How to source cheese

20 March 2024, 09:00 AM
  • Discover tips for choosing the best cheeses for your counter and building relationships within the industry, with insights from three experienced cheesemongers
How to source cheese

For cheesemongers, there is nothing quite as important as the product you’re selling. You can create beautiful displays, recount the fantastic stories of local makers, or charm your way into your customers’ hearts, but if your cheeses don’t deliver, you won’t be landing sales.

Sourcing brilliant artisan cheese, like any fine food product, requires strong connections, commercial nous and, of course, a passion for the product. Cheesemongers take us through their essential steps to sourcing cheese.

The basics of sourcing cheese

Whether you’re just setting up a cheese counter in your deli, opening your own cheese shop or simply perfecting your selection, Daniel Williams of Godfrey C Williams & Son says the best way to start stocking cheese is by thinking about the focus of your cheese counter. “What do you want to be known for? Do you want your range to just feature locally made cheeses? A wider range of British artisan cheeses? Or a range based on British and Continental bestsellers?” Once you’ve hammered this out, you’ll have a better idea of which cheeses you want to source.

From there, he recommends researching your options for wholesalers. “Depending on your focus, certain wholesalers will suit your needs better. Some, like Rowcliffe and Carron Lodge, have a broader range of cheeses, while specialists, such as Jumi and Brindisa, offer deeper ranges in specific areas.”

And while it may sound simple, Daniel reminds us to be wary of getting carried away with ordering more of a cheese than you’ll be able to sell. “Source cheese based on the requirements of your business,” he says. “There’s no point in sourcing a whole wheel of Comté if you’re unlikely to sell it all before the expiry date, or if it takes up a disproportionate amount of your budget. Instead, source manageable and cost-effective cheese sizes that suit the size of your business and customer base.”

“Consider where that cheese would fit on your counter,” he adds. “Is there demand for it? Would it replace something else? If so, would it be more popular than the cheese it is replacing?”

Jen Grimstone-Jones of Cheese Etc, The Pangbourne Cheese Shop in Reading, agrees. “If you meet a cheesemaker at an event and fall in love with their cheese, always ask how they would get it to you. A wholesaler will let you buy a few kilograms or half a dozen small cheeses to introduce to customers to see how they go, whereas a cheesemaker might want to ship 50 units to you. Will you be able to sell that much of one cheese? And where are you going to keep the stock!”

Starting small is a great way to test the waters with a cheese your customers are unfamiliar with. “In general, when we source a new cheese, we will trial in one of our outlets,” explains Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers. “Oftentimes samples received do not reflect accurately the cheeses that will arrive. In addition, farmhouse cheeses by their nature change through the seasons; by trialling a cheese in one outlet we can assess these changes and know the impact before we decide to allow the cheeses a full listing. Of course, no matter what we think of a cheese, the only real test is our customers. We have often sourced what we believed to be a great cheese and then our customers have disagreed!”

When choosing a quality artisan cheese, Kevin says the basic criteria are always the same. “We look for cheeses that are first and foremost of great quality or show potential to become great. This is a simple process and involves tasting the cheese. This may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many retailers don’t use this as the first step in selection,” he says. 

Jen agrees that flavour is paramount. “The most important thing for us and our customers is quality and flavour. Whatever the age of cheese, it has to have a depth of flavour. Even mild, creamy Brie-style cheeses need to have something about them that gets your tastebuds wanting more,” she says. And taste-testing is always important, whether it’s a new cheese or one you’ve ordered dozens of times. “The majority of our cheeses are from small, artisan producers, but even so quality is not always guaranteed so we try every cheese every time we get a new batch.”

“Don’t stock a cheese purely on its reputation,” Daniel adds. “It needs to fit into your offering, what your store is known for, and your customer base.” When Godfrey C Williams & Son is considering a new cheese, he looks at various aspects, including the cheese quality and type – “Is this cheese ‘to type’ (Territorial/Brie), or is it a new, modern cheese? Is the maker an artisan outfit, or made in a larger dairy?” – source – “Can this cheese be found elsewhere for a better price? What do you get for the price you’re paying? (Careful maturation/handling, ideal ripeness/age profiles). Are deliveries made by courier, or by the wholesaler themselves?” – and awards the cheese or producer may have won.

In addition to taste, price plays a part in cheesemongers’ decisions about whether to stock a particular cheese. “We have to be sure that our customers will receive value for the cheese they purchase. Value does not mean cheap, but that the price reflects the quality of the product and that it is comparable to similar cheeses,” Kevin says.

“We have to cater for all tastes and budgets,” Jen adds, “so we try to make sure that we have a good range of mild to strong cheeses, soft to hard. For me, the price is then the least vital but still an important consideration.”

Cheesemongers should work out their margins before purchasing, Daniel says. “How does the price compare to similar cheeses? Will the counter price work for your customer base?”

