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Cheesemongers are the all-important conduits between cheesemakers and the British public, and that role has never been more important than during the pandemic. With producers struggling to shift stock due to the closure of foodservice, retailers stepped in to champion artisan cheeses and educate consumers about why supporting Britain’s makers is so important.
In turn, cheesemongers saw an outpouring of support from the public, who appeared to be energised by the conversations around food that Covid-19 was inspiring and were becoming more interested in shopping locally and supporting producers. In fact, research from Mintel reveals that consumers are increasingly looking to alternative channels to buy their cheese, with 23% of people reporting they shopped more at local businesses since the start of the pandemic, and 43% saying they shopped more online. These figures demonstrate the exciting opportunity that cheesemongers and delis face today.
Although The Cotswold Cheese Co’s shops were able to stay open during the pandemic, with frequent visits from regulars and locals who were keen to support small businesses, e-commerce proved to be a lifeline while footfall remained below usual levels. “The online shop became the reason to keep the doors open. Our online store kept us extremely busy shipping nationally, and we offered free delivery within 10 miles for sales over £25 and click and collect, both of which became so popular we had to buy a new van!” says owner Lisa Goodchild. Cheese retailers who could take advantage of the growing interest in buying cheese online saw their sales fly, and although a dip is expected following the reopening of the economy, experts predict that most of the e-commerce growth seen during the pandemic is here to stay.
Lisa says support from the community has been “amazing” with customers making specific journeys to buy cheese and using their local delivery service. But the bonds cheesemongers have built with consumers and cheesemakers are a two-way street. “We tried to do our bit to support cheesemakers and wholesalers and adapted quickly to different delivery and production schedules,” Lisa says.
Elsewhere, others began their retail journeys during the pandemic in an effort to create new in-roads for cheesemakers. “Our mission is to champion British cheese,” says Mathew Carver, the director of The Cheese Bar restaurants in London. During lockdown, he started up his first retail establishment, Funk, to continue serving artisan cheeses to the local community. “We felt like we had a commitment to keep doing that even when the restaurants were closed, creating opportunities for the cheesemakers that we work with to sell their cheese.” Demand has been strong, and today Mathew is even looking at opening another shop which could facilitate tastings.
For Bill de la Hey of The Mainstreet Trading Company, the turning point of the pandemic was when Neal’s Yard teamed up with Jamie Oliver to build public support for British cheese through a dedicated cheese box. In his own shop, Bill began speaking with suppliers to find out which products needed to be sold urgently and was flexible to promote cheeses in surplus. “It was strangely quite exciting,” he reflects. With a family history of dairy farming, it was a cause near and dear to Bill’s heart. “I really enjoyed the campaign because you felt really good that you were doing something for the industry.”
The campaign also changed the way the public saw British farmhouse cheeses. “It was exciting for them as well. Generally, people have been treating themselves a bit, eating better food,” he says. “I really feel that the prospects are good.” Through Bill’s conversations with people – and through the shop’s growing sales – he has found that more and more consumers are buying cheese from local delis rather than supermarkets.
“We sense a different mindset from our customers, even now,” adds Lisa. “There has been a shift to customers wanting to shop more locally and focus on quality. Even after lockdown, our website has remained very busy and customers will patiently wait outside if the shops have too many people already in them. The relationship between the cheesemonger and the cheesemakers is symbiotic, and we find that for the cheesemakers who support us directly, we in turn are proud to promote their products and can articulate to the prospective customer the benefits of that particular maker’s products.”
Now, as the impact of Covid fades somewhat, retailers have an opportunity to continue building on these relationships with both customers and suppliers. On building stronger relationships with cheesemakers, Lisa says retailers should speak to their local producers directly. “This will hopefully build a working relationship that will benefit both parties. A good example is Fen Farm. We have sold the 1kg and Mini Baron Bigods but have never sold the 3kg cutting cheese. After a visit from the nice people at Fen Farm who left us with a sample to try, we have taken the plunge and Brie de Meaux sales better watch out!”
Cheesemongers can also foster new relationships with customers who are branching out to artisan cheeses. “People are interested in British cheese,” says Mathew. “Now more than ever, people care about where their food comes from, so we feel fairly confident. We’ve seen from our restaurants that more and more people are coming in and know different names of what used to be quite niche British cheeses. People seem to take an interest in them, and I think that’s only been strengthened through the pandemic. People have made a conscious effort to be more thoughtful with their food purchases,” he says. Long may this continue.