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The only way is ethics: creating a culture of caring

Categories: Behind the stalls

How Neal’s Yard Dairy’s impeccable service culture lays the foundation for supporting British farmhouse cheese

“Everything we do revolves around cheese,” says David Lockwood, one of the directors of Neal’s Yard Dairy. It’s a simple statement, almost blindingly so, but underpinning it is something powerful. The drive to support and improve British farmhouse cheese is their battle cry—and if you want to answer it, you must be prepared to live, breathe and eat it. “It’s the reason Neal’s Yard Dairy exists,” David continues.

The recruitment for Neal’s Yard Dairy—“only on our website or outside our shops, so fairly self-selecting”—staff training, and pastoral care all pertain to finding and nurturing that instinct so that in turn, British farmhouse cheeses continue to flourish. “Anyone can buy and sell any of the cheeses we do, but we want to provide assurance to our customers that everything on our counter is amazing—as is our service. We are fortunate that people who are interested in working here see that and want to be a part of it,” says David—be it behind said counter, or in the maturing, admin or packaging rooms.

It’s why their alumni—Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein, Jon Thrupp of Mons Cheesemongers, and David Holton of Blackwoods Cheese Company, to name a few just at the Market—speak about them so warmly. It’s why they’ve gone on to do what they do: because Neal’s Yard Dairy stokes an appetite for cheese to the point of insatiability.

They invest in their staff—through visits to producers, staff tasting and even cheesemaking courses—not just so they can impart information to customers, but so “they have it in their heart, in their gut; so they feel confident in the cheese they are selling and could tell the customer if they ask about it.” They don’t make a habit of thrusting knowledge upon you in Neal’s Yard Dairy. Your palate is their first priority—finding the cheese to suit you.

A good host
The aim is to be “a good host”—to customers, to suppliers and to each other, David says. “At the offices and the packaging and maturing rooms we take it in turns to cook lunch Monday to Thursday. That’s 40 people at this time of year and 70 at Christmas. You get faster,” he grins, “and it is so rewarding to cook for all your colleagues.” Employees eat together, taking time away from their desks or workstations to be with each other. “The reality is that if you respect the people in your company, then other people will respect and want to be part of it. Everybody wins.”

A vital part of this philosophy of respect is transparency. Neal’s Yard Dairy operates a system of open book management: “The team knows what we are expecting in terms of sales, they know the labour budget for the shop, they have access to everything—because they are part of it.” Employees can visit producers, make cheese with them. They can create and seize opportunities within the company. “If people have talents and skills, we develop and use them,” David says, citing an Italian employee who started in packaging and now divides his time between the shop and the office, where he handles sales to Italy.

“The ethos of service is everywhere in our company,” says David. “It has to be, if we’re to support British cheesemakers.” Some British cheeses sell themselves—cheddar, stilton—but we’re not France yet and ‘testing out’ our lesser-known cheeses is vital if customers are to move beyond the classics toward “more challenging cheeses, like washed rinds and goat’s cheeses”. It’s interesting to watch the progression, he continues. “The Coolea is a great gateway cheese: lovely, sweet, easy, similar to gouda. Then in time we might say, ‘try this Lancashire. It’s sweet and buttery, but it has a sourness to it.’ We get them hooked on that, then eventually they might be brave enough for a blue or washed rind.”

A world of flavour
This progression is most obvious in new staff, as they explore and fall in love with a world of flavour outside their comfort zone. The more they taste, the more their palates develop and the more able they are to pick out the best cheeses—and give feedback, too. “I am out visiting producers all the time, and I can help them improve their product,” says David. The feedback and continuous support strikes right back to the heart of Neal’s Yard’s core mission, and to their service culture. It’s how, in 40 years, they’ve transformed the scene of British farmhouse cheese.

The genius of Neal’s Yard has been in forming a virtuous circle between producers, their staff and their customers. Looking after their staff means their customers are well cared for. Well cared for customers buy more cheese. Yet success isn’t just measured in sales. “A man might come in on his lunch break and have five minutes to get back to the office. He wants to be in and out as quickly as possible and it’s our job to read that. A woman might be over from the States and have seen some British cheeses over there which we’re selling and want to know more about them. She might spend half an hour asking questions, then only buy 100 grams.” These are all successful transactions, says David. The man has what he wants for his dinner party. The woman knows more about British farmhouse cheeses and might be more likely to buy some back home, “or even just tell people about it”. The more people like them out there, the brighter the future for British cheese.