How cheese distributors built resilience during Covid

29 September 2021, 07:07 AM
  • As an industry typically entwined with the foodservice sector, many wholesalers were blindsided by the pandemic. But they have come out the other side stronger than before
How cheese distributors built resilience during Covid

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Fine cheese distribution was one of the sectors hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. Hard-won relationships with foodservice operators disappeared as the hospitality industry was largely shut down overnight. Brands that had once put significant resources into supplying restaurants, hotels and events had to reconsider the value of retail.

“One of the main effects of the pandemic has been to make us look at the markets we serve and realise that focusing exclusively just on the foodservice sector is no longer an acceptable strategy for Harvey & Brockless moving forward,” explains Nick Martin, managing director of Harvey & Brockless. As a result, the business has been building up its range of products and looking at various retail channels to see how they can best grow their sales into this area. “We appreciate that this will be a learning process, but we see the retail segment as key to the company’s performance in the future and in the development of our brand awareness with the consumer.” Indeed, while foodservice is expected to recover at the expense of retail, Mintel’s senior food and drink analyst Amy Price says habits will be slow to change over the recovery period between now and 2025, spelling good news for retail sales.

Pivoting to retail

When lockdown first hit, wholesaler The Cheese Merchant lost 70% of its business overnight due to the closure of hospitality. However, an agile and collaborative approach allowed founder George Lang to find new ways of working. “We were able to be flexible and had to quickly look into other routes to get our products out. We champion our producers and didn’t want this to affect them as well, so we worked with all our clients to bring them to market through a number of different routes,” he explains. When struggling supply chains left supermarket shelves empty, The Cheese Merchant collaborated with other wholesale sectors, such as fruit, vegetables, bakery products and meat, to deliver directly to people’s homes.

“We’ve also tried to support our chefs that buy from us. We’ve helped them open up a shop so they could sell pre-packed products and meal kits,” George says. The business found opportunities in retail, too, and sees this as an important sector for the coming months. “We were lucky that we had our own cutting and packing facility, so we were able to scale up due to the demand of varying sizes of products, and cut cheeses into retail-friendly sizes.

“As home deliveries started to slow down coming out of lockdown, a larger focus has been on the retail sector in terms of delis and farm shops looking to expand their selection of products and cheeses,” George says. “Due to this demand, we’ve created a range of our products and sizes specifically for retail.”

Supporting one another

Cryer & Stott, cheese retailers and wholesalers, similarly found that around 85% of the distribution business disappeared after Covid arrived in the UK, and like The Cheese Merchant and Harvey & Brockless, the team moved more of their business into farm shops and independent retailers. Managing director Richard Holmes said a feeling grew during the pandemic that the artisan cheese industry – from dairy farmers to retailers and distributors – were all in this together.

“At every stage people have got more confidence in talking to each other and helping each and everybody’s business develop and grow,” he says. Cryer & Stott found ways to support cheesemakers through new product development, innovation and new markets. “Out of a bad situation, sometimes you need to adapt and evolve and go through some pain to bring your business out the other end a lot better and a lot stronger. As an industry, I’m hopeful that that’s what will happen. My experience is that by working together, everybody’s getting stronger.”

Opportunities ahead

The Cheese Merchant’s George is still keen to see the sector return to some sense of normalcy, despite new gains in the retail market. “The aim for the next year is to continue growing all arms of the business, from retail to hospitality and even larger events when they can restart again. We’re supporting all our friends in the hospitality industry as they get back on their feet, and hope to see continued growth in retail.”

Events and hospitality still hold strong prospects for distributors. “We have seen a good return in volumes since the easing of restrictions in restaurants and hotels, particularly outside the main cities,” says Nick. However, he does not expect the sector to return to pre-Covid levels “for some time, particularly not until full-time working from home eases and tourism (national and international) returns to the city centres”. It is hoped that the final easing of lockdown restrictions will kick-start this return. “We are looking forward to being able to trade as close to ‘normal’ as possible,” Nick says.

Until then, cheese distributors will be bolstered by a shared sense of passion and optimism. “Everybody understands the plight of what the last 15 to 16 months has had on the industry, and I think people will pull together and share their optimism and what products they can bring to market. If we can all innovate, that’s enough to give a bigger opportunity to people out there who maybe aren’t cheese lovers yet, but might be cheese lovers in the future.”

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