New Zealand's only cheese school, located at Putaruru in south Waikato, has been running for 10 years and in that time has trained some of the best. Founder Sue Arthur talks about training competition and groups from overseas.
What does the business do?
The New Zealand Cheese School was originally set up to train professionals and people who would like to be cheese makers. I set up at the end of 2007, the same time as my artisan cheese business Over The Moon, and I did that because I couldn't find any training here in New Zealand.
We do the practical and theory courses at Over The Moon's factory, with students helping to make our commercial production for the week, under supervision. The cheese courses are block courses; they're short, intensive courses for a week and people can either come in and do a practical course or a theory course.
We've had several thousand students come through until now including professionals and those who want to make cheese at home for themselves.
What was your motivation for starting the business?
I had been to Australia and met Neil Willman who was a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's training site, south of Melbourne, and thought it was ridiculous that New Zealand had no cheese training facilities given that we have the best milk in the world, and so much of it, too.
At the time, the only training you could get was if you were a Fonterra staff member down at Palmerston North. I was completely frustrated and I thought it would be nice to set something up while I was setting up my cheese factory.
We've trained students from all over the world. Initially, the objective was just to lift the level of skill in the New Zealand industry and to widen the range of cheeses that we make here in New Zealand.
Ten years ago you could have gone into any supermarket and found a very narrow range of products, and I wanted to increase the variety for the New Zealand consumer. But because of Neil's relationship with some of our suppliers, we've trained people from Peru and he's involved in a project in lifting the standards of cheese-making in the Andes, with the New Zealand and Peruvian governments. A couple of years before that we were involved with an aid project in Myanmar, where we had a group in and trained those people here as well.
How important is it for the school to be involved in aid work?
It's not a requirement to make the business function well but Neil and I are towards the end of our working lives and its just amazing to be able to give something back to the industry and not just to New Zealand, but around the world, and to use our skills and experience to be able to do that. It's a very rewarding job to be able to do and changing people's lives is just amazing.
What trends have you seen in the industry?
There's a real interest in the cottage industry. There's a lot more people who now want to know what's in their food, but in terms of our professional courses, there seems to be a real interest, in New Zealand and around the world, in starting up small, artisan, hand-crafted businesses, being able to supply something local.
What are your long-term plans?
Our objective is to try and convert some of our courses into distance learning because that seems to suit people who want to fit things around their busy lives, and it's not always that easy to get to the central North Island where we're based.
The New Zealand cheese market is so small, but it is growing. It's hard to get any statistics here in New Zealand but if you look at the Australian market, there has been a growth in the consumption of specialty cheese and a corresponding drop in the consumption of cheeses such as cheddar. There's a big gap in the fresh cheeses market in New Zealand, we're just not used to eating or dealing with fresh cheeses like mozzarella and ricotta like the Europeans are.
Which cheese companies have you trained and what's your personal stance of training the competition?
We've trained Grinning Gheko Cheese, Kaikoura Cheese, Cilantro Artisan Cheese, Barrys Bay Cheese, Whangaripo Buffalo Cheese, to name a few.
Our stance on training competition is inspired because it's only going to increase the amount of lovely cheese that is available in New Zealand, and the market is so small that there's room for lots of small players. A lot of these companies are local, they just supply the local farmer's market and a few restaurants so there's lots of room for variety in New Zealand. I think it's encouraging and we're always so proud to see our former students go on to win cheese awards and trophies, it's like your kids have succeeded in something that's quite challenging.
What advice do you give to others thinking of starting their own business?
Do a business plan and forecast before making a decision to start. Studies show that if you have a full business plan your chances at succeeding are so much higher.