Searching for a word to sum up the maelstrom of March and April 2020, journalists and politicians found themselves in an unusual position: they had none. ‘Unprecedented’ was about the best anyone could do – and even that seemed unequal to the shock, the scale, the sheer horror of it all. At Neal’s Yard Dairy, we-like many others- faced the possibility of wasted product, redundancies – even the collapse of our business. So, we did back then what has since become as common a word as ‘unprecedented’: we pivoted, and in doing so learnt a great deal about how to better serve our customers, support our staff and be the voice and the vehicle for the small-scale producers we represent.
Fast forward nine months and things are looking a little brighter. With the help of journalists, chefs, social media and – above all – our extraordinary staff, Neal’s Yard Dairy has reached thousands of new customers. More importantly, we understand better what they want and how to communicate with them. By diversifying into subscription services, online sales and events, the business has evolved and has grown more resilient. These are the lessons which no one could have even anticipated, let alone asked for – but they have been well worth learning.
Value the families and traditions that give us great cheese
It’s hard to say who in our food chain was most panic-stricken at the start of this crisis: the restaurants, pubs, bars and caterers forced to close their doors, or the producers supplying them. Almost overnight, cheesemakers across the land went from regular sales to mounting piles of cheese that had been ordered but could no longer be sold. Animals still needed feeding and milking, the milk needed preserving, and the clock was ticking for a tragic waste to be avoided. If we were going to help shift these cheeses, we needed to give this emergency a human face.
So, we turned the spotlight on the cheesemakers, their farms, families and animals, and the heritage they represent. In collaboration with Jamie Oliver, who championed our Save British Cheese initiative, we fostered “a greater awareness that a lot of these traditions that we take for granted are there thanks to families and farming systems that have been going for decades or centuries,” says Jason Hinds, a director of Neal’s Yard Dairy. In the short term this generated much-needed sales; in the long term, we realised “the value of really homing in on a producer, a particular cheese, a particular family,” he continues – giving the customer the chance to learn more about them and the invaluable role they play in rural economies. We have close professional and personal relationships with our producers- in some cases that span decades- so we thought we would share those close connections with our customers. “We had to really focus on where there was most need,” explains Jason. “Through social media, our blogs and our newsletter we gave those cheesemakers a bigger voice than we had in the past, and that forced us to really reflect on how and what we communicate.” Wherever possible we let the cheese speak for itself by offering customers a taste. But when selling cheese online to a public who may not have tried cheese like this before, it made sense to share more detail about where it comes from and why it is so special. It turned out that customers love learning about cheesemaking and the people bound up in it almost as much as they love eating cheese.
Our front line was our staff and they did us proud
“In the past, we’ve had a few weeks at Christmas of busy e-commerce and then reset the following year,” recalls Jason. When lockdown hit, all of our sales patterns changed, and while some parts of the business saw sales drop off, our online sales exploded. This transformation was entirely thanks to our staff who were redeployed across the business and retrained in new skills to help process the influx of online orders. “Without warning, we were selling 20 times what had been expected online,” he says. Staff in the shops and in the maturing arches became our own front line, packing, delivering and selling cheese – all the while observing strict social distancing guidelines.
For Neal’s Yard Dairy these social distancing measures presented nothing short of an existential crisis. Not only did distancing change the whole environment of the shops – “in the past we have always had a hubbub, then suddenly we couldn’t have that throng at the counter,” says Jason – but in addition customers were no longer able to try the cheese. “For us, that is a huge, historical change in how we operate, because the cheese we sell changes daily.” Unable to taste with the customers, shop staff now serve as both cheesemongers and flavour translators. Every morning, they try the cheeses together and discuss how they might describe them in a way that customers can understand. What’s a good synonym for ‘brothy’? Is the texture bouncy or firm? What’s the strongest cheese on the counter?
