Posted: 03/11/2020

New Paxton & Whitfield MD sees opportunities for Britain’s oldest cheesemonger

New Paxton &; Whitfield MD sees opportunities for Britain’s oldest cheesemonger

Taking the top job at Britain’s oldest cheesemonger in the middle of a pandemic – and with Brexit looming – sounds like a baptism of fire. But Paxton & Whitfield’s new MD James Rutter is having none of it.  

“I don’t view it like that at all,” he says cheerfully. “It’s an honour to have the opportunity to be the custodian of a 220-year-old business, and to play a part in its history. There are lots of opportunities out there, as well as challenges. That’s energising and exciting.” 

Yorkshireman Rutter is only 34, but has squeezed in a lot since finishing a politics degree at Kingston University, where he freely admits to spending more time reading cookery books than textbooks. After working as a chef, he joined Neal’s Yard Dairy in 2008 as a cheesemonger and ended up running the company’s export business. He then moved to truffle supplier Truffle Hunter for a few years, before being appointed head of operation at Paxton’s in 2018.

Rutter, pictured, takes over as MD from Ros Windsor, a hugely respected figure in the industry, who he says has left “an incredible legacy” after 17 years in the job. She will continue to work as a consultant up to Christmas, but it’s Rutter that is making the big decisions now. And there’s likely to be plenty of them in the coming months.

Three of the retailer’s four shops closed during lockdown. Cale Street in Chelsea continued trading but its flagship store on London’s Jermyn Street and the premises in Bath only reopened in June and July, respectively. Retail sales have grown steadily since then as people started to go back to work. But the government’s new rules last month – advising people to work from home and the 10pm curfew – could change everything again. 

Meanwhile, the Stratford-upon-Avon shop remains closed, with footfall in the town still seriously affected by the crisis. “We’re having to remain pragmatic and flexible and react to information as it comes out,” says Rutter.

While bricks-and-mortar retailing has been difficult, it’s been a different story in the virtual world. Pre-COVID, the split between retail and wholesale was 60/40. Now it’s 70/30 thanks to a huge increase in online orders, which made up just 11% of sales in 2019 but now account for 40%, says Rutter. “COVID has pushed online sales forward three-to-five years. Over the last six months, we’ve attracted a whole new customer that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have bought cheese online. That represents a big opportunity if we can inspire them to come back and buy again.”

Delighting customers over Christmas will be essential with Paxton & Whitfield developing innovative new ‘cheese experiences’ for online sales, such as Strictly Cheese Night – a pack containing four cheeses and scorecards for Zoom gatherings. The company is also looking to increase capacity and improve efficiency for cutting, wrapping and packing online orders at its Bourton-on-the-Water headquarters. 

Developing longer-term strategies are trickier, admits Rutter, with much depending on how COVID plays out, while the effect of Brexit on the availability and price of Continental cheeses is still largely unknown. 

“We have the right paperwork in place, but commercially we won’t know the impact until we know what any Brexit deal looks like,” he says. “In terms of tactical planning, we have to see what happens this Christmas. There are likely to be changes in how people shop and the restrictions placed on us, so we’ll have to respond and adapt.”

In other words, there’s plenty more energising excitement still to come.

Read the latest edition of Fine Food Digest here.

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