To say Liz and Neil Marchant's dreams have come true may be a bit cheesy, but there's no better way to describe the business that the husband and wife team run from their home in Torphins near Aberdeen.
The Craigmyle Cheese Company, an organic cheese producer, started trading just before Christmas after Liz and Neil decided that they wanted to run a business together.
They are already supplying direct to 45 customers, some of whom are distributors that in turn supply mainly delicatessens and specialist outlets including Harvey Nichols. Their most successful cheese, a Camembert-like soft cheese called Wummle, has won a host of awards including two golds at this year's Grampian Food Forum Innovation Awards and a first place in this year's Scottish Food and Drink Excellence Awards.
You may think that the speed of their success would have them dreaming about Wummle-filled fridges in Tesco and others, but with a refreshingly anti-mainstream mindset, Liz says that they will not be supplying any supermarkets.
A recent approach by Tesco was rebuffed before discussions even started. Liz says:"We'll never go into the multiples. It's not in our game plan at all. There's a limit to our capacity and if we were to expand to become a large producer, it would take away the enjoyment. But it's also important we remain in control of our product.
"The big thing about our cheese is that every step of the way it is hand-made, which means we can always supply our customers with an artisan, premium cheese that's had lots of TLC. That's what we're all about."
That doesn't mean Liz and Neil are short of ambition, though. The creamery, built next door to the Marchants' home, produces just eight tonnes of cheese a year but this is four times what they started making and they expect to increase this to 12 tonnes within the next year. Part of this plan includes building an extra maturing room for a blue cheese.
At the moment, in addition to their soft Wummle cheese, Craigmyle produces Clachnaben, a semi-soft crumbly cheese, and Morven, a mild, springy cheese. Further down the line a Cheddar-style cheese may be on the cards.
They've also taken on two additional cheesemakers as both Liz and Neil have regular jobs too (Liz runs her own PR company and Neil is an oil industry executive) and a sales and admin person will be recruited shortly.
The plan is to supply more retailers in England; nearly all the company's sales at present come from Scotland.
There are challenges that accompany such rapid success, though. Without a big budget, trade events and tastings are a key way to market your product. This can put a strain on supplies. "We have to be careful," says Liz. "We're small fry really, and at trade shows you can sell a lot of product as well as give away a lot, so we have to make sure that we can do all these events without leaving our regular customers short of stock."
Another challenge, specific to cheesemaking, is that almost as soon as the cheeses are matured they are being whisked off to their customers due to demand. "It doesn't mean we're selling inferior cheese," Liz says, "but younger cheeses can be a bit sturdier and chalkier. It just means that you have to make sure your customers know how to bring a cheese on."
The main challenge for now, though, is keeping up with demand. "It's been absolutely phenomenal," says Liz. "The press coverage we've received has been great and with winning awards we get new customers every day. We've overachieved on our business plan for the year already."
Maintaining this record will be hard but should be possible if the company sticks to the artisan and organic principles on which Craigmyle was founded. The milk is supplied by two organic local producers and the cutting, handling and wrapping of the cheeses is all done by hand. They also deliver to local customers, although some longer-distance deliveries are done through their wholesalers.
"We've won some food awards so now we want to win cheese awards," says Liz. "They are harder to win because you're up against your peers and you get a huge number of entries."
It will surely come their way soon, and will prove that you don't need the help of the big multiples to be a very successful supplier. n