Mike Thomson alw-ays wanted to open a shop in Belfast to sell his multi-award winning raw milk cheese. He realised that ambition at the start of the month by opening his first cheese shop in the city.
He’s the founder of Mike’s Fa-
ncy Cheese and Young Buck,
a highly acclaimed blue cheese handcrafted from un-pasteurised milk from a grass-fed herd close to his small creamery in Newtownards.
The new shop is located at Little Donegall Street, close to the former Belfast Telegraph building and a just few minutes from the fast developing campus of Ulster University.
Mike has won a series of awards for the Stilton-style blue cheese that he’s already exporting to France and Germany as well as selling to delis across Northern Ireland.
He describes the new shop as a “dream come true”. “I’ve always wanted to open a specialist cheese shop for my Young Buck and other Irish raw milk cheeses,” he says. “I began looking for suitable premises a couple of years ago.
“It took a while to find a place that offered me scope to develop my business and especially at the right cost,” he adds. “The new shop is ideally positioned close to the developing Belfast campus of Ulster University.
“There are already staff and students on site and soon there’ll be many thousands more when the campus is completed in a few years. This should mean a sizeable market opportunity for the shop.
“There’s also a growing appreciation of artisan cheeses in the city and surrounding areas from people who have experienced and enjoyed different cheeses on holidays and trips abroad.
“While locally produced artisan cheeses are available at some markets – especially The Inns in Belfast – across Northern Ireland there’s only one deli in Belfast city centre offering an extensive selection of products.
“I believe the time is right for a specialist artisan cheese shop in the city. It’s also on the right side of the city for my home in north Belfast,” he continues.
“Opening my own shop in Belfast has given me a tremendous opportunity to reach a much wider audience of lovers of artisan cheese, especially my own Young Buck blue. It’s a location where cheese lovers know exactly where to find me in what is easily the biggest market for specialist cheese.
“Before I opened the shop my cheese was generally only available at local food markets and some delis. The shop, in addition, enables me to explain how I produce the cheese to shoppers and encourage them to taste it for themselves.
“Many cheese enthusiasts here, furthermore, know very little about the taste and texture of the sort of raw milk blue that I am producing. I readily spend time to explain to them how my cheese – and other Irish unpasteurised cheeses – are produced.
“The shop is all about spreading the love of raw milk cheeses. I believe there’s now a growing interest in Belfast and many other larger towns in Northern Ireland in specialist cheese and this belief encouraged me to push ahead with the shop. And it’s clear from shoppers since we opened at the start of December that it’s already a hugely popular move.
“The biggest problem I had was finding suitable premises that would enable me to showcase the cheese and other accompanying products, such as relishes, chutneys, sourdough and biscuits from other local artisans.
“It took time to achieve my objective of a modern shop, a great environment for cheese. It had to be close to the city. In addition, the premises provide extra space for storing cheese in the city – my dairy is around 30 miles from Belfast and so it’s also convenient to have a distribution base in the city. It enables me to resupply delis in the area quickly.”
Mike’s love of artisan cheese was nurtured during a period working on the cheese counter of Arcadia Deli, which is located on the Lisburn Road in Belfast. “It also gave me an understanding of how to run a successful gourmet food shop.
“I learned a tremendous amount about the importance of customer service in particular during my time working in the Arcadia, where Mark Brown, the owner of the family business, was very supportive and continues to promote Young Buck,” he continues.
In addition to his own Young Buck, Mike is listing other artisan products to accompany cheese such as biscuits and chutneys. He also stocks Broughgammon Farm’s innovative charcuterie, espec-ially the new veal salami developed in conjunction with Corndale Free Range in Limavady, and sourdough bread from The Grateful Bread, another local business.
He has a few tables for customers seeking to enjoy bread and cheese on-site. “I want to encourage people to sample my cheese as well as those from other producers in Ireland, especially raw milk artisan products, in addition to other relevant artisan foods. It’s another stage, an important one, in the development of my business,” he adds
Mike trained at the School of Artisan Food in England and worked in a dairy before returning to Northern Ireland to set up on his own small business.
He has also gained experience from Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of Britain’s biggest artisan cheese businesses.
“During my time at the School of Artisan Food I had the opportunity to make cheese with some of the best cheesemakers in the country, such as Joe Schneider at Stichelton, and Jamie Montgomery at Montgomery’s.”
Following his graduation in dairying he gained em-ployment with Sparkenhoe Red Leicester, managing the production of three different award winning raw milk cheeses while evolving the recipes and creating his own blue cheese.