25 March 2021, 09:13 AM
  • In this edition of Cheese Talk, two small-scale cheesemakers tell their stories of adapting to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic
Covid-19 strikes small cheesemakers

Gary Bradshaw, Hamm Tun Fine Foods

“Things can change overnight”

The saying goes that out of adversity comes opportunity, but as everyone rethinks their business plans and tries to adapt to the storm which has hit the artisan cheese industry over the last ten months, it takes everything you’ve got, every day, to stay focussed and positive.

I started my business in 2013 and like all artisan producers, my passion for local produce was at the heart of it – preserving craftsmanship and traditions which have fed our nation for hundreds of years. I was born and bred in Northamptonshire – home of the UK shoe industry and Carlsberg Brewery. As the artisan cheese industry continued to grow in the British Isles, I realised that there was nothing being produced in Northamptonshire, so the seed of an idea was planted.

My passion is in keeping it local and we are dedicated to sustainability – so all our milk is sourced locally and on the day the milk is delivered, the cheese-making process begins. We now produce a range of award-winning raw milk cheeses including Cobblers Nibble, Northamptonshire Blue, Little Bertie, Merry Tome and Buckby blue.

Things were going very well and in 2019 my wife, Rachael, opened the Hamm Tun Deli, which has exactly the same values – we support local produce and we also make our own range of sausage rolls and scotch eggs in delicious flavours. These two businesses are our lives and our livelihoods.

When we opened the deli we thought that 2020 was going to be a great year for Hamm Tun Fine Foods, so we re-invested and moved to larger premises to get ready for what was going to be our biggest year yet. Then of course lockdown happened, and everything changed. The biggest area of our business was in supplying the hospitality industry and taking stands at food shows. We lost all this overnight, and on top of that had doubled our overheads and used up all our reserves on expanding. It was devastating to realise that our business may not survive, due to a series of very considered business decisions and a catastrophic pandemic.

My first reaction was to look for ways to improve our income stream, so I approached national cheese wholesalers, but of course none of them were taking on new suppliers so it was a dead-end. In November it was clear that we had to make a big decision as the business was on its knees, so we started the Crowdfunder campaign.

Through some amazing support and local and national publicity, we have managed to raise £12,500 which has bought us another three to four months. Importantly, during this latest lockdown, and because of this funding, we have been able to continue our production which means we will have cheese ready for when everything re-opens, which we hope will be the summer at the very latest.

We have been humbled by the local support that we have received, including some high-profile food industry names and celebrities who live in the area. It is heartening that people are behind us, as much as they can be.

Everyone is struggling and we are all being impacted by Covid-19 as well as Brexit. Rachael and I have always believed that home-grown is best and we should focus on looking after manufacturers based in the UK. We feel so strongly about this, that even with our own small deli, we have cut our margins to compete with larger companies who may offer better value to customers. We’ve also expanded our categories to support even more local producers. It is about pulling together, and we are trying to do as much as we can to give something back, as well as being grateful to everyone who is supporting us in return.

With everything crossed and being totally realistic, if we can limp through to 2022 we see that as success. This year has taught us to be resourceful and lean. You can never take anything for granted and I don’t think I ever will again. The pandemic has proven that things can change overnight and with no warning. 

But in the end, you don’t ever set up a food business to get rich. At the moment it’s just about surviving – which sounds bleak, but I’m just a man who enjoys what I do, which is making fantastic British cheese and keeping my customers happy.

Martin and Haze Tkalez, Pevensey Cheese

“Constant, iterative improvement”

Anyone in cheese can tell you that it takes ages to get anything done. We write this after having had our first quarter trading as a very, very small cheese making enterprise – after a three year lead up. We can estimate that in the quarter just gone we made and sold one tonne of our cheese – Pevensey Blue – which is a wonderful milestone, hastily overlooked of course. The culmination of our start-up phase occurred in the midst of this awful pandemic. 

As we are so new, small and hard to pin down – we should explain who and what we are! My wife Hazel and I are Pevensey Cheese Company. We buy organic cow’s milk directly from a neighbouring farm in East Sussex and make it into a soft creamy blue cheese on Hazel’s parents farm.

If we are very honest, we didn’t have to adapt a great deal because of the pandemic, it’s more that we met our goals during the pandemic through some luck but also because we saw to it that our business was small and robust going into 2020. As new entrants to cheese making, we knew that there was a good chance of failure even in a great year, at a great time, and were following the advice given to us from many friends to “fail small”. 

We were particularly lucky that we did not have a store full of cheese to sell in the spring of 2020 when the markets for cheese suddenly closed – as almost everyone in cheese had to face in to. We were still preparing for commercial production at the time and consider ourselves very fortunate that we missed this potential great extinction event by a few months.

Instead, we saw from the sidelines the great efforts that were made to forestall great food wastage and business damage through buy-local campaigns, celebrity calls to arms and rapid pivoting into mail order or collections, online tastings and other innovations. This creativity in adversity helped businesses, food and services to survive and has taken the industry to another level!

For us the theme of the first lockdown was if the world is giving us an opportunity to take a little longer to get ready, then we should maximise that desk-based time before we head into the make room and start to scale up. We stayed at home and re-drafted our HACCP plan, took the relevant online courses in food hygiene and generally ran through mental dress rehearsals of our nascent systems in the preparation for EHO Approval. We might also add now that the focus on systems took place because the summer of travel and development of our Italian style blue cheese was of course cancelled!

Once we had our EHO approval, we faced the dilemma, like all producers that had been forced to cease production, of when to start commercial production. The work of development is never done in cheese making and we had used the lockdown to continue with our experimental makes, with regular Zoom chats with our mentors at Neal’s Yard Dairy to review progress, but we were conscious that if you never push your product into the market you won’t get to the mid-game where the real development happens.

In the end, we rationalised that given our “fail small” strategy, starting production twice a week with only 250l per make, limited our exposure so that we could start and hope that by the time the cheese was ready the market was ready too. 

We also had the confidence of our business plan and established relationships in the market to encourage us to press ahead.

Our business plan was simple – to fill a gap for a British soft blue, working very closely with Neal’s Yard Dairy and local distributor The Cheese Man to deliver the product to market. These relationships gave us phenomenal support and enabled us to focus on our cheese development.

By the end of the summer we were making our first semi-seriously sized batches of 12kg and 3kg cheeses. This was quite something for us. This was a big step for a small producer but compared to the rest of the industry it was next to nothing.

Crucially, when the cheese was mature, we launched into a market with a deficit of soft blue cheese. The forced break in production of established producers earlier in the year meant that, as one of our mentors said at the time, that in his 30-year career in cheese there was no better time to ever launch a soft blue cheese.

All this meant that we had a niche in a market at Christmas time with a small amount of a style of cheese that was in short supply, which was fortuitous to us.

Due to Covid limitations we were unable to support the launch of Pevensey Blue personally through tastings and meet the producer events in shops. Instead we experienced the launch digitally – posting on social media, supporting the content generated by mongers across the UK and virtual meet the producer events to talk about the cheese. It certainly wasn’t how we envisaged the launch but was an effective way to reach a lot of people and get vital feedback too.

Having met our goals of starting and surviving 2020, the most important thing for us and for Pevensey Blue for 2021 is for constant, iterative improvement.

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