Jen and Ali own Cheese Etc, a small cheese shop just outside of Reading, 50 miles west of London – a local hub for their community.
Before they bought Cheese Etc, Jen was a sports therapist and her partner Ali was a coach. Jen knew nothing about cheese to start – it was a sharp learning curve, but expanding her knowledge was a challenge she thoroughly enjoyed. “It’s quite unusual for there to be specialist little shops like ours in such a small town, but it seems to be doing very well and it’s flourishing!”
The couple’s inspiration for getting into the business came from an unlikely place.
“When we got married, we had a whole tower made out of different cheeses as our cake.” After the wedding, they became regular customers of the little cheese shop that had made their dreams come true. One day, when they were shopping for cheese together, the owners mentioned they were looking for someone to sell the shop to.
“We walked out of the shop and looked at each other and just went: let’s just do it. We basically went straight back in again and set it all in motion!” Coincidently, Jen had recently inherited a little bit of money so the timing just felt right. Jen remembers how it all happened so quickly: they bought the shop and she quit her job the very same day. “I went from physio-ing one day to walking into a cheese shop the next!”
Jen and Ali had always dreamed of setting up a farm shop, but the opportunity to take over an established business immediately appealed.
Jen credits the manager they had in the early days for getting them through the steep transition. Until they bought the shop, Jen had never really thought about cheese as anything more than something she simply enjoyed eating. But overnight, she found herself needing to become an expert on all there is to know about the product.
Jen felt it was important that her cheese knowledge was extensive. If customers came to the store looking for a cheese they didn’t stock, she could suggest a good alternative. “That was the biggest stress at the very beginning, not knowing a single thing – not even how to cut a piece of cheese and wrap it up neatly.”
The couple had always been passionate about quality produce.
Before Cheese etc. the pair had been raising pigs on their smallholding, turning them into premium sausages, and then selling them to the local community.
“Often with sausages, it’s just rubbish that gets used. We make them of really high-quality ingredients.” Connecting with local people over the importance of quality products was the catalyst that started their dream one day of owning a food shop.
On top of studying to be a Master of Cheese, Jen now works behind the counter six days a week.
She also sources all the dry goods in the shop. Ali works in the shop two to three days a week alongside taking on the responsibility for the continued work on their smallholding. The couple are supported by part-time staff who help out over the busy weekends, but otherwise do everything themselves.
The couple do things their own way when it comes to ordering and sourcing their products.
“We pick up personally from the cheesemakers themselves. We drive down to Somerset to get our cheddars every month. We go to five different farms and buy directly from them.”
Jen feels that it has been important to the business to build relationships with good local cheesemakers. They’ll often be given exclusive samples, as they are known to have knowledgeable customers who give valuable feedback. “We are all about using small producers and local products as much as possible.” This in turn helps win long-term customers, who are excited to try the unique products they can only find at Cheese etc.
Jen and Ali have made Cheese etc. accessible, which has broadened their customer base.
“We put the price down on quite a few of the cheeses. The previous owners thought that the more expensive you were, it meant more exclusive… whereas we want to cater for everybody.”
She understands that not everyone is in the market for expensive cheese, and so has introduced items like cheap yet high-quality cheddars. They don’t make a profit on some cheeses as a result, but in doing so, the business has become a hub for the local village – people found the shop more accessible and would drop by just to say hi.
A well-timed website launch in April 2020 has grown their business to new heights.
“Our old website received five orders a week. but now we get over a hundred orders a week online.” It was a lot of work getting their entire cheese catalog up on their website, but they had been working on it for months before the pandemic. They were able to launch just as online shopping really kicked off. They had created a simplified ordering platform and had uploaded as much information about each cheese as they could. They also offered local direct delivery alongside shipping for customers further abroad.
They found themselves working longer hours over 2020, as their local delivery option really took off. They were also able to help their customers source in-demand items at the time like flour, butter, eggs, and pasta. Being a small business they were able to adapt quickly, and it’s helped them to build a solid and sustainable basis for growing the business – even through times of adversity.
Cheese etc. has come a long way from the struggling business they took over 6 years ago.
There are more exciting times on the horizon. “We’ve just taken on the premises two doors down from us…we want to run some courses there.” They are also looking at hosting cheese and wine evenings and involving local cheesemakers to do talks.
Thanks to this recently expanded storage space they also have the opportunity to increase their online offering beyond cheese, too. They have plans to do more work on their website – adding more products like their crackers, chutneys, wines and beers.
Making the business more approachable has turned this previously struggling business around. Jen and Ali used their understanding of their local community to adapt the store’s offerings and approach, to ensure it aligned with what their community wanted. As a result, Cheese etc. is now thriving and growing and is a well-loved fixture of their small town.