- Whether you're looking to get into cheese-mongering or making, Andy Swinscoe, co-owner of The Courtyard Dairy, walks us through setting the early steps of setting up a cheese-related business
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New cheesemakers and cheesemongers seem to appear every year. And it is a thing to be celebrated. It improves those of us already out there, it increases knowledge levels throughout the industry, it gives different opinions and it gives all farmhouse and artisan cheese a greater coverage for the general public to be aware of it.
For any new cheesemonger I’d think about where you want to set up. Selling cheese is difficult, and with the decline of towns due to parking issues, closures of banks and services and competition from the convenience of supermarket and online shopping, you are really going to have to think about why people will come to you.
I’d look for somewhere with a shopping food culture already (wine/fishmongers/butchers/bakers), good parking and that does have good footfall.
Cheese range-wise you’re going to have to decide where you emphasis wants to be: raw milk, farmhouse, local, or just more convenience/ weekly cheese shop – although I’d argue that the supermarkets have that last category tied up pretty well. Whatever it is write it down and stick to it when sourcing your lines; that is what you want to be so try to make sure it shows through. And then promote it – if it is local shout about it. If it is raw milk/ farmhouse then make it clear so the prospective customers know why you’re different.
I think you don’t need many cheeses. As long as you have a good range across the cheese types and they are quality then you can have low numbers. We started with just 15. The key thing is when you don’t have what the customer wants don’t rush to get it in, try and learn what it is/what they are after and give them a taste of what you do which is similar.
Don’t forget margins are tight in food retail and there isn’t a lot to play with once all your overheads are dealt with, so do be clever and get a few crowd-pleasing cheese lines in there which you can lead with and make good profit on. They will be your bread and butter.
Setting up as a new cheesemaker involves asking lots of questions. What cheese do you want to make? It has to be something you like first and foremost, as it will make the whole process more enjoyable, and also, does that particular ‘make’ procedure fit easily into your day? What equipment is needed for start up, and how long will the cheese need to mature – how much cheese will you need to have in stock and its shelf life once it is ready: can you afford that on your cash flow with no income for that period, and can you sell it fast enough once it’s ripe?
Once you start thinking about these I always encourage new cheesemakers to make lots of trial batches at home. Even before you go on a professional cheesemaking course (The School Of Artisan Food is good), the more you can make at home before you go on a course will mean you will get more out of it when you do decide to go on one.
Starting up a new cheese dairy is an investment; the cheapest ready fix nowadays seems to be purpose-built shipping containers. But if you can mitigate this big investment initially and hire out space in someone else’s dairy or food production unit that is a great way to reduce the start-up costs.