Many retailers are set to spend the coming post-pandemic years developing their online services. Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy is not one of those retailers.
While the business has a strong ongoing mail order and wholesale trade, Swinscoe’s passion is selling traditional farmhouse cheeses face to face through the shop in Settle, North Yorkshire.
“That is the part of the business I love, and when you get it right and when people come into our shop, they love it too,” he says.
Swinscoe and his wife Kathy have ensured there is plenty to love at the shop, selecting what they consider “only the absolute best cheeses from small farms”.
The ethos that started the business around 10 years ago remains true today, he says: “We want to support traditional farmhouse cheesemakers and encourage others to diversify into cheesemaking: making cheese on their own farm, using their own herd, using traditional practices.”
And to do so, The Courtyard Dairy is much more than a shop, with the site equipped to ensure each cheese is kept and matured according to individual requirements. It also has a café and museum dedicated to the history of British cheesemaking, though both are currently closed due to social distancing restrictions.
Swinscoe’s passion for cheese was ignited as a child growing up in a country house hotel run by his parents. He believes his background and experience in hospitality is what has made customer service such a key part of The Courtyard Dairy’s offering.
It was while studying for a degree in culinary arts and hospitality that Swinscoe noticed the fine restaurants he worked in served very little in the way of British cheese.
“Everything on the cheese board would be French, apart from maybe a single stilton and a handmade cheddar,” he says. This prompted an interest in French cheese and the opportunity to complete an apprenticeship in cheesemaking and aging.
Returning to England, Swinscoe worked for specialist cheese retailers including Bath’s Fine Cheese Company.
“This helped cement my knowledge and gave me a better understanding of the beginning of the British cheese revolution in terms of small-scale production,” he says.
In 2012, Swinscoe and Kathy decided they wanted to return to the north to raise a family and opened their first shop a few miles from The Courtyard Dairy’s current site.
“There wasn’t much in the way of speciality food in the north at that time, perhaps a few good butchers, but good quality food with provenance was harder to find then. So, we decided to set up ourselves and do what I’d been doing in London and Bath,” Swinscoe says.
“It was a very small shop and that forced us to specialise, to do a small range of really good stuff, and to not water down what we did.”
The first few years were difficult, he admits, particularly days when the shop might take just £20 or £30.
“We didn’t have any regulars, we had cheese no one had heard of, and didn’t have any of the standard names. Now when people come to the shop they know our cheeses because they’ve been shopping with us for eight or nine years, but in that first year we had to try and convert every single customer.”
That conversion starts with the initial greeting, he says, and overcoming people’s hesitation to enter a specialist shop.
“The first thing is to break down that barrier, so we’d greet anyone who walked past the open door – I felt like a cuckoo clock sometimes,” he says, adding they could then tell customers about what they do, what traditional farm cheese is, and give them a taste.
“If you don’t, there’s not much chance of them trying something they’ve never heard of and which might be more expensive than they are used to.”
Since those early days, the business has moved to its current, larger location, while its staff numbers have grown from two to 19.
“The business had grown to a size where we had enough regulars that new customers almost couldn’t get in – we could only have four people in the shop at a time.”
The Courtyard Dairy has also developed a strong wholesale business supplying local restaurants, although that came to a sudden temporary halt last March.
“All the restaurant wholesale went, and also day trippers and other tourists, which was quite a big part of our trade. We think we lost 70% to 80% of our business that month.”
Despite the devastating situation, The Courtyard Dairy and its team received a major confidence boost when it was named Retailer of the Year in the 2020 Farm Shop & Deli Awards, two years after it had been awarded the title Cheesemonger of the Year.
“It came at a time when we were really struggling and, although it didn’t make a big impact on footfall because of the circumstances, it did have a massive impact on morale,” says Swinscoe. “It reminded us that we do a really great job and we need to make it through.”
And so, like many food and drink businesses, The Courtyard Dairy swiftly adapted to the new trading conditions.
The shop has plenty of outdoor space for car parking, which worked in the shop’s favour as it was able to bring in shipping containers to increase shop space and enable social distancing.
“Coming into our shop now is almost like having a personal shopper, with one person taking each customer around the cheeses,” he explains.
The business has also turned queuing into an experience, offering tasters to shoppers waiting their turn to enter the shop.
Beyond the shop, Swinscoe has been hosting interactive virtual tastings for corporate clients including Google and Innocent.
“That has been really exciting and also helped us to move a bit of cheese.”
And, as restaurants adapted to the new trading conditions and started delivering meals, The Courtyard Dairy put together cheeseboards to send out with them.
“This was very labour intensive,” explains Swinscoe. “We usually cut cheese into 250g bits and instead we were cutting them into 50g, but it meant we could continue to employ our staff and get cheese out the door.”
Various elements of the cheese trade – including those that would traditionally be rivals – came together to raise the profile of British cheese during the crisis. Swinscoe says this generated plenty of publicity, particularly social media support from Jamie Oliver.
The Courtyard Dairy has been busy resupplying local restaurants as the hospitality trade reopens, but what of the future of the business?
“We will sustain the mail order and wholesale because they’re a good part of our business but we probably won’t push them any more than we do, as we want to make retail the focus.” explains Swinscoe. “We are looking at ways of making the retail experience even better and more unique.”
This ambition is likely to include an extension featuring a larger museum to reinforce the business as a destination for cheese-lovers.
“You can do videos, you can do virtual cheese tasters, and you can put great information in a cheese box, but it just isn’t the same as coming into a shop,” says Swinscoe.
“It’s when somebody looks you in the eye, recognises you, and gives you a taste of something amazing you’ve never heard about.”
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