Coronavirus – how our focus had to change overnight
We normally make cheese 7 days a week and our Shop and Visitor Centre in Cheddar is normally open 362 days of the year.
Sadly, on March 24th, we stopped making our famous cheese and closed our Shop and Visitor Centre in Cheddar Gorge.
However… to our surprise and delight, within 24 hours the demand for our cheese online increased. We needed to be able to respond to demand (safely of course) to be flexible and ready to adapt to a new focus in the business.
How could we optimise sales in order to ensure our cheeses, many of which were reaching full maturity could be eaten up?
Well, we got creative!
We were the first to develop ‘Isolation Packs’ which were bundles of our products grouped together and sold at a special (reduced) price.
We sourced special boxes into which we could send out these bundles ensuring that the cheese remained in tip top condition throughout its journey.
We ensured we could cushion, protect, insulate and chill our cheese in transit using either reusable (ice packs), biodegradable (cushions) or compostable (starch ‘peanuts’) packaging.
Importantly we offered a reliable and swift ‘next day’ delivery service. We subsidise the cost of this delivery so that we deliver up to 20Kg of products ‘next day’ to anywhere in mainland UK for just £4.95.
We had to fast track our IT skills to manage the stock available for sale on our website! We had to make sure we kept availability ‘live’ and responsive.
We’ve had lots of interest from journalists about how we reacted and coped with the shock to the business of Lockdown; all wanted to know how did it affected us and what would happen to our unsold cheese?
We’ve included a copy of an interview we did with Sarah Bence of Fodors Travel (https://www.fodors.com/) below. Her main interest was related to how Lockdown affected travel and tourism for us. In addition to the lack of Visitors, our biggest concern was the future of our cheese the sales of which had disappeared overnight.
Copy of interview follows:
Do you have a theory why the orders have increased?
I think we’ve got the balance right, offering a nice selection of good quality, fine tasting, pretty unique things, at a good price. We can deliver these ‘next day’ and our response & reaction to this sad situation has been rapid. We offer exceptional customer service (although I say so myself), and this has been endorsed by the feedback from our customers – which has been overwhelming!
The fact that people / families are now restricted at home means they have been able to take advantage of mail order services. I suspect they have had more time to search the internet for more unusual things perhaps. Maybe they’ve had time to look for top review products? We’ve won many awards for our cheese and received such lovely reviews on Google, our website, Amazon, Trip Advisor etc. that I’m sure these have helped now that people have time to be a little more discerning? I hope this is so anyway!
Can you please tell me a bit about the typical cheddar cheese aging process in the caves, and how that is being continued and monitored right now by your staff under current conditions?
A natural cave is a unique and incredible environment. The constant temperature and humidity provide perfect conditions in which to mature traditional, raw milk cheddar cheese. For hundreds of years, these conditions provided Nature’s own larder.
Starting off as an experiment back in 2006, this Cave Matured Cheddar has been a resounding success. We were the first in living memory to return cheddar to the famous natural caves and have been delighted by the resulting cheese quality. Both a science and an art, traditional cheddar has seen a revival in popularity – for all the producers. Back then in 2006, we took a step into the unknown!
Despite lockdown, we are still caring for our cheeses in the Caves, of course. They need inspecting and turning regularly. Today for example John the MD is up there turning 120 cheese!
What makes Gough’s Cave and the other caves perfect for aging cheddar cheese?
The wonderful thing about the cave environment within Cheddar Caves is that the conditions are constant. The temperature is around 12’C and the relative humidity 95%+ which doesn’t change during the day or night or even throughout the seasons. So, our cloth-bound cheeses which are matured in the Caves dry-out less; the moisture content is a critical component that defines the chemistry within the cheese. This combined with the temperature in the cave (which is 2 degrees higher than our own maturing stores) allows different cultures and enzymes to dominate which produce a unique more complex flavour, also influenced by the natural yeasts and moulds present within the caves.
How long has Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company been operating?
