassioned avenger will probably look no further than the act itself, while the latter will have a plan B, including an exit route should things go awry. If we hope to make a killing (sorry) over Christmas 2021, I suggest that we adopt the principles of the assassin and have plans B, C and maybe a few more, ready to roll out should the need arise. More appropriately, as Tiny Tim said in A Christmas Carol: “God bless us every one!”

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