Tell us a bit about you
My name is Simon and I run and own Lacey’s Cheese in Reeth, North Yorkshire. My dad was in the army and I was born in Germany, lived in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Warminster and York. I went to ten schools as kid, which proved challenging. Because of moving around, this meant I had to very quickly make friends and fit in, as opposed to shying away. To make friends quickly – and how do you that – you make them laugh. I realised I could I win them over, by being the class joker.
I started off in life as a patisserie chef and I trained in the same year and at the same college as James Martin.
After patisserie school, I worked as a baker for Quality Fayre, which had a network of local shops and have worked in the food industry for 30 years, from big national companies to small independents. These include Northern Foods and Independent Gourmet Foods who supplied gourmet foods to people at home, way before you could get home deliveries.
I ended up working for Swaledale Cheese as a very basic assistant cheese maker. I had an understanding of cheese making through the catering trade and worked with David (Reed). I think David could see how I had a big company view of things, and I challenged him on practices to make things more efficient. David wanted to slow down a bit but struggled to get staff who had the right work ethic, and I was happy to step up. I worked there for six years, eventually as head cheese maker and I loved it.
I left in 2007 and ended up working at a homeless charity in Darlington, when I was approached by the Railway Station at Richmond, who were looking for a tenant and asked if I was interested in setting up a cheese making business in a small unit in their complex. I had a bit of money from a house sale, from a divorce and I went into it full force and that was nearly 12 years ago.
If not making cheese, I would like to be writing, maybe comedy writing; I write kids’ books with my son Connell and I have developed a character called Boris, much to my son’s delight. I am good at observational humour, probably because I have a lot of time on my own to think. I look at situations and try to make them funny. I had a very challenging upbringing as a kid, I went through a horrific divorce, and I lost a lot and then I built it back up again and do not take anything for granted.
What do you make and why?
I make a range of Wensleydales. Why: because we are based in Yorkshire and that is what people want. We do traditional flavoured Wensleydale and not blended. We have a fresh garlic and chive, a cracked black pepper, with no colour or preservatives, we do an olive version and a smoked version (smoked by Ribblesdale cheese) and we make some good Cheddar, though takes a while to come through to mature.
In addition to making cheese and attending farmers’ markets, we also run cheese making classes. We use Yorkshire milk, as this fits in with the courses that we do. People travel all over the UK to come and make cheese with us.
We moved from the Station at Richmond a couple of years ago due to rising rent and service charges and increasingly onerous contractual conditions, to the Dales Centre in Reeth.
We started the courses and now everything is booked solid 3-4 months in advance. At our old premises, we had 650 sq. ft. and now we have about 1500 sq. ft. for considerably less money. We wanted a tenancy that was not a private landlord and one where you could come and go as you please. There is also better parking for people on our courses, which makes a difference. Although it cost in the region of £4,000 to move everything, fridges etc., we have saved considerably in the longer term with lower rent.
Since March 2018, we have done a course every week and they have been full, we could have filled them over twice. I have a lot of fun doing them and they have taken off: it is a way of sustaining what we are doing, where we have the control over these ourselves.
If it is a crappy day outside, we are all there with a nice cup of tea and some cheese, inside, making cheese together. It makes me happier that you don’t have to worry about things you cannot control. With the courses, it is about bringing extra revenue without having to produce more, or without being paid to do a make. I really do enjoy spending 7 hours performing for somebody and letting them step into my world.
You have 6-7 people in the morning and you have no idea who they are, and they have come not really knowing what they are going to do, and they go away thinking: we had a cracking day, we are in a lovely environment, we learned a bit of history about the area, about cheese and about Simon.
So, our business is split in three: one part making cheese, another selling our cheese and the final third is the cheese making courses, we just seem to have hit on something that people really enjoy and it is gaining momentum.
Tell us about your dairy: where is it, what do you have in it, favourite bits of kit, things you would like to change (if anything) or something that would make your life better/easier
I am based in a standalone building, just off the green in Reeth, there are dry stone walls outside and I have great views, you could not ask for more!
