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The team behind The Fine Cheese Co knew as soon as the coronavirus pandemic hit that cheesemakers would be badly affected. Still, the scale of the problem took them by surprise, says Ruth Raskin, cheese care and quality manager. “I don’t think any of us quite realised how massive it was. A lot of cheesemakers lost about 70% of their business,” Ruth explains.
“They lost orders for thousands of cheeses overnight.” Thankfully, The Fine Cheese Co was a strong position to help. The business contacted its cheesemakers and made an action plan.
The first thing The Fine Cheese Co did was find out which cheeses needed to be sold. “We were very much in close contact with people, saying ‘what’s urgent right now’,” Ruth says.
Based on this intel, the team created a range of new selection boxes to sell online. The selection boxes were a simple way to direct customers to the cheeses that were at the highest risk of going to waste, and the team moved swiftly to ensure they were on sale as soon as possible.
“Normally that would take months of planning, and months of organising photo shoots and costings,” Rush explains, “But we did it in two weeks.” By the end of April, the cheesemonger found another way to help struggling producers: the Save British Cheese box. The Fine Cheese Co joined forces with Jamie Oliver, Neal’s Yard Dairy and The Courtyard Dairy to ensure the most at-risk cheeses would find a home.
It was a significant move for three separate cheese businesses that would generally think of themselves as competitors to come together to work on the project. “The idea was that we could help more people if we worked together,” Ruth says. And they did; the box received a massive response. “It was obvious that there was a real appetite amongst the general public for helping the cheesemakers.”
Having Jamie Oliver on board certainly provided a boost, too. “People who would normally buy from us would know that these British cheeses are gorgeous, and I think Jamie Oliver brought it to people who perhaps had never tried them before.”
With new customers quickly becoming returners, the initiatives have proved to be a boon for many farmhouse cheesemakers. “Those little cheesemakers really could have gone under if people hadn’t helped. There was a genuine fear that we were going to lose some really fine cheesemakers, and once they’re gone, they’re gone. You can’t get those recipes or the history, knowledge and experience back.”
Ruth continues, “If you lose them, you’ve actually lost part of your food history and your food culture. So, people rallied around, and they really did make a difference.”
When asked whether this spirit of collaboration will continue within the industry, Ruth says that it’s been there from the start. “We know that what is good for one is good for all. If British cheese is in good, strong health and doing well, that’s good for everyone. So it will continue because it was always that way, and the pandemic has just strengthened those bonds.”
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