How the public rallied to support British cheese

To lose business just from restaurants would be challenging for any cheesemaker. Losing all markets almost overnight sent shockwaves through small producers whose cheeses are more closely associated with restaurants and food service than they are with supermarket trolleys. 

In our last blog, director Jason Hinds spoke about the various ways in which Neal’s Yard Dairy is adapting to help their suppliers sell the cheese they were left with when, almost without warning, restaurants and some shops (including Neal’s Yard Dairy’s own Covent Garden shop) closed across the country.

Many challenges remain, as do many cheeses. Last week, an initiative spearheaded by Neal’s Yard Dairy and turbocharged by the support of Jamie Oliver saw a dramatic transformation in the fortunes of three of our most affected cheesemakers, as thousands responded to the call to buy a ‘Save British Cheese’ box. 

Here, Graham Kirkham of Kirkham’s Lancashire and Joe Schneider of Stichelton Dairy tell us why the lockdown poses such a perilous threat to their businesses.  We hear how Jamie Oliver and fellow British cheese champions (such as Jenny Linford, Sheila Dillon, Nigel Slater) brought about the change the cheesemakers we work with so desperately need to see. 

To what extent did the closure of food services—restaurants, cafes, caterers and so on—affect your business?

Joe Schneider: Our sales fell off a cliff overnight. The sort of cheese we make is disproportionately represented in the restaurant industry and those cheeses intended for restaurants were all sitting there ready and ripe, or set to ripen within the course of a week. If we hadn’t shifted as much as we did over the weekend, we would have had to throw a lot of it away.

Graham Kirkham: We didn’t quite realise how big the food service sector was for us until this happened—it’s probably 75 per cent of our sales, either direct or through wholesalers. When the closures were announced, it was like an atom bomb going off. The shockwave was unbelievable. We had all this cheese coming back to us, all existing orders cancelled. It took three days for us to stop charging around panicking. Our sales with Neal’s Yard Dairy and Courtyard Dairy and other shops with really good mail orders embedded in their systems have been doing well, but when we were selling pallets of 25 wheels every week, 350g cheese sold here and there doesn’t begin to fill the void.

Why was your business particularly vulnerable?

JS: Our cheese, Stichelton, is matured for three months. I can’t sit on it for a year, which I might be able to do if it were a hard, mature cheese. Once you pierce the cheese and it starts going blue, it’s a runaway train. I can squeeze another month out of it, but that’s it. It also seems to be that the apocalypse cheese which people are buying are cheddar and parmesans—they’re not stockpiling soft cheeses or blue.

GK: Our cheese is for sale in Booths and Waitrose and you’d have thought, given the stockpiling, sales would have gone ballistic in those first few weeks, but actually things were quieter. We don’t fit in the bargain basement category and people have been, I suppose understandably, in survival mode, concentrating on getting as much as they can for as little money as they can. Our issue is we’re on a farm. It’s not like a pub, where I can turn the lights off and furlough my staff. I’ve animals to feed and vets bills to pay and if I don’t milk the cows, they’ll die on me. That week when things all kicked off, we sold just 9 cheeses.

How are you planning to manage during this period?

JS: We are in a slightly different position to Graham in that, while we are based on the farm, we buy the milk from the farmer and we only take a small proportion of it so for the time being I have stopped making cheese. It was heart-breaking to make that decision, but there was no point: we’ve so much cheese to shift. I thought we wouldn’t re-evaluate that for at least another four weeks; the good news is that, having sold so much cheese through Jamie and Neal’s Yard Dairy’s initiative, we might be able to review that sooner and get our staff back doing what we love best, which is making cheese.

GK: We’ve sold a few cows, put a few out to grass and reduced the levels we are milking. We’ve had to furlough a few members of staff too. There’s no template for this but as the dust has settled, we’ve started to look at new routes for all the cheese we have. Neal’s Yard Dairy has been incredibly supportive. We are all wrapped up in farming and making cheese, and they are doing a lot of work for us and other cheesemakers. The good news is that local people have been coming to the little farm shop I have created in the packing room and supporting us and our fellow local producers and businesses. I’ve always thought about having a farm shop and now I know local people will come, I think I’ll carry it on.

How has the last month exposed weaknesses in the way we buy and sell food as a country?

