Posted: 20/11/2019

Taking it to the people

It’s easy to turn your nose up at prepack-led supermarket “deli” ranges. But a dozen counters in Ireland’s Dunnes chain, run by Irish artisan cheese champion Sheridans, have shown you can do ‘mass market’ – and do it brilliantly. PATRICK McGUIGAN reports.

Cheese buffs won’t be surprised to read that, earlier this year, Sheridans won the Best Specialist Cheese Shop category in the Guild of Fine Food’s prestigious Shop of the Year competition. Seamus and Kevin Sheridan have been at the forefront of the Irish cheese renaissance since they first started selling cheese from a market stall in Galway in 1995, and have arguably done more to champion farmhouse cheese in the country than anyone else. 

So the business is an obvious contender for an award that sees expert judges and mystery shoppers scour the UK and Ireland for the best indie retailers. 

But eyebrows were raised slightly when it was announced the winning outlet was not one of Sheridans’ traditional cheese shops, but a supermarket concession.

The counter in Dunnes Stores’ shiny 4,000 sq m Cornelscourt store in Dublin is one of 12 such tie-ups with Ireland’s largest supermarket chain, which has also added similar concessions from butcher James Whelan and the Alternative Bread Company as it looks to put distance between itself and the German discounters. 

Kevin Sheridan confesses that “large retail was seen as the enemy” when he first started out, so he and his brother were apprehensive when Dunnes initially approached them to open a counter in 2015.

“We went away and thought about it,” he says. “Seamus and I went for a walk around the warehouse, discussing. What do we like doing? Selling cheese. Who do we like selling it to? Everybody. 

“So we thought it was worth a shot as long as we had 100% control over our product range and our staff.”

That independence has been key to the partnership, which is due to expand with further counters in the coming months. Sheridans has total control over its staff, product range and pricing with each concession working as a shop within a shop. Dunnes simply takes a percentage of each sale. “The cheese that we sell on our Dunnes counters is exactly the same cheese that we’ve always sold, at the same price,” says Sheridan.

Each counter stocks around 100 cheeses, taking in old and new school Irish cheeses (see box-out), plus imports, such as Colston Bassett Stilton and Marcel Petite Comté, and a full range of speciality foods. 

Staff training is also taken seriously, with new recruits for Dunnes stores spending time with cheesemakers and in Sheridans’ five other stand-alone outlets to make sure their cheese knowledge and customer service is up to scratch.  

“That shopkeeper element is so important,” he says. “It’s about making really good food available to everyone, and the benefit that has for the cheesemakers. Even if you love cheese, are you going to drive to a specialist cheese shop, park and buy a wedge once a week? Probably not. But, by being in Dunnes, people are buying artisan cheese from us weekly. We’re getting a new audience for our cheese.”

This is reflected by Sheridans’ buoyant retail sales, which grew 25% in 2018 to help the company turn over €9.5M. Some of this was driven by new Dunnes counters, but sales in existing stores also grew at 10%. 

It’s a far cry from when the brothers first started selling cheese. Back then, Kevin had just finished a fine art degree and older brother Seamus ran a restaurant called the Blue Raincoat, but had been impressed by cheese shops IJ Mellis and Neal’s Yard Dairy after living in in Edinburgh and London.

“Irish cheeses were probably better known in the UK, because of companies like Neal’s Yard, than they were here,” says Sheridan. “We’d look up cheesemakers and phone them, and they would post the cheese to us. 

“I can still remember opening those boxes. The wonderful smell. I’d taste it with the customer because I didn’t know what the hell half of them tasted like.”

The pair opened their first bricks-and-mortar shop in Galway in 1996 and a second outlet in Dublin the year after, before setting up their HQ in Meath. “It was all seat of pants stuff in the beginning,” he says. “We built every shelf, did all the tiling ourselves.”

Irish artisan producers have always been at the heart of Sheridans’ business, with the company playing an important role in the rise of the country’s food scene. 

“Speciality food used to be stuff from abroad,” he says. “We looked to the French and Italians to see what and how we should eat. But Irish food culture has matured and become aware of our own heritage. We now sell more Irish black pudding than we do cured ham.”

This growing confidence is reflected in a burgeoning cheese scene with the original pioneers of the 1980s and ‘90s being joined by a new wave of producers. 

Not that it’s always easy being a cheesemaker in Ireland. There is still suspicion about raw milk among government agencies, food safety inspectors and industrial cheesemakers, says Sheridan, which has roots in historic problems with TB, as well as the importance of food exports to the Irish economy. The number of cheesemakers using raw milk has more than halved in the past 20 years to around a dozen, he says, as producers decided it was easier to pasteurise.     

“There were cheesemakers that were pushed into pasteurisation because it just became so bloody difficult to make raw milk cheese,” he says. “In France, the traditions and culture intertwined with raw milk cheese mean it’s placed higher up the value scale.” 

Attitudes are changing however with Irish shoppers showing much more interest in where their food comes from and how it’s made, as well as having a better understanding of the benefits of raw milk. Sheridans’ counters in Dunnes stores are also undoubtedly helping to spread the word to a wider range of people. 

The trend is so pronounced that the Irish Times wrote an opinion piece after Sheridans’ Shop of the Year win, linking its relationship with Dunnes to the rise of Ireland’s growing middle class, better education and social mobility. That’s pretty good going for a business that started on a market stall nearly 25 years ago.

“It’s always good to get off the food pages and into the main pages,” says Sheridan, modestly.

This story originally appeared in 2019-20 issue of Good Cheese, you can find the digital edition here.

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