The Stink pinned down Martin Tkalez – cheese expert and friendly manager of Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, to get the lowdown on what you can expect from a trip to Neal’s Yard. And what can we say? It sounds wonderful.
Hi Martin! Can you tell us a little more about yourself and how you came to be manager of Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden?
I started working for Neal’s Yard Dairy just over 10 years ago when I was studying archaeology at UCL. In September 2003 I saw a job ad for a company that read “if you like working with customers and you like cheese, send your application to…” I walked into the shop, it took my breath away and I thought “cheese, ok, I can do this”. I had an interview where I was just very excited at getting a job with nice people and that excitement seemed to be mutual and contagious.
I graduated a year after my first day, roughly, and thought, I haven’t got a plan, but I’ll stay here because it’s so nice. Fundamentally you can be yourself, even if it’s still a little contrived as a shop is, you can be honest about the quality of the cheese, and if you enjoy cheese, you don’t have to fake enjoying your job!
I was appointed manager of the Covent Garden shop in 2009, after spending time in both shops (Borough and Covent Garden) as part of their counter/management teams. I start my new role of Borough shop manager on the 16th May.
Can you tell us a little about the history of Neal’s Yard Dairy and how the company runs today?
Neal’s Yard Dairy was established by a man called Nicholas Saunders in 1979, who had opened Neal’s Yard Wholefoods (bought by Holland and Barrett about 20 years ago) as his first venture, a flour mill, bakery, apothecary (now Neal’s Yard Remedies) and Monmouth Coffee Company (with the original and current owner, Anita LeRoy) subsequently. They were the first steps in creating an Alternative way of working/living.
Nicholas wrote a book about squatting, the law, basic home maintenance that kind of thing called “The Alternative Guide to London”, having been inspired by Christiana in Denmark. Covent Garden was a part of London that was cheap, slightly shady and full of derelict buildings that could house a business and community of likeminded Alternative people.
Nicholas and Randolph set about making yoghurts, fresh cheeses and so on, in Neal’s Yard. After a year or so Nicholas turned his attention to other projects so Randolph was the owner/manager. Soon they started buying in various cheeses from wholesalers. They had been very successful with selling their own products because they could talk with some authority about them and had a dialogue with customers already about their products.
Selling quite ordinary cheeses from a wholesaler did not work in the same way. It took a producer to send Randolph some samples of cheese in the post for the people of Neal’s Yard Dairy to realise that there were people, out there, in Britain and Ireland, who actually made farmhouse cheese and were happy to invite people to visit and learn from them.
One interaction with the producer of Devon Garland really set in motion the modus operandi of the company ever since. We no longer produce cheese in London but we select, buy from and work with producers and work closely with our customers to make sure that the best cheese is always being sold by us.
Now we have a company that pays the best money for the best cheeses. We buy from around 50 producers and we help to bring their products to market – sometimes they are more established, sometimes they need a lot of our own support – but either way we want them to succeed.
We now have 75 employees. All of these things, that add up to £10,000,000 turnover for us this year. We were told, 30 years ago, that no-one wanted farmhouse Cheshire, that there was no point in selling raw milk cheddar, that Stilton could not stand against continental cheeses, that Britain and Ireland could not make food to be proud of. And we just do it without adverts or shouting, just letting people taste the cheese without having to endure any “foodie chat”.
How do you go about selecting the best cheese for the Covent Garden shop?
We can buy a lot of raw milk farmhouse cheese, so our feedback counts. That means that as a general rule, the cheese is constantly improving. Secondly, we are trying to be good customers. Thirdly we have a long-standing relationship with lots of our producers and make time to visit them so it’s usually a business and social call, meeting of minds. Fourthly we try to be straight with people and open about problems.
We select hard cheese and blue cheeses on Monday mornings and soft cheeses on Wednesday mornings. Those cheeses are delivered the same day or the next day to the shops. We talk about the cheese right in front of us. We review sales and based upon the flavour of the cheese in front of us, we try to forecast our needs.
