Back to business with cheese

To say the cheese industry has had an interesting few years is an understatement. Chris Chisnall is director of sales and marketing at Bradbury & Son, and Ian Luxton is general manager at Belton Farm. Both work on behalf of the International Cheese & Dairy Awards as director and chairman, respectively. The prestigious awards show is held yearly in Stafford, UK, with the next to be held on 29 June, and the public day on 30 June. They sat down with Dairy Industries International’s publisher, Neil McRitchie, to discuss the state of play in the British cheese industry.

Q. Is Europe a focus for Bradbury’s in the export market?

Chris Chisnall: We’ve supplied the odd customer over the last few years, but it’s never been our focus as an export stream. It’s been the rest of the world, and because there’s been Brexit, obviously. However, Covid also was responsible for shrinkage, as the airline business dropped because there was no travel worldwide. The pubs and restaurants were closed – we lost 25 per cent of our business overnight. That was an interesting period.

Now, we have a multi-functional business, supplying everyone from Tesco, Waitrose and Emirates Airlines to cheese boxes sold online directly to consumers. We export to Canada, Australia and do business with Gusto and Fresh Direct online food services.

We’re doing container loads with those export customers, once or twice a month. We do a consolidated range of British cheeses and British cheese is actually very in vogue around the world. People like British products and see them as good quality, food safe and traceable.

Our top three markets are Canada, Australia and the US. We’re looking at Japan and China and have ambitions to move into those areas.

We’ve also got Europe, which we have been dealing through discount contacts at Aldi and Lidl. That’s taken a bit of a backseat, but it’s back on the agenda this year.

Q. How has Brexit affected the export market?

Chris: I think Brexit has just made it harder to export products. You have to get the veterinary certificates and get the product across the water. It has to be signed off on everything you’re getting through customs.

Has it made it impossible? No. Has it made it harder? Yes. I think the problem is when it goes wrong. And that’s the biggest thing. If you have products over in Europe and it gets rejected for whatever reason, you can’t get it back. You basically might as well throw product in the bins, rather than get that product returned. To get it back, the recipients have to get their veterinarian to sign off on the load back to the UK, and the vets usually won’t sign off because it’s a British product and it wasn’t made in that country.

We are bringing probably six or seven loads a week depending on the time of year. We have hubs in different countries – one in Holland, in France, and one in Italy, so we’re bringing in whole lorry loads to sell in the UK.

Ian: There are a lot fewer restrictions for products coming into the UK. I think it has been done deliberately, and that’s because the British government has said, yes, come on in. Let’s face it, we’re not going to put massive restrictions on imports, because otherwise we’d have a serious problem with fruit in particular and, and other products being imported in. So, it is about getting it out of the country to the EU. We have the challenge on some of the products coming in.

Q. What types of products do you make and for whom?

Chris: There is a business class tray that we do for Emirates here. It’s four cheeses, in a rip and flip tray. Emirates onboards the crew, and then they can just rip the product open, flip it onto a slate and then serve it to the passengers on board. We also do the mini 20 gram portions for the economy section. As for processing, we do waxing, hearts and blocks and all sorts there. Then we do some hand wrapping for artisanals. We also innovate with cheese balls and blending.

Something that we did during Covid was to launch a direct to consumer range. Our cheese box club does about 20 to 30 boxes a week. We also launched a subscription model, which has been really successful. We send about 200 subscriptions a month out. They sign up to it and then they get a box of cheese coming every month with a gift. We do exclusive emails with details, recipes, pairings and things like that. In the latest one, we included a mango curd that went out with a goat cheese as a pairing. We’ve done matured Dutch Gouda with dark chocolate as well, which is a fantastic one. Subscription about £22 per month and people don’t get the same box every month. We’re in it for the long haul. It’s something that we’re pushing from the consumer side.

We also own a couple of cheese sites as well. Shadwell makes a white Stilton for us. It’s the only exclusively white Stilton making site in the UK. Other people make make white Stilton, but also have blue Stilton on their site, which means that their product isn’t as clean and fresh as ours. We own Northumberland Cheese company, which is based up north of Newcastle. They’ve got a cafe and a cheese making area and they’re making cow, sheep and goat artisanal cheeses. We also have a holding in a goat cheese maker down in Norfolk, which makes soft and hard goat cheeses.

It’s very much about selling the cheeses, and putting them forward for award contention. We always shout about the awards. We have 200 suppliers making 400 cheeses, and it amounts to 1,400 SKUs.

Q. What about your meetings with the DIT?

We work very closely with the Department for International Trade (DIT). We attended a DIT event with the Mexican trade ambassador and it was very much about getting introductions into the country. We haven’t seen any business arrive from that as of yet, but a lot of these deals and negotiations take a lot of time. I think we were talking to the US for probably three years before we started trading with a distributor.

Mexico is a huge country, so you need to find the right distributor in order to start trading. It’s a slow build with a lot of the export that we do. It takes time to find that right partner and be able to open up, but you are also working on it for a while.

When you look at the areas we are operating in, we continue to grow our export business. The Far East is a key growth area for us. We’re in Singapore, so we’ve got a foothold there. There’s active discussion in Thailand, Hong Kong and Malaysia as well. Japan is also on the radar. Then we look the other way towards Mexico, and we’ve had some inquiries from South America, including Argentina and Brazil.

