Twenty years ago, The Grocer and Dairy Crest teamed up to launch a unique initiative - The Retail Cheese Awards. The idea behind our awards was simple enough: we wanted to put the spotlight on excellence and reward the retailers with the best cheese counters and the most knowledgeable staff. Today, as we start the search for this year's top retailers, those principles still underpin the awards scheme.
Way back in the August 2 1986 issue of The Grocer, we featured our first winner - and a beaming Arthur Axon was pictured outside his store, the Cheese Hamlet, in Didsbury, near Manchester.
Axon was selected from a host of multiple and independent stores by a panel of judges that included Jacques Vernier, the then chairman of the French Society of Cheesemakers, and himself a noted cheese retailer. He was bowled over by what he found. He said: "It's a wonderful shop, offering a good range in a setting that has lots of personality and character."
Such comments have echoed down the years as our judges have visited literally thousands of stores and found some real gems, ranging in size from a tiny eight sq ft shop to superstores, all which have displayed similar characteristics to our very first winner.
Take last year's top stores. Low Sizergh Barn Farmshop in Kendal was praised by the judges who said: "It was a compelling package: a great mix of products, good displays, keen staff and a lovely environment." And Morrisons in Woking had a counter that made a great first impression. "It just makes you want to buy from the range," said our judges. One of those judges is Axon - whose links to the Retail Cheese Awards have been maintained throughout the two decades. After winning the top prize for a second time in 1987, he was invited to help with the judging process - and has stayed involved ever since, despite the amount of work involved. He explains: "It started out as week's job but as the competition has grown, then it has gradually become something like a three-and-a-half week commitment."
So what changes has he seen over the years? Axon says: "I think there has been a lot evolution rather than dramatic changes. In the multiples, we have seen them gradually moving away from serveover cheese counters to more pre-packs. On the independent side, there has been a real boom in specialist English cheeses as more people have come into cheesemaking. There have been more new recipes and old recipes have been resurrected.
"But generally speaking, the good shops are still there - and they are the ones that have been doing the winning over the years. And the best ones don't need to change that much. It's the same for our shop: we have a good formula, it works and customers like it. So if it ain't broke, why fix it?"
Axon's shop, which has been run by his son John since the late 1980s, is still proudly displaying those first two Retail Cheese Awards plaques. And the man himself says the longevity of the competition speaks volumes: "It's quite something isn't it? There can't be many trade competitions that have run for 20 years. So congratulations to The Grocer and Dairy Crest."
To find out more about the awards - and for details of how to enter - contact Stephen Gover of Dairy Crest on 01372 472277.