COVID inspires Hartington Creamery to dare to be different
The pandemic has forced the country’s smallest Stilton producer, Hartington Creamery, into a major re-think – and it’s paying dividends.
COVID has not been kind to Stilton-makers. Sales of the blue cheese fell 16% last year as the pandemic took its toll, according to the Stilton Cheese Makers Association.
The crisis was particularly hard on smaller producers supplying restaurants. And there are none smaller than the Hartington Creamery at Pikehall Farm in the Derbyshire Dales, which only makes 60 tonnes of the PDO-protected cheese a year. The company was thrown into turmoil when it lost 80% of its sales overnight, but what could have led to disaster, turned out to be just what the business needed, says owner and farmer Robert Gosling.
“COVID is the best thing that’s happened to us,” he says. “We’ve had some pain and lost money, but it’s driven the business in the right direction much faster than otherwise. We’ve learned to dare to be different.”
The company previously supplied Stilton to just a handful of foodservice wholesalers, but was forced to focus on independent retail and online direct-to-consumer sales last year. It also put greater emphasis on its other cheeses – the soft PDO blue Dovedale, Shropshire Blue and crumbly Peakland Blue and White – while launching new blended cheeses in flavours such as caramelised chutney and chilli. At the same time, it developed bespoke blues for Chatsworth Farm Shop and Bayley & Sage. “Our turnover is higher now,” says Gosling.
The company was founded in 1870 and first made Stilton in 1900. In 2008, Hartington was one of the largest Stilton producers in the country, employing 180 people, but was sold by then owner Dairy Crest to rival Long Clawson, which promptly closed the factory and relocated production.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Hartington was resurrected by two former employees who set up at Pikehall Farm, making cheese with milk from Gosling’s 200-strong herd of cows. Gosling took over the business in 2019 and has been helped in his endeavours by entrepreneur Simon Spurrell, who joined last autumn.
Spurrell owns a software and marketing businesses, and is also the founder of the Cheshire Cheese Company, which sells a variety of waxed, blended cheeses. He set up the business 10 years ago and has grown it to be a £5m brand – £2m of which comes from online sales direct to consumers, who are encouraged to sign up to a free membership scheme with special offers and reward points. The club currently has 105,000 members.
“All the lessons we’ve learned from the Cheshire Cheese Company have been applied to Hartington,” says Spurrell. “Hartington is a forgotten brand. I want to help it rise from its slumber to become what it should be, which is one of best-known Stilton makers.”
The plan is working, with Hartington’s newsletter list going from zero to more than 10,000 subscribers, giving the company a much better understanding of its customers, says Spurrell. “Stilton is an older demographic cheese, so one of the challenges is to find a younger market. Dovedale is a good way to do that. Softer Gorgonzola-style cheeses are seen as much trendier than granddad’s Stilton.”
Gosling adds: “The advantage of selling online and having a big range is you can start people on blended cheeses and Dovedale, but they come back for Shropshire Blue or Stilton.”
It seems like daring to be different is paying off.