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Britain’s artisan cheese industry has a rich history that is growing ever more exciting as fresh-eyed, passionate cheesemongers and makers join the sector. “New cheesemakers and cheesemongers seem to appear every year. And it is a thing to be celebrated,” says Andy Swinscoe, co-owner of The Courtyard Dairy.
“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.”
Indeed, the more that the broader public sees of British cheese – whether it be a tangy, creamy Cheddar, or a soft cheese, such as an oozing Brie or Camembert-style variety, or a flavoursome, soft sheep’s milk cheese – the more likely they will be to appreciate the hard work and heritage imbued in this craft.
Location is everything for a new cheese counter. “For any new cheesemonger I’d think about where you want to set up. Selling farmhouse 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,” says Andy.
“I’d look for somewhere with a shopping food culture already (wine/fishmongers/butchers/bakers), good parking and that has good footfall,” he says.
Next, you’ll need to consider your cheese range. According to Gemma Williams of The Little Cheesemonger, who has been selling cheese for 15 years, balance is key. “You need to have a good, even range so not too heavy on the Cheddar cheese and not too heavy on the Blue cheese.”
She also suggests new mongers stock their shops with some of the “easy sellers - the stuff that everybody likes”. Gemma says, “That’s your bread and butter, and then as time goes on and you get more confident, you can stretch out into the lesser-known ones.”
You will also have to decide what your emphasis is as a cheesemonger. Which types of cheeses will you be selling? A wide range or a curated selection? “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,” Andy says. “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.”
Then, you’ll need to promote the USP of your artisan cheese business. “If it is local, shout about it. If it is raw milk or farmhouse then make it clear so the prospective customers know why you’re different.”
Andy believes that a good cheese professional doesn’t need many cheeses. “As long as you have a good range across the cheese types and they are high 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 and what they are after, and give them a taste of what you do which is similar.”
As a small scale cheese business, you’ll also need to look long and hard at your balance sheet. “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.”
Gemma adds that you’ll also need to consider the losses that are inherent to artisanal cheeses. “When you’re pricing up, don’t forget that cheese evaporates. It’s only slow, but when you’ve bought it on the weight, if you don’t cut into that immediately and sell it all immediately you are going to lose a little bit of money because it evaporates, and then you will need to condition it.
“Cheese needs a little bit of prep each day, because the edges get dry and you need to trim,” Gemma continues. “You’ll also need to give samples to customers. If you’re having cut cheeses, you are losing a bit more money if you don’t make sure that is budgeted in for.”
But coming up with multiple revenue streams can help you create a profitable artisan cheese business. “You can’t just rely on people walking through the door,” Gemma says. “You need to have multiple revenue streams to be able to survive, so going into production could be a great idea. There are not that many cheese producers that are small and independent. These are the ones that are really special.”
If you’re a cheese lover who is not interested in becoming a cheese shop owner but would rather set up a new cheesemaking business, Andy advises 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 what is 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’ve considered these questions, Andy suggests a new cheese maker should test out their product with trial batches at home – you don’t need a cheese factory to get started, and there are plenty of books on cheese making available to help you learn the basics of the processes for creating a range of cheeses, including soft and hard cheese. From the role of rennet to defining curd, whey and the all-important starter culture, reading up on cheesemaking is a good starting point.
Making cheese through trial and error can also help a budding artisan cheese professional master the basics. “Even before you go on a professional cheese making 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.”
Whether you’re starting a cheese making business on a dairy farm or setting up your first fine cheese shop, having a business plan is crucial. Gemma suggests looking into local business advice schemes. “Wales has [one] that you can go to ask for free advice and resources. They are fabulous, I’ve tapped into them many, many times. It’s an amazing resource to get hold of. You can’t go into it blind; you need to make projections, you need to look into the future and you need to think how much money will you take every week, and how much cheese you need to sell to pay the electricity bill, when you need staff - it all has to be planned out to the minute details,” Gemma says.
For artisan cheesemakers, start-up costs will be high, and you’ll need to plan for them. “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,” Andy says.
Starting a new cheese making business is no mean feat. For many makers and mongers in the British cheese industry, it is their passion that carries them through. “You’ve got to really love cheese,” Gemma says. “You’ve got to be obsessed with cheese, otherwise don’t bother because it’s not easy. I’ve been selling cheese for 15 years now, and I’m still excited about it all the time. And if I didn’t have that, when times are hard, like when the virus broke out, if you’re not passionate about it and about what you do, then you’re not going to be able to muster up the survival instinct to push through.”