A one-day cheesemaking course at the School of Artisan Food was the catalyst for Sophie Williamson’s unconventional journey from IT security specialist to professional cheesemaker. Sophie’s business, Sheffield Cheesemasters, opened its doors in autumn 2017 producing and selling the first artisan cheese made in the city, Little Mester.
“This all started with a Christmas present from my partner. I’ve always loved cheese and he bought me a place on an introductory course at the School which got me excited about cheesemaking. With just one ingredient you can make so many different types of cheese, there’s so much complexity and so much you can learn. It kickstarted the idea of reinventing myself as a cheesemaker; I thought it would be brilliant to do something I really loved.”
Just a few weeks after her first visit to the School, Sophie had completed our Dairy Science and Food Business Start-Ups courses and handed in her notice at work.
“I wouldn’t have done this if the School didn’t exist; it’s played a huge part in my journey. I had a good job but I didn’t love it, it just didn’t float my boat. Work was the only thing stopping me from pursuing cheesemaking so I left, giving myself three months to research and write a business plan, go on the five-day Professional Cheesemaking course and make lots and lots of cheese! I knew if my idea wasn’t viable I could look for another IT job, but I threw myself into it and there seemed to be far more reasons to do it than not.”
While making her own cheese at home and establishing relationships with local suppliers like Our Cow Molly, Sophie also co-ordinated the build of a make room, including three temperature controlled maturing rooms, in the unit which is now home to Sheffield Cheesemasters. In the early stages of setting up the business, Sophie has had plenty of opportunity to put the skills and knowledge learnt at the School into practice.
“My tutors Ivan and Paul had the background and experience in the science of cheesemaking that I needed to get started. They could answer every question and had so much patience. And Yvonne taught me a huge amount about starting a business. She is a realist and her pragmatic approach means you don’t get carried away by your dreams. She helped me realise I needed to make money to make cheese and that you should have more strings to your bow than just your original idea. Her advice made me think through how to build a viable business, rather than just focusing on my passion for cheesemaking. That’s why, as well as making my own cheese, we’re selling other artisan cheeses, running cheesemaking workshops and cheese and wine nights and getting involved in local events like the Peddler Market.
“Yvonne also stressed the importance of getting out there and talking to your target audience to gauge reaction. Everyone was positive which gave me a lot of confidence to start out as the only artisan cheesemaker in this city.
“It’s been vital to have the support of my partner and my children. When my kids try something new and it gets difficult I always tell them not to give up. Starting this business is about practicing what I preach, I’ve had to keep at it even when it’s been challenging. I’ve faced a big learning curve. I want to make fantastic cheese, not just average cheese, and that’s not easy when you are completely new to cheesemaking.
“But the interest in Sheffield Cheesemasters and the number of people who want to try my cheese has been amazing. There’s been a real pressure to deliver, but it’s great there is a demand for what I am trying to do.
"It's been over a year and we now make a camembert-style cheese called Little Mester, launched a new product called Yorkshire Poutine Cheese Curds which we sell to restaurants and in deli pots to shops and are just about to launch a new soft blue cheese. In addition we now also sell cheese wedding cakes, run cheesemaking workshops, attend local farmers markets and host monthly wine & cheese nights!"
Inspired to set up your own artisan food business? Take a look at our range of food start-up business courses designed to take your business from wishful thinking to commercial reality.