Neal’s Yard Dairy’s role is to select and mature the British and Irish cheeses we like the best, and sell it, just as it has been for decades. Director Jason Hinds talks to Clare Finney about the business’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, why small-scale British cheesemakers are in desperate need of support, and how, among the many causes for concern, there are reasons to remain positive.
When Chernobyl, HBO’s award-winning TV series, aired last year, there were many brutally vivid moments that seared themselves onto the memories of viewers, but one of the most powerful was perhaps the most understated. In the opening scenes of the very first episode, in the control room of a nuclear power plant, an alarm sounds – and the reactions of the staff offer degrees of concern ranging from calm assurance to mild apprehension. “It was like that on Friday 13th March – a beautiful irony that,” Neal’s Yard Dairy director Jason Hinds recalls wryly. “Alarms were ringing, we were starting to worry – but we’d no idea of the momentum it would gather.” Only on the following Monday, “when the phones started ringing and ringing, and rather than customers placing orders it was restaurants closing up, cancelling their pre-existing ones”, did they realise the tsunami-like proportions of the Covid-19 pandemic. “We were in the grip of this huge wave, and all we could do is be carried by it and hope to stay afloat.”
Fast forward three weeks, and the concluding episodes of Covid-19 still seem some way off. There are, though, small mercies to be grateful for. The Dairy is still afloat, its online retail arm is coping admirably with a dramatic increase in demand, and fiscal interventions mean the prospects for restaurants (and, by extension, their suppliers) no longer look quite as bleak as they did before. Sales of its newly-launched ‘Dairy Box’ – a home delivery box bringing such staples as cheese, milk, bread, eggs and butter to homes around the country – are rocketing. In Natoora, fresh produce wholesalers located nearby in Bermondsey, the Dairy has found not just a friend but a new partner. “We met at a safe distance on the Wednesday of that week in the Spa Terminus courtyard to compare notes,” Jason recalls. “Both of us had an enormous amount of stock in our respective warehouses, with a very limited shelf life and no obvious market – and what Natoora did was incredibly dynamic. They converted their app for chefs to consumers, and just a few days later they launched.”
The success of the Dairy Box; the restaurant customers pivoting into produce stores; Neal’s Yard Dairy partnering with Natoora are just some of the seismic shifts Jason has had to get his head around. All are examples of businesses innovating in response to a dramatic situation and coming up with solutions. In the weeks and months ahead, Jason’s hope – the hope of all the Dairy’s directors – is that this spirit of collaboration is consolidated into initiatives that help everyone in the wider community. “After so much disagreement on a national and global scale, seeing society as a whole unite and engage in positive action has been uplifting,” he says. “It’s inspiring what we can achieve together.” But despite these reasons for positivity, there is no doubt that the situation faced by small-scale food producers and British cheesemakers in particular is, he continues, “very grave indeed”.
Not everyone benefited from the pandemic-fuelled sweep that made March a record month for supermarket sales. In fact, as the aisles were cleared of packets and cans, it became clear that the panic buying (and the big retailers’ response to it) would come at a huge cost to some producers. “The soft cheeses, the blue cheeses, even some of the specialist hard cheeses were all cleared to create space for commodities,” Jason explains. “What cheese was sold was cheap, freezable and grateable.” Orders were cancelled, not to be repeated in the foreseeable future, and cheese rejected or sent back to producers. Add to that the restaurant closures and the shutting or markedly reduced capacity of markets and you have “a double whammy” for producers who depend on supermarkets and restaurants as well as specialist suppliers like Neal’s Yard Dairy for income.
“The gravity of this situation depends on the type of cheese,” Jason explains. “Producers who make blue and soft cheeses suffer the most – particularly as those are the most likely to make their way into restaurants.” While the producers of hard, mature cheeses at least have the option of keeping their stock for a few weeks longer, those that make highly perishable cheeses had no choice but to say goodbye to thousands of pounds and gallons of milk. “In a normal week, Joe Bennett who makes Innes Log and Innes Brick at Highfields Farm Dairy could make 1,400 cheeses. Last week he made 22. He’s pouring milk down the drain,” Jason continues. For Joe and other producers like him, the next month will prove “the most pivotal in their histories, as they face the prospect of throwing more cheese and milk away if they can’t quickly find homes.”
Which brings us back to the Dairy, and the responsibility it feels towards its farmers, cheesemakers, cheesemongers and customers. The reason Jason has had sleepless nights of late, the reason the Dairy’s directors meet every morning including weekends, is because “we are supporting a food system that supports a few hundred lives and the families associated with those lives” and the company’s success (and that of other cheesemongers it directly supports or indirectly inspires) is critical if that system is to continue. “Our community has always been tight. There has always been that feeling of working together. But this sense of being part of something bigger is helping people innovate and adapt now more than ever before.”