Ian: I think there’s also an initiative set up with a task force with Dairy UK, AHDB, NFU and the DIT. The objective is to try and work out how the industry could be supported to export more. What do we need to do as a country to set up a simplified system? One of the biggest issues is the vet stamps and certificates. Every time you send a vehicle out, you’ve got to get a local vet to stamp a piece of paper. There must be a better way, and a more effective way. How can we, as an industry, reduce our costs to make us competitive and, and who’s demanding that then?

If we look at Europe as an example, we didn’t have to have any of these systems until we extracted ourselves from Europe. Now we’re seen as a third country. There’s a requirement now. It’s driving complexity and costs.

The hope is that, with the task force being set up, we’ll review some of these requirements, and there might be an impetus to actually make improvements to help business to export. It might also affect government and agricultural policies as well.

There is also a possibility that they could do it electronically. That’d be ideal. Now there’s a taskforce set up, so they’ll look at that and many other things. Hopefully we’ll start to see a little bit of simplicity coming through the system.

Chris: The challenge of getting the vets onto a site to stamp the documentation is a challenge in itself. Especially if you’re in a regional area and the vets do not want to travel. There’s quite a hefty cost to eat.

That being said, there are government bodies who are helping out. For example, the DIT and the AHDB. They have people in different countries who can link you in. They can put you in touch with people, and they’re also on the ground as well in the UK to help you if you are starting out.

Our chairman, George Paul is actually an export champion for the DIT. He works with smaller businesses that want to export to say, look, this is what you need to do, guys. He also does conferences and speaking, and is very proactive. At Bradbury’s, we’ve honed our skills over eight years and it’s still a growing part of our business.

Q. What about Singleton’s?

Chris: It’s always sad to see a cheese maker with a lot of long history in the industry go. I think it’s a lesson to us all in the fragility of businesses in this day and age. Nobody’s immune to that. We have had some inquiries from an export perspective, because obviously Singleton’s did a bit of export.

We’re quite close-knit industry really. Everybody sees each other at the ICDA annually and other various events. It is difficult to see people go when there’s businesses that have been around for about 80 years, but it demonstrates the importance of investment, innovation and modernisation.

Q. What do you consider your biggest challenge?

Chris: Ooh. I would suggest that one of the biggest challenges at the moment is the cost of living crisis. We mainly sell in the middle to upper premium ranges within retailers and

customers. We are not in that commoditised area. We’re not doing big blocks of mild cheddar or red Leicester into Aldi and Lidl, we are mainly dealing with those premium cheeses.

At the moment we’ve not seen a lot of change. That’s mainly because we’re in the sort of quieter quarter of the year. We are quite lucky because we don’t manufacture cheese. We haven’t got 30 tons, 300 tons or 3,000 tons of cheese sitting behind us. We have to be fleet of foot to be able to move suddenly, and adapt, which is something we’ve had to do during covid and the cost of living crisis.

The last four or five years we’ve been focused on managing costs and staying profitable. Another challenge coming up is that the minimum wage goes again this year. That puts another strain on the finances. You’ve got to find that on top of the utility costs. We’re adaptable and our strategy allows us to cover a number of streams. If the airline business isn’t doing as well, then we’ve got three other streams that we can sort of push along.

From the operational point of view, it’s about getting the right skill sets on board and retaining them, but also identifying and attracting them into the business. There’s a lot of investment going into training here.

For example, we’ve recruited a new supply chain manager this week and a new quality assurance manager joins us in three weeks’ time. The sales team’s been bolstered, so we’re all about growth, even though we know we have these challenges of managing cost.

Ian: It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the year pans out. If you remember the 2008 financial first financial crash, what consumers did was trade down, but also trade up. Everything was lost in the middle. It feels as though that’s sort of happening again.

People are indulging at home, but they’re buying cheaper products. On top of that, now we’ve got the high utility prices, which are now declining. That being said, people might find a little bit more disposable income as the year goes on.

Chris: We’re also starting to see a bit of deflation in the market for milk prices as well. It’s not going to go back down to where it was.

Ian: It’s certainly been an interesting 12 months, but hopefully going into next year, interest rates will start coming down again and inflation might be a bit more manageable. It may mean that, we get to back to some form of normality. Depends on where Ukraine is, I suppose. It’s also about the effect on brands and the added value, as hopefully people indulge more at home rather than go out. We are just trying to control our costs and find innovative ways to produce some cheese.

We are in a very healthy milk field and great relationships with the producers. We’re in a very strong place in terms of supply, but we just need to make sure that we’re producing cheese efficiently so that we can compete.

Q What new products are in the pipeline?

Ian: We’re always doing trials like every other cheese maker. Our last one was smoked Red Fox on the back of Belton Red Fox, which is a modern British cheese. Although it’s based on a Red Leicester recipe, it’s nothing like a Red Leicester really. We make White Fox as well, which looks like a cheddar but with a unique flavour profile. Red Fox reinvigorated the territorials segment in the UK.

Chris: People are also trying to determine what Continental cheese that’s going to be big in the UK. Everyone’s looking for what’s the next Comté or halloumi. It’s all about a unique flavour or texture.

It’s interesting times. I think the next 12 months is going to be challenging, before it starts to improve.

Related content

Leave a reply

Dairy Industries International