As for the kit we have: we have a 500 litre cheese vat, about 35 years old now, we have had that for 12 years. It runs on a 3kw central heating timer that comes on at about 2.30am. We have 2 stores, stainless steel tables, a cheese press that we invested in last year, which is a great piece of kit, though we do still also press by single weights.
The piece of kit that would make my life easier would be wheels on the tables and a fully lipped table, because I have a table at the moment that is lipped on two sides so when I am draining off, the whey goes all over. I spend my life on eBay looking for one.
My favourite bit of kit would probably be my cheese vat. It has taken me a long time to perfect how to get the heat correct so that I can raise the temperature by about 1oC every 10 mins which is the ideal for me and I can pretty much do it now, though it has taken me years to get that timing bang on.
I don’t think there is anything I would like to change.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker
The dairy industry has changed a lot. There are far fewer wholesalers around and that impacts everyone’s ability to get in with them. There has been some positives over time: what I find on the farmers markets is that people have a greater understanding about where food has come from and are more willing to pay more for products, but the big companies want it for nothing and don’t value it as much.
It is shocking to think that in 17 years, it has all gone so quick – if you invest in the understanding about where local food comes from and the importance of local food and farms in your customers, it is a good thing. This has definitely helped us and I think when I look at us, the change in the way we do business, we never thought we would go over to cheese making courses and wedding cakes.
You must look at your business model: do I stay with what I do, or do I try to change it. I never thought we would be doing this many courses, and people would be coming for a day out, but it is fun.
It is less hassle, more fun, and when you are controlling which door you walk through, you will pick the one that brings the money in and have more fun doing it, I am not sat there wondering who is going to order.
If I can make a decent living from the farmer’s markets, but there are only so many I can do, what is the alternative?
That is why the courses are there, they wrap around in essence of what I am already doing. How do I give myself that cushion without working with the wholesalers: business levels through them can be very inconsistent, one minute you are flavour of the month, the next, you don’t hear from them. If I offer something, like a course, it is only down to me, and being good at something. We have all 5 star reviews and I get fun out of it and I am not chasing around for the business.
As for advice, you need to have endless patience. There are a hell of a lot of hoops you have to jump through to start-up, and it gets harder, things like getting EHO approval, the set up cost, which is not like setting up a little cake making business. It is so expensive to set up, I have a factory full of second-hand stuff.
Even if you have been in the business a long time, don’t ever think that you know it all, don’t ever think that you have cracked this, you will always learn more. I love finding a problem and then finding a solution for that problem. Be prepared for hard work: there are 18 year kids out there working at McDonalds and they work very hard. I am often reminded of the Baz Luhrmann song about people enjoying what you do.
For me, I listen and read a lot and speak to other cheese makers. I think some people can be very precious about what they do and they don’t want to tell people what they do. I have twenty books in the dairy about how to make cheddar and they all the same thing, but people, cheese makers, make it differently. I have always said, if I can help someone, I will, it feels nice to help someone.
Where can we find your cheese?
When I am not running a cheese making course, putting together cheese wedding cakes, we do farmers markets and food shows direct to the customer; you have to be a people person to do this, to sell: to young people, old people, happy people, miserable people, you have just got to be able to sell.
I pretty much do most farmers markets from York to Newcastle, check out our website. I do all the Christmas food shows within a 50 mile radius of Richmond and of course I run cheese making courses. Come and do one of my courses!
Favourite cheese making music?
I am a massive jazz fan; I have been making cheese for 17 years, there is nothing nicer than when you have cut that curd, got jazz music playing, a cup of tea and cut that curd, it is really lovely. When you cut the curd, it is like poetry when it all moves in the same way.
In the day time, it is a mixture of Chris Evans in the morning, then got to listen to Popmaster, after that I tend to listen to LBC until lunchtime and then it is Jazz FM from lunch time when I am in the vat, it just slows you down. Then I like to listen to something a bit fast and rocky when I am washing down.
Name: Simon Lacey, Lacey’s Cheese