This year's Retail Cheese Awards judges discovered new standards in presentation, says Jac Roper S ay cheese! For the eight winners of the 12th annual Retail Cheese Awards, sponsored by Dairy Crest and The Grocer, there is plenty to smile about. Cheese is one of the few remaining retail areas where real expertise in handling a live product is required. If your shop is known for its cheese, it follows that everything else in it must be a cut above. The Grocer has been running these awards with Dairy Crest for more than a decade, so the judges know their business. Independent cheese specialist Arthur Axon won the competition so many times in a row in its early years that the only way to give others a chance was to recruit him as a judge. His colleague Andrew Wilson, dairy produce consultant for Dairy Crest, has judged them all so far. "We do work on first impressions," says Wilson."How are retailers marketing the cheese? How good is the hygiene, use of props', the range, the information provided, the knowledge of the staff?" If they don' t know, for example, that pencillin mould makes a Stilton turn blue, there is no point in entering." Clive Beddall, editor of The Grocer, was there this year to cast the deciding vote if necessary. "The quality just goes up all the time which makes the judging job harder every year," said Beddall. The independent specialist shops obviously have the edge. There are, according to the the Guild of Fine Food Retailers, probably only around 150 independent specialists in the country, so they are by their very nature a pedigree breed. The winners this year are all firstcomers to the awards and although they all fall into class A category, are very different from each other. Andrew Bell is a stall holder. He is overall winner of the independents award. The Chicken and Cheese Stall is one of 35 under-cover stalls in Macclesfield's Grosvenor Centre market. The 15ft x 12ft stall has been there for 27 years, as long as the market itself, which might explain why it has pride of place at the front entrance. Axon comments:"It' s the best market stall I've ever seen with a well balanced range, well ticketed so people know what they're buying, and with a very good volume of products." Bell sells 140 to 150 varieties, supplied mainly by wholesaler Bradbury's of Buxton, Derbyshire and Lancashire creamery Greenfield's. About one-third of the £4,000-£5,000 cheese turnover a week now comes from Continental cheeses, first introduced about 10 years ago. His most unusual cheese is the Norwegian Gjetost, a breakfast cheese which looks like a block of fudge and sells very well. But his bestseller is a Lancashire cheese, a little surprising, as the local' cheese is Cheshire, which comes second. Bell is not only a cheese expert, he is also an astute marketing man. "On Saturdays, our busiest day, we always do a cheese-of-the-week tasting. The staff go outside the stall and they target people. If it's a very strong cheese they go for the older palate, it it' s mild they might go for young mums. They use plenty of eye contact." He keeps his eye on the supermarkets ­ "that's where trends start." On Friday and Saturday the stall goes for "best supermarkety" look, with clingfilm off. "So it all looks fresh and as people would expect it to look," says Bell, who has just invested £20,000 in a state-of-the-art counter fridge. Regional winner, independent sector Elise Jungheim started to sell cheese from a table in Tavistock' s pannier market three and a half years ago. She has since graduated to a shop, Country Cheeses, located just behind the market and her stock has grown to 80 varieties. Her speciality is West Country cheese ­ Cheddars, goats cheeses and endless specialities, all made in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset. The only exceptions are the Stiltons. The Romanian Water Buffalo is a thriving species in the West Country which means Jungheim can stock such exotic sounding varieties as Blissful Buffalo. "When people first come into the shop, they often ask apologetically if it' s OK to just want some Cheddar," laughs Jungheim. "We have to reassure them ­ a good Cheddar is hard to beat." Ian McAllister, also regional winner, independent sector, used to be a design consultant. Among his other skills he can count training as a chef in Glasgow and then running a bakery business. A lifelong love affair with cheese dictated the type of cheese shop he wanted. His two-and-a-half year old Gourmet's Lair at Inverness sells a prodigious 130 different cheeses with an emphasis on Scottish, Irish and English, plus the unusual Continentals. "We serve an area about the size of Belgium," says McAllister, "and we get a lot of tourists from England-shire'. We give them mailing lists and subsequently supply a lot of cheese by post." The locals aren't forgotten either. "We