Celebrated cheese maker back on track - thanks to Nigella and Jamie
- Credit: Fane Online
The pandemic has been a rollercoaster ride for north Suffolk dairy farmer Jonny Crickmore after sales plummeted by 70% - then went through the roof.
His Bungay business — Fen Farm Dairy — suffered a catastrophic drop in demand for its highly-prized cheeses as the crisis unfolded last year.
But within a matter of weeks it was all hands to the deck when the lull was followed by an unprecedented surge in sales after two critical celebrity endorsements.
Jonny diversified nine years ago from the family’s core milk producing business to keep the business alive. Products include his raw milk sold at the farm gate, his own butter — and a Brie style cheese called Baron Bigod.
These have been highly successful — and the business has gone from strength to strength.
But when hospitality businesses were forced to close after the country locked down to prevent the spread of the virus, a big part of his customer base — restaurants — fell off a cliff.
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He saw sales plummet by 70% overnight at the start of the first lockdown in March.
Heavy restrictions on people movement also meant demand for his products was decimated.
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“When the first lockdown started this time last year we had made all the cheese for the Easter demand,” said Jonny.
“We worked out that at the rate we were going we would lose around £55,000 worth of cheese over seven weeks.”
Jonny refused to be defeated. The factory was in the process of producing more cheese as part of a seven-week cycle — but faced the dire prospect of having no buyers once the product was ready.
As a result of a brainstorming session with the team, the business decided to pivot to a major sales drive on its 1kg cheese wheels.
“We noticed that after the first few weeks of lockdown – when everyone was panic buying pasta and toilet rolls – people were increasingly shopping online to buy treats for themselves,” explained Jonny.
He placed an advert with a discount on the 1kg cheese wheels through the farm’s social media channel and website.
Within seven days he had sold 400 cheese wheels — compared to his normal volume of five wheels a week.
At the same time, a partnership with a local milk delivery firm meant free samples of Baron Bigod were included in rounds. This also boosted sales as people who tasted the cheese wanted to buy more.
But the real game-changer was celebrity chef endorsements of the cheese.
An Instagram post by Jamie Oliver to his 8.5 million followers promoting independent cheesemakers including Baron Bigod sent sales soaring.
Coupled with this, orders started to fly in after a mention by Nigella Lawson on her social media channels.
It meant that from an all-time low in sales, Fen Farm found that demand was outstripping supply.
Furloughed staff were quickly brought back on board and production was ramped up. The team worked long hours to service the orders.
Jonny admitted it was a rollercoaster ride for the Waveney Valley dairy — and has prompted him to change his outlook on the business.
“I have certainly become more resilient and better at reacting to changes in the market,” he said. “Adapting quickly and changing the ways of selling our product has been crucial.”