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Making It Work: Cheese Therapy is helping Aussie cheesemakers survive

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Australians have had to adapt after their livelihoods took a hit from government restrictions introduced to curb the spread of coronavirus. In this series called Making It Work, we look at how individuals and businesses have pivoted to stay afloat during the crisis.

Cheese Therapy has not so much pivoted its own business as it has enabled others to change the way they do business.

Starting on the Sunshine Coast a little over four years ago, Cheese Therapy was founded after Sam Penny and his partner Helen Shadforth visited Vanuatu for a holiday.

making it work cheese therapy

"It was a third-world country with a French supermarket and, apart from all the champagnes, they had a massive long cheese cabinet with amazing French cheese. Every day we went in and had a different cheese and different experience every day," Penny says.

"When we came home we wanted to touch on the experience we had, and recreate it.

"We thought the food scene here was very homogenised and thought, how about we fly some cheese in - I'm sure there are other people who are in the same boat - and that's how we started."

Cheese Therapy imported products from France, Italy, US, UK and wherever they found great cheese.

"It opened our eyes to the world of cheese and the amazing makers and all the way along we made sure our cheese packs included an Australian cheese," Penny says.

Over its four years in business, Cheese Therapy built good relationships with local cheesemakers.

"At the end of January, when Australia was whacked with the devastating bushfires, one of our cheesemakers - Milawa - said 'we're in trouble, all our tourist trade is gone'. Like a lot of cheesemakers, they rely on trade from their cellar doors," Penny says.

"They were only receiving 10% of their cellar door traffic which is a massive part of their business."

Penny and Shadforth put together a Milawa pack with a goal of selling 50. They sold 2000 packs in January, clearing all the stock Milawa had prepared for their summer trade.

"We rolled straight from February to March to COVID," Penny says.

While Easter is traditionally one of the busiest sales times for cheesemakers, preparing weeks in advance, the coronavirus crisis meant trade disappeared.

"Every cheesemaker in Australia was affected," Penny says.

Under pressure

Many struggling cheesemakers turned to Cheese Therapy asking for the same support given the Milawa.

"We put together the Therapy box - four Australian cheeses - and the whole aim of the exercise was to buy as much stock as we could and get it out around the country," Penny says.

"If we had lost these Australian cheesemakers we would have lost an important part of cheesemaking in the country.

"We need to have mechanisms in place to preserve this artisan area."

In April, Cheese Therapy bought about 10 tonnes of artisan cheese. In a day they looked at a storage facility and signed the lease on the property came equipped with cold rooms, freezers and a preparation room.

Learning to adapt

Until COVID-19, Cheese Therapy was just Penny and Shadforth cutting, wrapping, packing and posting cheese.

From about 200 orders in a typical month, the pair was sending out 3000 parcels a week by April.

"In April we did more than double our annual revenue," Penny says.

The company also hired about 20 new staff in just four days.

"We outsourced our cutting and wrapping to a lady who had a catering business - her business had gone to zero - and she has now employed six people to keep up with our demand," Penny says.

"Even though there were a number of nights with only a couple of hours' sleep we had the foundation in place to make sure we had the ability to cope with this current opportunity," he says.

Staying afloat

Following the company's massive boom in April, strong sales have continued through May and early June.

"I've put strategies in place to show we have strong growth from where we are rather than in isolation. We're now working with all cheesemakers to give them a bigger voice, and distribute to all parts of the country," Penny says.

They made their first overseas shipment last weekend then hosting a virtual tasting for the Singapore customers.

Penny has also been working on a new innovation with a specialist organ and vaccine transport company - an insulated box which can hold its temperature for five days and be shipped anywhere in the world. "We've made an investment in this to develop a box specifically suited to our needs," Penny says.

The company now has warehouses in Sydney, Melbourne, and the ACT, and has bought its own fleet of delivery vehicles.

"We needed to hand deliver cheese in great condition to our customers and that has brought on a range of other complexities to the business but our customer service level has skyrocketed because of it," Penny says.

"We can deliver a great product a lot faster to happy people."

Cheese Therapy's delivery drivers are called Cheese Angels.

The future

Currently, Cheese Therapy can boast that it is the largest retailer of cheese in Australia.

"We've worked so hard to get here and we've had so many sleepless nights, talking over bottles of wine and strategies, but I'm so proud of the journey we've gone on with our cheesemakers. For them it's like a revolution," Penny says.

"It's the first time in the history of Australia that they're getting their name out there. They jump on our social media and interact with customers - it's been an amazing thing."

More than 95% of cheese now sold through the company is Australian made, up from 25% before the coronavirus crisis.

"Australians just want to support Australians," Penny says.

"We've had such a huge education campaign on what makes great cheese and Australians are starting to understand there is great cheese that comes from Australia, not rubbery camembert that comes from supermarkets, and we're giving people experiences every day that are first time experiences.

"We don't see an easing in the demand for Australian cheese and the work we've been doing since January is really attuning people to understand that there's a whole new world for them to explore. And the ability for us to deliver a great product into the hands of customers in a fast manner is really giving people a reason to not buy from a supermarket.

"We're hoping to get to a point we can do same-day delivery of cheese where we have our Cheese Angels."

Cheese Therapy now has six people in the office plus 10 packing staff and five drivers.

We're cutting through the confusion to help you manage your money during the coronavirus outbreak. Click here for more on how COVID-19 could affect your job, budget, super and investments.

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Julia Newbould is a financial writer and commentator with a background in journalism. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.
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