do tastings every day ­ and it is not unknown for us to walk up and down the street offering them. Customers can taste anything they want." The middle' category of the cheese awards ­ Cabinets up to 2m ­ is traditionally the most difficult. It is the category open to smaller multiples and symbol stores which have neither the space to go for the Full Monty nor the luxury of indulging in eccentric choice. Stores in this category mainly rely on pre-wrapped sales from the chilled cabinet, augmented by a small deli display to further encourage sales via the personal approach. Somerfield's Croftfoot branch at Glasgow took first place and its Atherstone branch near Nuneaton in Leicestershire won the regional award. Both branches attributed their success to their deli managers. Croftwood, at 10,000 sq ft, is twice the size of Atherstone. Both stores follow head office dictates but add their own personal touches. Ellen McBride, deli supervisor at Croftfoot for the last three years (and 18 years previously on the deli counter at Safeway) described her team's display as "clean and simple". "We used good quality blue napkins and yellow flowers. Staff are trained to chat to the customers and will take special orders." At Atherstone, Elaine Brice has been on the deli counter for the last 10 years and in the last year she was promoted to deli manager. The branch, at only 5,000 sq ft, is not much bigger than some c-stores and the ambience is similar. "We have a lot of regular customers," says Brice. "We're like the corner shop. People come back again and again. But you have to be a bit of a mind reader. Customers will say, can I have some of that cheese you sold me last week?" Last year the Safeway at Anniesland took first prize in the Cabinets over 2m category. This year, the 32,000 sq ft Safeway branch at Glenrothes in Fife was a regional winner, meaning Scottish stores accounted for more than one third of the winners overall in 1998. Its cheese display stocks between 40/50 core range lines plus local extras. The World Cup probably did the trick for Glenrothes. "We used it as a theme," says store manager Derek Durno. "We used wee footballs of cheese and flags for every country in the World Cup. The layout was a horseshoe effect with the Scottish and English cheeses tied in together and the Continental blues and softs in the middle of the display." And the branch is keeping the flags flying after the World Cup. "We've found it helps the customers identify the cheese," says Durno, "and we' ve kept the heather and the tartan on display for the Scottish cheeses which are our best sellers." He credits deli manager Bob Kerr, customer services manager Ronald Savickis and assistant controller Karen Main for the win. The 51,000 sq ft Asda at Longwell Green on a green belt site between Bristol and Bath is the other regional winner for Cabinets over 2m. It's the third time the cheese display has won a regional award, and it was also previously a national winner. "It shows some consistency," says general store manager Tony Humphries who reveals cheese is 1% of the branch's turnover ­ not inconsiderable when you take into account that the stock includes clothing, leisure goods and a restaurant. The 12ft counter stocks around 45 lines with one or two promoted hard every fortnight. "We might knock off 30%-40%," says Humphries. "We are very price conscious." He praised Christine Fulton ­ a key colleague' ­ who both drives the merchandising of the counter and serves the counter' s customers. To end with the best of the biggest -- the winner of the Cabinet over 2m category was the Pitsea Tesco. Very often the judges will find that the standard in the multiples category is set very early on but in this case Pitsea, near Canvey Island in Essex, was one of the last to enter. The 103,000 sq ft branch is 20 years old but only one year old in its present format as a Tesco Extra. Store manager Malcolm Kehoe says: "We're now the most successful 24-hour store in the company. Therefore you very much have to satisfy the needs in one hit." Its almost circular island display, Cheese Forever, stunned the judges with its range of more than 116 cheese and staff whose knowledge added up to more than 100 years of cheese experience. All the staff had been on the Tesco in-house World of Cheese training course. Among the unusual varieties, the branch stocks around 12 handmade speciality cheeses like Hereford Hop (Cheddar and beer) and Coquetdale. Kehoe is well aware of the potential for theatre and his staff set the stage accordingly. "People will tend to buy the same cheeses and won't take a risk unless you persuade them otherwise. We do daily tastings. We also do regular company promotions and our own on top of these. We also have two wine advisors in-store who work in conjunction with the cheese staff." n {{FEATURES }}