Carolyn Hopkins is very well known in Shaftesbury. She made many good friends during her thirteen years working at the former Turnbull’s deli and café. And now she’s launching her own cheese business.
“I took on the job as a waitress for Christmas, the year after I graduated and I stayed,” Carolyn said. As I walked down the High Street with Carolyn, Dinton resident Steve Hannorth caught her attention and stopped for a chat.
Apparently, locals are really missing one particular cheese from the Turnbull’s selection. “We do miss the Gorgonzola,” Steve told Carolyn, before he recalled a story about the speed at which one of the large wheels of the blue cheese would sell. “You said you could sell a whole Gorgonzola in 1½ hours,” smiled Steve.
“One Christmas we did, which was extraordinary,” confirmed Carolyn, before she gave Steve news which visibility delighted him. “Gorgonzola is coming back!” Carolyn is starting a mobile cheesemonger so the popular Italian cheese will be available locally again.
Carolyn has decided to remain in retail and become her own boss. She said that the closure of the deli, which she managed, came out of the blue. “It was quite a shock at the beginning. It was very unexpected. But once I had become used to it, the news became something that was quite positive. I realised it was going to get me to do something exciting and new, which I hadn’t planned.”
So how long did it take Carolyn to come up with a new business idea?
“I definitely wanted to do cheese straightaway. I initially looked at doing a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop somewhere in the area. But I quickly realised that it is just too expensive these days to take on a permanent premises like that. I decided that markets were a way to go.”
As Carolyn continued, she shared her experience and a story that we’ve heard frequently. “It’s just the sheer amount of overhead with rent, rates, maintenance costs and staff costs. It ties you in to that for a long time. You have to sell an awful lot of cheese before you even start breaking even,” she said.
Luckily, Carolyn knows Shaftesbury shoppers’ tastes and she thinks that locals are keen to experiment with food. “Shaftesbury is very willing to try things. There’s a real enthusiasm. If you give someone a piece of cheese and say ‘have a taste of this’ they will give it a go, even if they are not sure whether they will like it. If they do like it, they will take it to heart, run with it and keep buying it.”
The Gorgonzola story provides a perfect example. “We got it in because Charlie (Turnbull) had tried it at a wedding. He decided straightaway that he had to get it into the shop. We sold it for one month to start with. By the end, we were selling one cheese every four days. It’s reliably been a bestseller for Turnbull’s and it’s something that draws people in. When they see it they think ‘what on earth is that? Is it a cake? Is it a pavlova? Then you give them a taste and there are astounded,” Carolyn said.
Carolyn has come up with an innovative plan for her travelling cheese business. Most mobile stores offer pre-packed cheese because there are regulations concerning the windows and doors of mobile units. Most of them cannot be tightly sealed. Carolyn has chosen a van that meets the strict requirements, but allows her to operate as if she was in a regular store.
“It’s very much a different model to most market traders. There’s an interesting quirk in food legislation, which means I will be one of the only people I have ever seen who can sell cheese cut to order at a market.”
“So you will have the blocks of cheese and you will use a cheese wire to cut off pieces?” I asked. “Absolutely. It’ll be pretty much as we did in the shop. We will wrap it to order,” she said.
Carolyn believes that the cheese has a different taste when it is loose. “Vacuum packing cheese damages its structure. It draws the moisture out and leaves you with a sort of slimy texture. It also dries out a lot quicker once it is unpacked. The smaller a piece of cheese is, the more damage. Cutting it to order means that I can keep big pieces for longer. The cheese likes to be kept whole as long as possible. It’ll be in better condition and taste better as a result.”
Carolyn’s choice of vehicle is central to her success. “I knew that if I was going to do this it had to be a vehicle that was interesting. It had to draw people in particularly for festivals and bigger markets. It’s going to be an old Citroën ‘H’ van from 1969 and it’s going to be painted in a very bright colour. You won’t be able to miss it,” she said.
This quirky van will have a few downsides. “The top gear is third and they average around 50 mph. It will mean early morning starts but it will be good fun driving around touring the south-west to sell cheese,” said Carolyn.
So was it love at first sight when Carolyn saw the van? “Definitely. It has the added bonus that I can stand up inside without crouching,” Carolyn said.
The Shaftesbury High Street Thursday market already has a cheese seller, but Carolyn believes her range of cheeses will be different. “I’ll be selling very good cheeses, many of the same cheeses that we sold at Turnbull’s. There will be a few new ones as well that people haven’t tried before.”
Carolyn lives in Gillingham and she said Shaftesbury is at the centre of her plans. “It’s going to be the cornerstone. I’ll definitely be here at the weekly market on Thursdays and hopefully the monthly Sunday market and festivals as well.”
When her new van isn’t parked on Shaftesbury High Street, Carolyn will be attending major markets around the Westcountry. “I’m looking at Salisbury on Tuesday and Wells on Wednesday. And then I will tour around different monthly markets and festivals. Maybe Bath and Sherborne, possibly further afield, once I get used to handling the van and discover how well it drives.”
Carolyn hopes to be trading in Shaftesbury at the end of August, once the van is ready. “It is off getting an MOT. It’ll be converted and, at the end of August, it will hit the road. I’m planning on Shaftesbury being the first market.”
Carolyn’s business will be called the ‘Truckle Truck’. “A truckle is one of the names for a wheel of cheese. It typically applies to Cheddar. It was suggested by an ex-member of staff and I knew it had to be that,” she smiled.