We took over the assets of this failing business in 2003, when we decided we wanted to make our own cheese rather than work for other large-scale cheese producers. We spent a long time looking for an opportunity. When my husband John came home one day back in 2003 and told me a ‘cheesemaking’ business was for sale in Cheddar – he couldn’t hide the sparkle in his eye at the thought of restoring and resurrecting authentic traditional cheddar cheese, in the village of Cheddar itself!
We had both worked in the Dairy Industry (60 years of experience between us) and had a good combination of skills; John had run his own Continental Cheese importing businesses having founded Eurilait – now a multi-million pound cheese cutting importer supplying most of the supermarkets in the UK. He has the business mind and is really good at spotting an opportunity and rolling up his sleeves and getting on with it. My background was setting up quality systems within the food industry. Having worked previously for some of the biggest UK Dairy Companies I had gained valuable experience and training. For me it’s all about the quality – the milk, the equipment but most of all THE STAFF. Without our wonderful team we wouldn’t be where we are now.
Can you tell me at all about the history of cheddar cheese within Cheddar Gorge?
Actually, we don’t know too many facts about this. We know lots about the history of Cheddar Cheese itself, but apart from there being quite a few cheese shops in Cheddar, we are the only producers of cheddar in Cheddar.
There are many stories (some more believable than others) about how cheddar cheese originally came into being. There’s the one about the milkmaid who left a bucket of milk accidentally in the Cheddar Caves. She allegedly came back to find it had transformed into something more interesting! What is certain is that cheesemaking goes as far back as the Ancient Egyptians.
Some key facts, however, are not in doubt. The land around the village of Cheddar has been at the centre of England’s dairy industry since at least the 15th Century, with the earliest references to cheddar cheese dating from 1170.
With the absence of refrigeration or adequate transport, the problem of what to do with surplus milk was solved by turning it into cheese. Cheesemakers discovered that if you pressed the fresh curd to squeeze out the moisture, the cheese lasted much longer. This method of cheesemaking along with other refinements was perfected in the Cheddar area, and so the first authentic Cheddar Cheese was born. Many farms in the area would have made their own cheese. This was often work undertaken by the women and very much a hands-on, laborious process. Cheeses were much bigger then too!
How does your company fit within this history? For instance – if there is a recipe or method for making cheddar cheese that has been passed down.
There isn’t a protected recipe as such, other than cheddar must be made from cow’s milk. We have experimented, tweaked and perfected our own recipe and methods over the years. The composition of the milk and the recipe must be in perfect harmony. Over the years we have adjusted the recipe according to the composition of the raw milk taken from the one local farm we work with. What we are passing on and keeping alive are the skills and knowledge of traditional cheddar making. We have trained all our three cheese makers and they have each produced Gold Medal winning cheddar at major shows.
Really all I can say is that we will continue to respond and send out all the orders we receive during this difficult time and we are so grateful for them. John and I and a handful of staff are in work every day doing just that. We don’t know how long the increased demand will last, but as long as it does and as long as we and our staff are well enough to do so, we will continue.
Most importantly, we have two years’ worth of hand-made, cloth-bound, raw milk, award winning cheddar in our maturing stores – and it needs to be eaten up!
Sarah Bence’s interview with Katherine Spencer, Technical Manager at The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Co. for Fodors Travel Guide. April 6th 2020.
In addition to Sarah Bence’s article, Zoe Wilson has done a feature on us in Enjoy-it.co.uk, Ruth Macintyre of Ruth’s Little Kitchen did a live cooking demo using our Extra Mature Mature Cheddar her daily Instagram ‘live’, plus House of Coco, Glamour Magazine, and London On The Inside have all written about us during Lockdown! And we must thank freelance writers Lauren Goodwin-Grafton who included us in The Mirror on Sunday and Margaret Hussey of The Daily Express too! Last but not least we must thank Dimitra and Rachel at SirenComms who’s suppport and encouragement throughout this anxious time has been phenomenal. Like our cheese, we’re not hi-tech and are slow to mature! With the ever present support of Siren Comms they’ve given us the strength and belief in ourselves to be dynamic, brave and very quick to react to this worrying situation.