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Sam Penny @ Cheese Therapy
#051 : In this episode of Chill, we chat with the indefatigable Sam Penny @ Cheese Therapy. Now “Cheesemonger” at Cheese Therapy, Sam is an entrepreneur, extreme swimmer, public speaker, and Ambassador for Just Like Jack. Prior to Cheese Therapy, Sam spent many years in the beauty space and then turned his attention to growing Elementa 5. Since 2015, however, Sam has been on a mission to bring the world of delicious, artisanal cheese directly from the makers to Australians’ front doors.
Overdose Brisbane’s Elliot Schoemaker and Sam discuss entrepreneurship, growth challenges & successes, ecommerce & marketing strategy, digital solutions, ecomm trends & approaches through pandemic recovery, and their mutual passion for all things cheese.
Sam Penny is the type of person who can’t sit still. He’s achieved a lot of things: he’s been in the army, he’s a civil engineer by trade, and he’s into mad swimming adventures (like swimming an ‘ice mile’ in 3.9-degree water; and being the first person in the world to attempt to swim the English Channel in winter). His greatest skill, he says, is pure grit—he is driven to push himself further than most would dare to.
He helps others to strive too: as Ambassador for Just Like Jack—an organisation dedicated to helping kids with disabilities participate in events that most people take for granted.
Not surprisingly, on the business front, Sam is relentless. A passionate entrepreneur, he’s set up entrepreneur networks for Queensland University of Technology; he’s had a successful medical device company; he’s had a chain of not-so-successful hair salons—“My biggest mistake was a chain of hair salons,” he confesses.
He learned, moved on, and found his entrepreneurial utopia; for the past four years, he’s been mongering cheese. “Everything has seemed to have culminated in this great business that my partner Helen and I have created, called Cheese Therapy.”
With his can’t-sit-still nature, it’s no surprise to learn that the Cheese Therapy idea was conceived during a time when he was meant to be relaxing on holiday in the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Instead of letting thoughts and ideas float by like clouds in the tropical sky, Sam’s mind was churning away, formulating his next business idea.
Sam and his partner, Helen, had been shopping at Vanuatu’s main supermarket, French-owned Au Bon Marche, and were blown away by the massive cheese counter bursting with French cheeses, terrines, and foie gras—cheeses and epicurean produce they hadn’t seen back in Australia. Here they were, in a little undeveloped island, with an abundance of foreign delicacies. “It made me realise we’ve lost our deli scene in Australia. We’re now served up some pretty bland, homogenised products in our major supermarkets, where it’s all about margins and there’s not a lot of heart and soul in many of the items that you see on a shelf.”
So, they decided they would go home and start a cheese club. Sam says they wanted to get their hands on some great cheese and figured if they could get enough people in the club, they could fly cheese in from abroad. “That was the limit of our market research, it was based on what we wanted, but I think many great ideas come out of passion, and then it’s just down to the numbers. Can we find 100 people? Can we find 200, a thousand people to be part of this cheese club?”
Cheese Therapy was launched; for the first four years as a small-scale operation with Sam and Helen doing it all—cutting, wrapping, packing, and sending the cheese. Then, an event in January 2020 changed the course of the business: Australia’s devastating bush fires.
Amidst the danger and destruction, a government ban on people travelling to the fire-ravaged regions prompted a cry for help from one of Cheese Therapy’s regional cheesemakers, Milawa. With their market cut off, they had lost all of their summer trade—two tonnes of cheese in their caves was potentially going to be thrown out.
Sam and Helen didn’t hesitate to help out; they offered to create a ‘Milawa Box’ and try to sell the boxes on their website. “To be honest, I thought we’d sell 50 boxes. We ended up selling 2000 boxes in February last year. We got rid of that whole two tonnes of cheese, and financially got them back up on their feet.”
When the last box was sent out at the end of the first week of March, Sam said to Helen: “Wow, how good is 2020? Can 2020 get any better?” And they thought they had a chance to take a breather—that they could just sit back, relax, and wait for the Christmas trade to come around.
Little did they know.
Saving the small producers
Two weeks later, the entire world went into Covid lockdown. Cheese Therapy was again called upon: “I had every other cheesemaker on the phone to me,” Sam recalls. “Half of them were in tears, asking ‘Can you do for us what you did for Milawa?’”
As the world slumped under Covid’s spell, Sam and Helen knew they had a chance to do something to help. “We realised nobody was stepping up to be the champion for these small producers. We just thought ‘You know what? Stuff it, we’ve got nothing to lose.’ Because if we don’t do this, I was very sure that nobody else would.”
They worked up an idea, the ‘Therapy Box’—a box with four different makers, four different cheeses—and offered their Australian cheesemakers a chance to supply product for it. Cheese Therapy would buy a thousand pieces of each cheese, and once those sold out, they’d move to the next four cheesemakers, to give everyone a turn. “Everybody had a go. We were doing about a thousand boxes a week at that stage, early on. It was really about spreading the love.”
