NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our SME special feature. Today [June 10, 2021] we speak to an entrepreneur who’s running a unique kind of business. He and his wife established a cheese business which they describe as a ‘boutique cheesery’.
Well, to find out more I’m joined on the line by Danie Crowther. He’s one of the founders of Noah’s Cheese. Thanks very much, Danie, for joining us. So Noah’s Cheese is a boutique cheesery – that’s a novel idea for many. What kind of cheese do you make and sell?
DANIE CROWTHER: We make a range of artisanal cheeses, about 28 different ones. Most of them are our own take on cheese, so pretty unique. We don’t do cheese that everybody else does.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Okay. So what’s what’s different about your cheese? Please give us some example?
DANIE CROWTHER: The first set is string cheese, which is a mozzarella-based cheese. It’s a fun cheese that you literally string into little pieces that we marinate with pesto or chilli and herbs. And also we also smoke it with applewood.
Then we have a range of cheeses, our own cheese that we developed. It’s a salad cheese that you can use instead of Feta and it also melts well. People put it on the hamburgers or anywhere they melt cheese – or just eat it like that.
NOMPU SIZIBA: You are making me hungry.
DANIE CROWTHER: And then are we part of the Slow Food movement. We try to use what is in our environment, in our area. We are in a cherry area. When the cherry farms make cherry liquor there is a pulp that remains behind. We take that bulk from them, for example, and then we’ll stuff cheese in there. And so we make two cheeses that are matured in the cherry pulp.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Lovely. What led you to do this kind of very unique business?
DANIE CROWTHER: It started with my wife as a hobby, and it started with a cow that her father gave her as a present, a Jersey cow. There was too much milk. After we gave milk to the workers, the house and the dogs, there was still 20 litres left. She started experimenting Gradually this turned into a little business, and about six years ago I became involved and we decided to grow it. Well, that’s what we do full-time now.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So you’re based in the eastern Free State in a place called Clarens, or just outside Clarens. Just tell us about the kind of response that you’ve had from your local community and your customers.
DANIE CROWTHER: The local community has been very supportive of us from the beginning. Clarens is a tourism town. Over weekends we are packed with tourists. So on the farm we opened a restaurant and a deli. People can come here, taste the cheese and have cheesy dishes in a farm environment. It’s proving to be quite popular.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Great. So you create a sort of nice farm experience when they’re there. It’s not just about the eating of the food, but the environment as well. Are your cheeses quite pricey, because when I see the word ‘boutique’, I usually equate it to luxury and expensive stuff.
DANIE CROWTHER: I think in terms of our personal cheese we are market-related. I don’t think it’s very expensive. But of course you cannot compare it to the mass-produced cheese that you would get in the supermarket. It is a rather unique product.
NOMPU SIZIBA: And labour-intensive, I’m sure.
DANIE CROWTHER: Yes, absolutely. Everything is hand-made. There is no machinery involved in things like that.
NOMPU SIZIBA: So how many jobs have you created with the enterprise? I understand that some of your workers have developed quite significant skills, given the nature of the business.
DANIE CROWTHER: Yes, we’ve got, all in all, on the farm 15 people employed by the business, of which four are employed in the cheesery itself. There are quite a few tricky techniques involved in some of these cheeses, and they’ve become quite skilled at it.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So, like you say, you started out with your wife, you guys were experimenting. So how did you learn the business, the actual manufacture and stuff? Did you watch lots of internet videos? How did you learn?
DANIE CROWTHER: That was the university of YouTube – and we had a lot of exposure. We were sponsored by the Slow Food movement to attend the Slow Food Cheese Festival in Bra in northern Italy, which is the biggest cheese festival in the world. That changed our way of thinking about cheese. I think it brought new innovation into what we were doing.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Tell us a little bit more about this Slow Food organisation and what they’re about, what they stand for.
DANIE CROWTHER: Slow food is a food-activist movement that started in Italy in 1989. Its slogan is ‘Good, Clean and Fair Food’. But what it is about is that with the mono cultures dominating the diet of the planet, the long supply chains to get food from farm to table are among the big contributors to climate change.
So the message from Slow Food is that we should eat what is in season, we should know where our food comes from, and we should fully support the farmer or the producers directly where we can.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Absolutely. That’s something that’s being encouraged, in fact, for our economy generally – that people should buy local and produce local, and so forth.
DANIE CROWTHER: Yes.
NOMPU SIZIBA: You’re ticking that box. So Danie, during the Covid period, especially the hard-lockdown period when a lot of people lost jobs and the tourism sector got hit quite hard, did you see demand levels come down a fair bit? And how have you managed to remain sustainable during this very unpredictable period?
DANIE CROWTHER: Yes, it is quite hard. Part of our strategy before Covid was to attend big festivals once a month where we had stalls. That was about a third of our income, which of course disappeared overnight. With the total impact we lost two-thirds of our market literally overnight. It was a huge problem for us.
What we did was we started looking at the internet. We had always thought about it, but then we launched quite an aggressive campaign to sell our cheese online, and it has now become a significant part of our business, and our wholesale part increased. It was successful. We now produce more cheese than we did before Covid.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Wow, that’s excellent. So people come from afar to get their cheese.
DANIE CROWTHER: Yes, we send it to them wherever they are.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. So what are some of the key learnings that you’d like to share around your entrepreneurial experience – for those people who are budding entrepreneurs, who are listening and thinking, wow, what a great concept. These guys decided to just give it a go and they’re making it a livelihood. What’s your advice, and what are your thoughts?
DANIE CROWTHER: I think the first thing in the beginning is to develop your vision. We spent a long time defining what we wanted to do, and visualising it – how do we want to grow? We started very small. It was just my wife and I and one worker. But we knew where we were going, we knew where we wanted to be five years from now. And we visualised in detail the space on the farm where the people should come, what our new factory was going to look like, and things like that. We knew where we were going. And that time that you spend up front I think is one of the big parts of your success because as you grow you get very few surprises because you’ve thought it through – the time in planning. For me that’s the key to success.
NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Donnie Crowther. He’s one of the founders of Noah’s Cheese.