Looking at the bustling Visitor Centre, which attracts an impressive 250,000 visitors a year, it’s hard to imagine that 25 years ago The Wensleydale Creamery, based at Hawes in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, was on the verge of collapse. But it wasn’t something which those who worked in the business and the local community were willing to let happen.
When the then owner, Dairy Crest, closed the factory in 1992 and shifted production of Wensleydale cheese to Lancashire, it could have been the end of the (production) line. Thankfully, four managers and a local businessman formed a management buyout and, with 11 members of staff, reopened and kickstarted production for Christmas – and they’ve never looked back since.
Today, The Wensleydale Creamery is a thriving business at the heart of its deeply rural community. It sources milk from over 40 local farms, contributing more than £12million to the local economy through milk payments, wages and purchases. With over 230 staff across two sites, the business exports to countries across the globe – a far cry from where things were in the early ‘90s.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary has certainly been done in style – completing a £5million investment with the building of a new dairy at Hawes, further development of its Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese Visitor Experience (which received an honourable mention in the recent Welcome To Yorkshire White Rose Awards, Large Visitor Attraction category) plus refurbishment of its cheese blending and packing site. This significant investment has enabled the business to increase capacity and streamline processes to improve efficiencies, ensuring sustainability going forward. Additional investment has also been made with ‘state of the art’ whey processing equipment, to drive further value out of what was essentially a by-product of the cheese-making process.
The Wensleydale Creamery is globally renowned for its traditional cheese-making skills as well as bringing innovation to the world of dairy products. Many companies claim to be ‘multi award-winning’ but 700+ accolades definitely qualifies the use of the title. Of course, the brand also has some famous fans, including Wallace and Gromit, who declared their love of the cheese back on Christmas Eve in 1995. HRH The Prince of Wales is also a fan, after visiting and seeing cheese-making in action in 2015.
Today, three of the original buyout team are still involved in the business, including current Managing Director David Hartley. “Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese is something very special and very distinctive,” David explains. “Wensleydale cheese-making in the area dates back to the 1100s – with the recipe being passed on by the Cistercian monks to the local farmers’ wives when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, and that knowledge stayed in the area into the 19th century, when commercial operations were set up, with the first creamery being built in Hawes in 1897. How could we let all that history disappear?”
A modern success story, The Wensleydale Creamery is seeing year-on-year growth, buoyed by its new dairy and cheese-making facilities. Supplying a broad range of customers including major UK & independent retailers, wholesalers, delis and farm shops, as well as the manufacturing and food service sector, it also exports its portfolio of products around the world – proving particularly popular in North America, France and the Middle and Far East.
After a seven-year battle, the company finally achieved European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in December 2013 for its globally renowned Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese, which is creamy, crumbly and full of flavour. The PGI status is a guarantee of quality and authenticity which is recognised in both domestic & international markets, and differentiates Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese from ‘Wensleydale’ cheeses that are produced in other counties around the UK.
“PGI status is really very important,” David continues. “It’s about protecting the heritage and provenance of Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese, that’s crafted here in its rightful home. We are most definitely Yorkshire through and through, and very passionate about our Yorkshire credentials. People are often shocked to hear how much ‘Wensleydale cheese’ is not actually made in Wensleydale.
“Back in 1996, we secured contracts with local farms for the direct supply of milk to The Creamery, forming a dedicated Milk Producer Group. 21 years later those relationships still continue; we work with a range of local farmers, many of whom have herd sizes that are half that of the national average. Their cows produce milk that is of excellent quality for cheese-making, which is obviously very important to us. As we grow, we’re actively looking for more Yorkshire farmers to join our Milk Producer Group”.
When it comes to new ideas, The Wensleydale Creamery is known for its innovation. In 1996 it was the first to launch Yorkshire Wensleydale & Cranberries, which has become one of its best sellers and is firmly established as a ‘core’ cheese in the blended cheese category. In addition to its range of artisan, handcrafted and blended cheeses, The Wensleydale Creamery’s portfolio includes Yorkshire Butter, and Yorkshire Yogurt. Additional investment in cheese slicing equipment is enabling The Creamery to offer its Yorkshire Wensleydale and blended cheeses in sliced formats to meet consumer demand for convenience.
With almost 1,000 years of cheese-making history in Wensleydale, The Wensleydale Creamery has become a custodian of an historic cheese, developing the business into a trusted brand; one that portrays its key values of quality and authenticity, whilst ensuring it continues to meet the needs of its customers in the 21st century.
But what do the next 25 years have in store? David and the team are ambitious. “As we go into 2018 we feel confident – we’re developing the team, investing in our two sites, launching new products, updating and adapting in line with market needs. It is incredible to see generations of families working at The Creamery over all these years; cheese-making really is at the heart of the community in Hawes. Despite the uncertainty around Brexit, which is a concern, we have a fantastic, dedicated team here at The Creamery, and we feel we’re well placed to tackle whatever challenges come our way. Looking back 25 years, I don’t think anyone would have predicted where we’d be now, so the world’s our cheeseboard for the next chapter!”
The Wensleydale Creamery in numbers (since 1992):
• The brand has won 700+ awards
• Over 50,000 tonnes of cheese have been produced
• Over 50 varieties have hit supermarket shelves over the last quarter of a century
• 13% of turnover is now generated by overseas sales
• 2000 – the year The Creamery purchased a second facility at Kirkby Malzeard to meet growing demand
• There’s been around three million visitors through the door of The Wensleydale Creamery Visitor Centre (since 1994)
• 1995 – the year Wallace first declared his love of Wensleydale cheese