JS: I think it has shown that our food system is deeply flawed. It is not flexible, and it really is controlled by a cartel of big players. Everyone rushes to the supermarket and denudes it of food. Meanwhile, we had rooms full of cheese and no route to get it into people’s mouths. There were areas of the country with empty shelves and no food, and rooms full of the most delicious food on earth. If people were buying more from independent suppliers in the first place everyone would have been better off, but people want to go to one place and get everything.

GK: In the food service supply chain, there is a surplus of milk and no one wants it. We rang around and we couldn’t even have a conversation about it. It’s crazy.

How dire is the situation for British cheesemakers?

JS: I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but Graham is the last person on earth making farmhouse Lancashire cheese. He is a more endangered species than the white rhino right now. If he goes under, it will be extinct. Same with West Country cheddar—there are only four traditional West Country cheddar makers left—and stilton. These cheeses are part of traditions of cheesemaking that are hundreds of years old and they are at risk of extinction, without interventions like we saw last week. There isn’t a long list of young people looking to become farmhouse cheesemakers and if these people have to pack up, British food culture is going to look very different.

GK: We hear about all this government funding that is going to come through, that is going to make things alright, but everything is stuck in the pipeline. There’s nothing to get your hands on. It is too much, too suddenly, and the money has stopped—everything has frozen. The farm shop has generated enough money to feed my family, but those sales don’t begin to cover the big costs of farming, the bills for feed and vets and machinery. Up until the weekend just gone, with Jamie Oliver lending his support to independent cheesemakers and Neal’s Yard Dairy launching their Save British Cheese selection box, we had two weeks until our storeroom reached capacity.

Stichelton Maturing

How has the overwhelming response to Jamie Oliver’s call to arms and the spike in cheese sales at Neal’s Yard Dairy and other cheesemongers affected you?

GK: It’s been overwhelming. Neal’s Yard Dairy has just put in an order for a load more cheese to go out this week in their selection box. We’re driving to another cheesemonger this evening, to deliver more there. It’s amazing that it has had such a mass impact: we’ve had people ringing us up from one end of the country to the other, looking to buy from us. What’s been really fantastic is how the sudden surge in demand has spurred some of our other customers on to support us more: Booths has been a customer for a long time and now they are contacting us saying, what can we do to help? It has been lovely to see our bigger customers working together: Neal’s Yard Dairy has been amazingly supportive, and they have been working with other shops to find new avenues for cheeses we’d have sold to restaurants. Individual customers want to support us and buy cheese directly, for which we are eternally grateful, but we aren’t really set up for selling bits of cheese online from here—we need people to go to cheese shops.

JS: It was crazy. I was just dropping off some cheeses in Lincolnshire when Jamie posted his video on Instagram. My daughter is doing our Instagram at the moment and called me to tell me it had gone up. Three hours later the team at Neal's Yard Dairy called to say they’d sold 2,500 boxes in three hours. I am grateful on the financial side—that’s 93 cheeses for me. It is more than a pallet load. I’m sending over 120 this week. But I am more overwhelmed personally, emotionally, that there are so many people out there looking to support British cheese; to support that heritage and history.

What has been your main take away from the experience?

 GK: We didn’t realise there was such an audience just here on our doorstep. We had thousands of customers in London and elsewhere round the country of course, but we didn’t sell much to people in our local village—not until we put the shop up. In the last few weeks, and particularly since Jamie, they’ve been coming by on their walks, saying they didn’t know we were here, asking how we are and just so enthusiastic to support us and local producers generally. They want us to keep going with the shop when we come out the other side and I really hope that level of support for farm shops and local farmers and producers continues. That would be one good thing to come out of a bad thing.

JS: I think, being in the world of artisan cheese, I was guilty of assuming everyone knew why this was so threatening for our industry, for our way of making cheese. What we needed—and what Jamie did so well—was to communicate that plight. Knowing that people cared so much when they found out was more important than the money. For me, it was an emotional response: gratitude toward Jamie Oliver, but also to Neal's Yard Dairy. To get on the phone to Jamie and work with him and then, when they sold out in three hours, to get Jamie to switch the link from Neal’s Yard Dairy to the Courtyard Dairy—a competitor, essentially, though they have such a good relationship with them—it showed how much they care about their suppliers and how good a relationship they have with everyone in the industry. 

Graham Kirkham making Lancashire Cheese

Further reading: 

British Cheese Crisis

Can British artisan cheesemakers survive coronavirus?

Saving British Farmhouse Cheese

Covid-19 and the crisis facing artisan cheesemakers