Almost overnight, a business’s ability to survive the pandemic began to hinge on the strength of its online presence – not something cheesemakers and farmers are particularly renowned for. “They live and work on farms. Their business model is by nature remote to begin with.” To be able, as the Dairy is, to “shine a light on those who need support” and connect cheesemakers to consumers through their online shop and delivery service is to provide a life support. As for the Dairy’s own shops – perhaps the most direct and obvious means by which the business can support its makers – with the exception of Covent Garden (which closed as the shape of the shop made it difficult to keep staff and customers two metres apart), they are open and staff are trading at a safe social distance.
There’s a cruel irony here, Jason observes, in that the shops and producers suffering the most at the hands of the pandemic are, for the most part, far better placed to observe government guidelines than larger retailers. The stockpiling, the queues, the bog roll scrum – all this came at the expense of social distancing, hampering supermarkets’ ability to help control the spread of the virus in those initial weeks. The gloves, the overalls, the scrupulous washing of hands – “we are a business for whom that has always been second nature,” Jason says, and when it came to prioritising customer safety further still, the Dairy was able to respond far quicker than bigger companies. That, together with a commitment to small independent producers, makes the Dairy not just a viable alternative, but “a positive choice for local customers looking for a safe environment in which to shop and support those whose livelihoods depend on the sale of cheese, milk and butter”.
For Jason, remaining open is a public service.
“We’re not looking to sell tons of cheese,” he points out. “We’re looking to serve people with great food, produced by conscientious, quality producers”
– be that selling to locals at the shops, or to the wider public via our online shop. The latter has seen phenomenal growth in a short time “We are aware that the lifeblood of e-commerce is logistics, and we are putting in place a plan for growth that pays close attention to that. As the demand for food delivery soars over the next few weeks, we will do everything we can to ensure there are enough delivery drivers and vehicles to cope.” The secret, he says, will be working together. “Soon we will be including Monmouth coffee for example. It’s more sustainable for drivers and more cost-effective for customers.” If these sorts of collaborations prove anything, it is that “there are all these retailers, wholesalers and producers working with a common purpose, and if we can tap into the collaborative potential of this community really great things can be unleashed.”
The risk is that the prevailing narrative advanced by the media dismisses the foods these retailers sell as luxuries, superfluous at a time of crisis. The reality could not be further from the truth, argues Jason.
“That the milk, butter, bread and cheese we sell here are more expensive than those you find in the supermarket does not make them any less essential. The difference is, you are sustaining practices like good animal welfare, regenerative agriculture.” This distinction – between ‘luxuries’ and ‘essentials you pay more for because they support a sustainable food system’ – is one that needs to be clarified, and urgently, he continues. "If you are buying eggs, veg and milk because they are cheap, you aren’t sustaining anything,” he says, “beyond corporate greed and big business.”
Speaking now, three weeks on from that fateful Friday 13th, Jason is cautiously positive – buoyed up both by the wider community, and by his colleagues at the Dairy. A few days ago, he and his fellow directors took the painful decision to temporarily furlough 20 members of staff – and were “incredibly moved by their support”. “They were so understanding,” he says, feelingly. “They know we are doing all we can to ensure the survival of the business” – in part because the directors are in constant, open communication with all the staff, in part “because of that feeling of being part of something bigger.” Likewise orders and messages of thanks from customers, from first time buyers to those who have shopped at Neal’s Yard Dairy for decades, have been hugely appreciated. Their faith in the Dairy and its mission has inspired him into feeling “totally focused on the next stages of what we do.”
A big part of that will be communication: internally, with the staff, and externally in the form of regular newsletters and constant conversations with suppliers and customers. Neal’s Yard Dairy’s community is global, with wholesale customers from Seattle to Singapore. Maintaining close relationships with them has meant Jason is well placed to get perspectives from restaurants and retailers all over the world. “We are part of a wider, global community which shares information. Engaging with them informs our decision making,” he explains. Directors are isolating personally – but they are not operating or making decisions “in isolation”. “Talking to our friends in Spain and Italy, who are a couple of weeks ahead of us in terms of the virus, has been instructive as to what’s coming our way,” he says, “and we share information with our friends in America, who are a few weeks behind.” It is a restaurant customer in Singapore who offers the most positive news so far. “They are entering the stage of the new normal. After months of closure, restaurants there are placing orders.” For restaurants mired in uncertainty, producers struggling to shift soft cheese– even individual customers, who simply long to walk into the Covent Garden shop and sample some Stichelton, this is a chink of light: a promise that, whilst we are yet in the eye of the storm, normality will return once again.