Our “Retail” department has reps from each shop – Covent Garden, Borough, Bermondsey, Mail Order and any upcoming events such as market or County shows. We taste and choose the batches of cheese pack the cheese into crates and roll them into dispatch. Batch and flavour notes are circulated as far as possible to everyone, just to make sure that the extra ripe Wigmore (this week’s example) isn’t badly handled and should be sold first if possible or customers are given the option to take a standard ripeness or the extra runny one.
Then we need to make sure that each cheese is put into stock correctly. So for example that brie that you chose that is so ripe you are worried about it getting too much of a harsh ammonia flavour – that should be unwrapped and left on the shelf in the cold room for two days. Then we need to put them on the counter.
Then we need to know that if a customer wants a Tunworth, that we ask them, is it for today, in which case I have something super ripe that you might like in the cold room or do you want something for this weekend? Or if they say, this batch of Stawley is less intensely flavoured than last season’s production, then the person who is selling the cheese needs to know that maybe in May, we only have young stock, hence the difference.
What is the most popular cheese in Covent Garden at the moment?
The most popular cheese in Covent Garden, last week, was Stichelton. Something like 80kg was sold, on quite a quiet week. Generally speaking the highest selling cheeses are Montgomery’s cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton and Stichelton. This is a clear reflection on a few things. The quality of our cheeses, the British preference for Stilton/Stichelton and cheddar and that those are part of our recognised specialist area. Those are the top three usually, then there are about ten or so cheeses like Kirkham’s Lancashire or Appleby’s Cheshire that vie for next top spots. Things like Tunworth (a camembert style cheese, goat’s cheeses like Tymsboro, Ragstone or Innes Log) usually sell about 20-40 pieces each week. We sell around 60-70 kinds of cheese and it sounds like a lot, but it’s quite limited because we specifically want to turn our stock around quickly and really understand those cheeses inside out.
What can a customer expect when they come to the Covent Garden shop?
Short answer, a taste of cheese, maybe a hello. When people walk through the door, we just give someone a taste of cheese that we like and say, “try this, have a look around, if you want anything please just say!”.
The longer answer – it’s up to them. If they are here on holiday from Miami and have never seen a shop like ours before, then we take our time and show them what we have and It’s quite nice to blow people’s minds. It’s completely different each time. Honestly, it’s a bit like speed dating. We give people what they want and if they respond in the way you want, you know you’re doing well. Just know your stock. If you know you, you taste your stock each day, you are as ready as you can be for the people that come in. But even we sometimes fail with people because you can’t win all the time.
Here’s one of Martin’s colleagues showing a customer how to wrap cheese:
What’s your Current favourite cheese?
I can’t tell you – too many feelings, too many friends. I have a couple of favourites but I can’t reveal them! I can definitely choose them but I don’t want to upset anyone. One is a traditional British blue cheese made by an American man who used to make a Greek cheese for a Turkish man in Holland.
We’ve heard you hold tastings and classes, can you tell us a bit more?
We hold cheese classes twice a week in a purpose built classroom above the Borough market shop. They are a compromise between lesson and tasting – lots of other companies offer informal tastings but they are more like cheese and wine social sessions, which are nice but we like to teach as we have experts and an increasing stable of home grown cheese experts that want to teach.
They are usually two hours long and we have found that if we want to sell them that the ones which feature alcohol will always sell out! Topics include Beer and cheese, summer wines and cheese, France vs Britain and the Science of Taste which is a little about sensory analysis but a lot about pairing different kinds of alcohol with cheese to prove or disprove “pairing myths”. If you can imagine about 25 people along one long table, with a wine/beer/fermentation and cheese expert leading the tasting, discussing the difference between a Camembert or a Tunworth or why the British mill and dry salt their cheese as opposed to brining their cheeses, all having a great time, eating, drinking and learning, then it’s like that.