This is the fourth in our Quarantine Q&A series; chats with some of our favourite local businesses on how they’re coping during lockdown, what they’re doing to survive, and how you can help. Know of a local foodie business that could do with a shout? Then get in touch. We are not being endorsed to cover any of these businesses – we like eating nice food and drinking good coffee and would like to continue to do so post-lockdown, so shouting about their efforts makes sense. You can check out the first in our series of Quarantine Q&As with the Pocket here, and the second with Vietnamese street food’s Madame Pho here. More you say? Our chat with Laura from Indie Füde can be found here. Cutting the cheese this week is cultured entrepreneur Michael Thomson, AKA Mike’s Fancy Cheese.
Mike’s Fancy Cheese has been bucking the trend since 2013. It was then that Belfast native Michael Thomson decided to put into action his Diploma in Dairying – as well as time spent immersing himself in all things cheesemaking – by making his own ‘Young Buck’ raw milk blue cheese in Newtownards. Eventually, Thomson began to drop batches of cheese into restaurants around Belfast, and after impressing the likes of Niall McKenna (James Street South, Hadskis) – as well as friends and family – Thompson knew he was onto a winner.
Opened in 2018, the shop itself is one of Belfast’s hidden gems; located off the beaten track on Little Donegall Street, it stocks a wide range of high quality artisanal cheeses (obviously), charcuterie, and more. The space also hosts beer and cheese nights, as well as being a popular stop on many of the city’s food tours.
Whilst the day-to-day running of the store might have been affected by Covid 1984, Mike’s Fancy Cheese is one foodie name that seems to have increased in popularity over the past few months; popping up on nearly any ‘Dine In At Home’ box worth mentioning as part of a decadent cheese course. He’s also made use of the Mike’s Fancy Cheese web store to offer home deliveries; making delivery runs on a weekly basis to spread the Young Buck love around.
Always up for a chat, we spoke to Thomson about how Mike’s Fancy Cheese has been affected by lockdown, the popularity of their home delivery boxes, and how treating yourself to a four course meal every now and then (or: every week) is good for the soul.
Hi Mike. Thanks for chatting to us! For the uninitiated, tell us a bit about Mike’s Fancy Cheese and how it came about.
I always call myself an accidental cheesemaker and monger.
We make a raw milk blue cheese called Young Buck up in Ards and have a shop in Belfast where we sell small scale Irish cheeses and a few other bits of dairy and staples.
I didn’t really know what I was doing when left school and bummed about for a year before landing in Arcadia (A deli in Belfast). I just liked the idea of working for a small business. That’s where I got the interest in cheese and food really. From there I saw a course in England called ‘The School of Artisan Food’, a new college set up to keep all these old skills and traditions alive. I did it and spent two years just working for as many people as possible across the water, always with the idea of returning to NI to get set up. I eventually moved back in 2013 to get started! We have been making cheese since then and opened the shop at the end of 2018.
Aside from a business perspective, how have you personally found the lockdown so far?
Fortunately I have found it grand. We do a no contact delivery run, which my parents are on so I get to see them each week. I have a dog, so I have an excuse to go round the block. We’ve also run a few virtual beer and cheese nights which have been just a fun thing to do! I like having nothing planned so it’s been nice just to live week to week for a few months.
“We had more cheese than we have ever made, so we needed to sell it quick as the restaurant side of our sales just dropped off overnight!”
As a business owner how have you found the government support for employers? Do you think they’re doing enough for those within the food sector?
Again, only speaking for myself – it’s been good. The shop never closed and we got set up online and on the delivery runs quickly. We just stopped making cheese for three weeks to give us some breathing space. As Young Buck is matured for 3/4 months we had been making cheese in Jan, Feb etc that was about to become ripe, and we had made more cheese than we have ever made, so we needed to sell it quick as the restaurant side of our sales just dropped off overnight!
Having two units as one business has been tough though as we have only been able to apply for one grant, but fortunately being risk-averse pays off – as our locations for production and the shop came from the cheapest units we could find!
Things like home kits, people ordering boxes of cheese to eat at home etc – how far does that go in keeping the lights on?
It’s been amazing for us. The first week we put everything up online and was overwhelmed by the support and demand, so much so we designed the subscription boxes and one-off boxes we are still doing now. It has been great – we’re able to not only keep ourselves going, but we supply 20/30 other cheeses, so helping increase those sales has been crucial for us as the wholesale side of business just disappeared.
“(It’s) been great, especially the speed at which small producers can adapt.”
You work with a lot of different suppliers for meat, etc – how have those relationships been affected by the current situation? Are there any in particular that deserve a shout out?
At the shop, we’ve been known to have a mad queue at times, and part of that is for the bread that the guys at Loveworks Cooperative make.
But everyone has been great, especially the speed at which small producers can adapt. One of the cheeses we sell is Ballylisk, which is a soft cheese, with a short shelf life and ripening time. So Dean within a week or two changed his business and added a milk bottling line.
We’ve started to notice Mike’s Fancy Cheese being mentioned in a lot of home dining kits for different restaurants – do you think lockdown has encouraged collaboration with other businesses?
We have always dabbled a wee bit with wholesale and worked closely with one or two restaurants who get what we do. We can’t compete with food service for delivery speeds and price, but it’s been great way to help move a lot of a specific cheese!
“My name isn’t Mike. I was never Mike.”
What’s one thing that most people probably don’t know about you?
My name isn’t Mike. I was never Mike – always Michael – but it had a better ring to it when I was starting the business and now it has stuck!
Have you developed any new habits/routines during lockdown?
A big extravagant four course meal every Friday (courtesy of Noble). I would cook most dinners at home but never a starter or dessert, so it’s been fun every Friday to have a big long drawn out meal and drinks to end the week!
“We’ve always been trying to create a culture of our cheese as an everyday item…smaller amounts of better quality in whatever you do!”
Do you have any guilty pleasure recipes to make at home?
Making my own flour tacos has been a life-saver and one of my proudest moments! And using all leftover cheese in omelettes is my staple (cheese omelettes are the new toastie!).
Other than Young Buck, what’s your favourite cheese?
It changes from week to week but Coolea, an 18 month Gouda from Cork, is the cheese I eat most of!
What can people do from home if they want to support you?
Just keep buying local cheese and other goods. We’ve always been trying to create a culture of our cheese as an everyday item, not just for a special cheese board. So it’s been great to see people jumping on subscription boxes where you get loads of dairy milk, butter, cheese and then eggs, bread and meats. These are things we should be eating everyday in omelettes, tarts, sarnies! Smaller amounts of better quality in whatever you do!
What’s the first thing you’re looking forward to doing post-lockdown?
A pint in the Sunflower!
Check out the Mike’s Fancy Cheese’s online store here.
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