“Being unable to taste cheese with the customer has made it all the more important for us to focus on what it is the customer is looking for; to accurately describe the cheese and respond to what they want – so even when customers are able to sample the cheese again, this hyperawareness will be a positive lesson for our staff,” says Jason.
Share your enthusiasm – but be accessible
“As challenging as it has been, we must reflect on how fortunate we’ve been this year. I look at my friends in food service, not only unable to run their businesses but prevented from doing the thing they love – and I thank my lucky stars,” says Jason. “It’s an obvious point, but it’s huge.” As lockdown wore on, and the impulse to supermarket sweep subsided, it dawned on all of us that among the few pleasures we had remaining were cooking and eating.
This proved particularly true of cheese, with its connotations of pleasure and comfort. Jason recalls the moment, in the wake of Jamie Oliver’s championing of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Save British Cheese boxes, when he realised just how engaged people could be. “Some of that was the Jamie magic,” he says, “but it was the product too. Cheese can be enjoyed at any time of day, everyone can gather around it – and it tastes great, of course.” Prior to the pandemic, Neal’s Yard Dairy had tended to preach to the semi-converted. “We assumed a certain level of knowledge – with the result that for the many years we have been in the business we have not been as successful as we should at introducing new customers. That was the biggest lesson of 2020.”
It continues to influence how we communicate with customers and design our cheese boxes. After the Save British Cheese campaign, we devised the Neal’s Yard Dairy subscription, bringing a selection of three surprise cheeses each month for a fixed price that can be paid in monthly instalments, and includes tasting notes and free delivery. “A lot of customers who signed up to that knew they liked cheese, they just didn’t know that much about it, or which cheese they liked,” Jason says. The subscription box enabled them to “undertake a journey of discovery without making the decisions.” As a result of this approach and its inclusive pricing structure, “there are a lot more consumers of great British cheese at the beginning of 2021 than there were at the beginning of 2020,” says Jason, “and that came about from them being introduced in a way that was pleasurable and not intimidating.”
People want to shop small and local
In December 2020, Neal’s Yard Dairy opened its fourth shop in 41 years among the vibrant, eclectic mix of delis and antique shops on Essex Road, Islington. The recent shopping patterns of the nation are changing: more support for local, independent businesses, less looking to central London as home working becomes the new normal. “Even before the pandemic we felt the way retail was moving was toward neighbourhood zones rather than the middle of town. As certain areas of London have been populated with more good quality food shops, it has given consumers in the area reason to shop locally and support them, reducing the need to shop in supermarkets,” says Jason. Opening a small, neighbourhood shop on Essex Road “was a really positive conclusion to 2020 and start to 2021.”
In the years to come, Jason does envisage another new shop in another new neighbourhood – but insists that “we don’t want a series of replicas. We want to learn more about Islington and have this shop develop its own character. We might open somewhere else if the right location presents itself, but it’s unlikely to be for a while. We have always had inner-city sites, so it will be great to learn more about operating a shop in a neighbourhood area.”
The future should be bright
“In the middle of March, we were concerned for our survival – and while it has been a really tricky year, we have learned lots of lessons we can apply going forward,” concludes Jason. He would even go so far as to say that in 41 years of business, this latest evolution has been one of the most positive. “Specialist food, and cheese in particular, has found a larger and more representative audience – and a lot more people are starting to understand the importance of these communities of farmers and cheesemakers, and why they need supporting.” For all its horrors, 2020 did serve to “shine a bright light on farmhouse cheese in the UK,” he continues. “I do believe that in the years ahead we will look back on 2020 as the year that brought great British cheese, and its' cheesemakers, to a much wider and ever more appreciative audience.”
For now we have lots to be hopeful for. We look forward to the new season of goat and sheep milk cheeses that herald the coming of spring. We hope to re-open the Covent Garden shop soon and have confidence that it will sit in a thriving theatre and restaurant scene once again. Lastly, we are excited to build stronger relationships with all of our new and existing customers, whose support has meant that we have survived the most challenging year of our history.