Cheese shop George & Joseph in Leeds is hoping to inspire “a million love affairs with cheese”.
It’s a big ambition. But with a host of awards under its belt and customers willing to queue for an hour to buy its wares, the business seems on its way to achieving its goal.
Founder Stephen Fleming traces the origins of George & Joseph (the middle names of his two eldest children) to 2012, when he turned 40.
“I’ll always say, sort of jokingly, that it was my midlife crisis,” he says. “I was in an IT career that I’d been in all my working life, and started to think about what I’d do if I had my time again.”
It was around this time Fleming began attending a cheese club in Leeds. “The club was getting 100 to 150 people to a cheese event every single month, but there was nowhere in Leeds to buy good cheese, so I saw an opportunity to try selling it.”
Leaving his full-time job to become a freelance IT consultant, Fleming began selling cheese at local farmers’ markets and food fairs, before letting a small shop in Chapel Allerton, north Leeds, where he was living at the time.
Three years later, he moved the business to its current site, a larger shop on Chapel Allerton high street that enabled it to increase the number of cheeses stocked from 30 to around 100.
“They say location is everything, and going from a little side road to the main drag where there was a greengrocer, a fishmonger and a butcher doubled our turnover,” says Fleming.
He designed the shop himself, with a cheese counter taking up more than half the space to ensure the products were “front and centre” when customers entered. The back wall features custom fridges with glass doors, while soft cheeses are sold from a multi-level refrigerated cake patisserie display.
“Being able to showcase as much of the cheese as possible is really important to me,” Fleming explains. “Our cheese is lovely to look at as well as taste, and we want it to look as attractive as possible.”
When he started the business, the focus was on Yorkshire-produced cheese, but customer feedback led Fleming to expand the range. Some European lines are now carried when a good British version can’t be sourced, but the core stocking policy is small-scale British producers and cheeses that can’t be found in supermarkets.
Some of those producers start very small-scale, he adds. “We have one cheese produced by a guy who had only one cow and was making maybe two wheels of a brie-style cheese each week. He has expanded since then.”
We have a cheese produced by a guy who had one cow and was making maybe two wheels a week
One of the joys of running the shop is helping such businesses find a market, Fleming says. “We love sharing the backgrounds of our producers, and our customers love it because they want those stories to tell when they are sat around the dining table with their friends.”
While some of the cheeses are bought direct from the producer, others are supplied by wholesalers. “Some bigger producers prefer to use a wholesaler, rather than selling direct, so they can concentrate on making their cheese rather than the logistics of selling it.”
Brie is one of the most popular styles in the shop, which also sells a lot of cheddar, wensleydale and stilton-type blue cheese.
“For our customer base, anything that’s local is going to be good because people are interested in supporting those local producers,” Fleming says. “We’ll rotate things in and out, depending if something’s happening in the news or if people are cooking with certain cheeses on TV. And we can jump onto those little trends.”
Fleming has worked to ensure the range remains interesting – and that customers’ favourites remain on shelf – despite the intense pressure of cost hikes that have increased prices by up to 30%.
“There is a tendency to stick with products that have had the lowest increases, where you know you can achieve the best margins, but we try to make sure we have a diverse range,” he says. “There’s just one cheese that we decided to stop stocking because it became too expensive.”
With such a wide range of cheese on offer, the shop makes efforts to put customers at ease.
“I was conscious of the fact that going into a cheesemongers, if you’re not familiar with them, could be a little bit of a scary experience because they sell things you might not have heard of,” Fleming adds.
The shop’s staff are trained not to use any complex and technical language, and to explain things in simple terms. “We get customers tasting and sampling things to help guide them as, first and foremost, we want to try and understand what their tastes are,” he says. “If someone is feeling relaxed, to be brutally honest, they’ll spend money with you. If they are not feeling comfortable, they’ll walk away.”
At Christmas they will queue for an hour to get cheese at the shop
Sold alongside the cheeses are accompaniments such as crackers, bread, pickles and wines. The non-cheese range was expanded during lockdown with groceries including milk, cream, butter, coffee and pasta, and some of those have stayed.
George & Joseph’s online operation also expanded during the pandemic, with Fleming using his IT skills in developing systems and processes for a delivery service. During lockdown, this grew to require three drivers delivering up to 150 orders a day to the local community, in addition to the shop shipping orders nationwide.
“Obviously since we’ve come out of Covid that’s dipped back down to a lower level, but it’s still higher than it was pre-Covid,” he says.
The systems set up during lockdown are used at Christmas, when the business can have as many as 500 or 600 pre-orders – and customers queuing to get into the shop. “At Christmas they will queue for an hour to get cheese at the shop and will also queue for the local greengrocer and butcher too – it’s become a bit of a thing.
”I used to get really stressed about it, but then someone pointed out to me it was a good thing that people are happy to wait an hour to come into your business. And I stopped getting stressed about it.”
Such is the demand for festive cheese that Fleming temporarily increases the number of staff from its usual five to as many as 15.
“We’ve been very lucky to find some really good staff,” he says. Some come in with cheese experience, but I’m more interested in taking people who have got great personalities and great customer service skills, because we can train them in the cheese.”
While Fleming enjoys being behind the counter himself, much of his own time is spent looking at ways to grow and develop the business, and on marketing. In addition to a strong Facebook and Instagram following, the business has a mailing list and puts out weekly newsletters to about 2,500 subscribers.
One role of the newsletter is promoting the regular cheese tastings held at the shop, where customers sample four or five cheeses. The business also hosts training courses for the Academy of Cheese.
We’ve got something we could pick up and replicate in another town or another city
Awards also factor into the shop’s marketing activity, with the business named Best Specialty Cheese Retailer at the Great British Cheese Awards in 2018, and Small Retailer of the Year for the North East at the 2023 Farm Shop & Deli Retailer Awards.
“Winning the Farm Shop & Deli award last year feels really good,” says Fleming. “What I like about entering awards is that making the submissions is a good chance to look back and document what we’ve been doing in the business. It’s really nice to take the time to realise how far we’ve come.”
And the business has further to go. Fleming is keen to further develop its online presence and eventually open another shop. “We’ve got something we could pick up and replicate in another town or another city, in an area with a similar demographic,” he says, adding that selling face to face to customers will remain a focus for the business.
“More private tastings, more events, more adventurous food pairings. That’s the sort of experience people are really looking for now, and we want to provide amazing experiences for people to fall in love with cheese.”