Logistics also factor into the value a cheese presents to a cheesemonger, especially when EU importing rules are still a moveable feast post-Brexit.

“There may be a wonderful cheese at a good price somewhere in Europe, but unless we can get it to our warehouse in a cost-effective manner then it is of no use,” Kevin says. “As many cheeses have a short shelf life or change considerably as they continue to mature over time, frequency of purchase is really important.”

The importance of building relationships

Working with wholesalers can be a great way for cheesemongers to develop their expertise and try new, trusted makers, but it’s also important for retailers to work directly with cheesemakers in order to build relationships and trust with the people behind the cheeses they know and love. “A direct relationship with the producer may create opportunities that can’t be found elsewhere,” Daniel explains. This could take the form of farm or dairy tours, cheeses that aren’t available through wholesalers and special offers. 

“Cheesemakers deserve to be rewarded for making their amazing delights, and I’d rather buy direct, where possible, so I know that the money is going straight back to the producer,” Jen adds. She is often travelling the country meeting new cheesemakers and revisiting existing suppliers and believes any relationship must be built on respect and communication. “The cheese world is a small, but wonderfully friendly industry to work in. I’d always prefer to meet people face-to-face, at least initially, to begin a working relationship. It’s then often easier to talk on the phone or email,” she adds.

Working closely with producers also means retailers can invite them into their shops to lead a tasting with customers, which gives a personalised experience. “In-store tastings can lead to increased footfall, increased sales, and an improved brand recognition of the company and products that are promoted,” Daniel says.

“The relationship between ourselves and our cheese producers is central to our whole operation and ethos,” Kevin agrees. “We look to build long-term sustainable relationships with our producers; this partnership ensures that we understand the farms and the artisans who produce our cheeses, and that our producers understand ourselves and our customers.”

While Kevin even says he tries to form a direct relationship with cheesemakers even when he is working through a partner wholesaler, for instance with European producers, Daniel stresses that these bonds are particularly useful when formed with local cheesemakers. Indeed, stronger relationships will only enhance cheesemongers’ knowledge about the cheeses in their area, and further afield, so they can better answer customers’ questions and sell their cheeses. 

How to find new cheeses to source

There are many ways to unearth new cheeses for your counter. First, Daniel suggests, start local. “Visit your local farmers’ market, contact your regional food organisation or ask for recommendations from other local cheesemakers.” You can also ask your wholesaler for leads on any new cheeses or up-and-coming cheesemakers. “Many wholesalers will be able to recommend new cheesemakers and products to you based on location, cheese style or price point,” Daniel adds.

This is when strong relationships pay off. For Jen, the wholesalers her shop works closely with will highlight new cheeses and send samples to try. “In fact, one of our wholesalers was in the shop yesterday with a new French supplier, so we were sampling their cheeses with a view to making a switch.”

Cheesemongers can also be proactive by scouring industry magazines for new makers and attending industry events and fairs, such as Farm Shop & Deli Show, Speciality & Fine Food Fair, and Fine Food Show North, Daniel says. An added benefit: “You will probably be able to try their cheeses, too,” he says.

“I am lucky enough to judge at a couple cheese awards, so I get to try lots of cheeses and if there are any that really stand out, I find out what they were and get in touch with the makers directly,” Jen says. Cheesemongers at any stage of their career can use awards as a benchmark of excellence or attend these events to meet new cheesemakers for themselves. “Events such as the International Cheese & Dairy Awards, the World Cheese Awards, the Artisan Cheese Awards/Fair attract many of the best and brightest UK cheese makers,” Daniel says.

“There is no simple system or process for sourcing great cheese,” says Kevin. From travelling around the country to attending awards to visiting European cheesemongers for fresh ideas, there is no one right answer. Many cheesemongers will even have producers contacting them directly to see if they will try their products. “I always find it incredibly humbling when cheesemakers feel we’d be a good fit for their product,” Jen says.

There is no shortage of delicious farmhouse cheeses available in the UK and beyond. In fact, discerning what cheeses not to stock could be just as important for your shop. “We have about 140 cheeses in our cheese counter, so if we are going to stock something new it has to either be completely different from what we already have, or it has to be better than what we’ve got,” Jen says. “Local products are always good sellers, followed by British cheeses. Saying that, we have a great customer base, and if we highlight a particular cheese that is new and exciting most of them will give it a go – and feed back to us!”

Kevin agrees. “There are many great cheeses produced that we don’t stock. It is impossible for us to stock the many hundreds of really wonderful cheeses that are made in Ireland and across Europe.” Yet cheesemongers are lucky enough to work with a product where heritage is a major selling point – over and above the latest trends.

“In a retail world where newness is often a driving force,” he continues, “we prefer long-term, sustainable relationships. We have worked with many of our cheese producers for over 20 years; in that time, we have forged partnerships of real value to these producers, to ourselves and to our customers.”

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