The Therapy Box proved popular and they soon amassed a large following of loyal cheese lovers. It was a salvation for the small cheese producers: while many other businesses struggled with the new Covid environment, the majority of Cheese Therapy’s cheesemakers were up about 20% or 30% on 2019 sales. “It was because we were able to mobilise the Australian public,” Sam says. “We were able to go out to the Australians who were stuck at home thinking how much life sucks in lockdown; everyone felt so helpless, but they just wanted to do something, they just wanted to help where they could, and that’s what they did. They reached out and said: ‘Yep, I can buy a box, it’s going to make me feel better because I’m eating great cheese, but at the same time I know that I’m helping.’”
Beyond Covid: helping the producers flourish
While Cheese Therapy may have been a lifeline for cheesemakers when Covid dealt its initial crushing blow, the work Sam, Helen, and their team continue to do for small producers transcends Covid. There’s a deep level of care and shared passion, forming a holistic relationship between Cheese Therapy and its suppliers—something they would never get from mainstream channels, such as supermarkets.
Sam explains how the cheesemakers are often so focused on, and passionate about, their artisanal skill that they overlook the mechanisms of commerce—marketing or logistics for example, or they just don’t have those skills. Because of this, Sam becomes a sort of coach, coaching them along the digital and ecommerce journey.
Recognising this, Dairy Australia employs Sam on occasion to help educate dairy industry producers. He’s there to school them on marketing techniques, including how to get their business online quickly so they can at least start to have some ecommerce sales—particularly in the early days of Covid lockdowns.
Above all, Sam teaches the producers how to develop their story. He says it’s easy for them to forget the reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, so he tells them not to focus on features and benefits “because that’s what every big brand is doing in a supermarket, let’s get back to what makes you unique. Why are you making cheese?—share that with the world.” It’s about bringing forward the backstory which is the unique part of so many small producers.
It took several years for Sam and the team to properly resolve the logistical challenges of distributing heat-adverse cheese to every corner of a vast, hot country; and they quickly learned how unreliable delivery services can be. But, luckily, and perhaps it’s his engineering background, Sam never seems to begrudge a bit of problem-solving. Last year, increased postal service delays were beginning to jeopardise the ability of their insulation packaging to protect the product for the longer transit time. Rather than moaning about the failings of Australia Post, Sam says they took up the challenge to solve the problem themselves and decided “Well, we need to create something that’s going to keep cheese chilled for four days, and that’s what we’re going to go out and make.”
They invested in developing a new insulation product to withstand the delays and teamed up with a reliable delivery partner, HDS (Home Delivery Service), who deliver to the door in refrigerated vans.
Further improving their system, they have recently created a new 3PL (third party logistics) service in Sydney to provide a temperature-controlled environment for packing and cold logistics. “If we aren’t controlling it with our 3PL, we’re effectively putting our faith in the hands of the producer to get it there in great shape.”
Gaining more control over the distribution process is a way to ensure reliability and consistently meet or exceed customers’ expectations. It’s a logistics solution Sam says he now has great confidence in.
Not having to handle the logistics themselves is a big load of a cheese producer’s mind, but for Cheese Therapy the onus falls on them to be the gatekeeper of the many reputations at stake. Failing to get a product to the customer on time, and in its prime, has the potential to damage both the producers brand and Cheese Therapy’s own brand, something Sam takes very seriously: “I owe it to our small producers to do the best I possibly can to represent their business. If I cannot get something delivered in a good manner to the customer, I’ve let every brand down that’s in that particular order. I’ve let Cheese Therapy down, but I’ve also let our producers down, and that’s why they put so much faith in us to deliver, but also why our customers put so much faith in handing over their money to access these artisan products.”
The customer experience
Cheese Therapy puts a lot of effort into ensuring the whole customer experience is seamless. It starts with the website, in details such as ensuring there’s uniformity across how each of the producers is presented, and how the products present—product images for example need to be aligned.
Then, it’s about having a great customer service team to handle the daily questions about orders, shipping, and deliveries. There’s much emphasis on product knowledge, and Sam says it’s largely at the initiation of the customer service team themselves. “Our team is probably almost more passionate than me. They do all their own study on each of the producers that we bring on; they love going onto their websites and hearing about their stories—it’s great when you’ve got a team that just really want to get involved to that extent.”
Cheese Therapy was built on the back of Facebook. But they were cautious about their customer base being derived entirely on social media and so they built out an email database as well “because we knew that nobody can ever take away our email database.”
Sam acknowledges the lightning-speed of shifts in marketing technologies and is savvy enough to keep all options open and stay agile in the marketing space. “We don’t get the reach out of Facebook posts we used to, so we’ve had to ultilise emails and SMS.”
They are also engaging in influencer marketing—seen as an effective way to expand an audience by getting product in front of people that have other audiences. One of their influencers is Sydney chef Jason Roberts. “He just gets our brand,” Sam says. “He loves artisan produce, he does beautiful creatives and video, and he’s really engaging in his ‘Lives’ on Instagram.” They also have another collaboration with a Melbourne influencer, Clean Eats from a Filthy Mouth. “We can’t swear as much as she does in her socials, but, once again, she is just a passionate person, highly engaging and aligned with our brand.”
They’ve also built out a really strong website and supported it with quality content. They lean on others when they know there are experts to pull certain levers, like SEO and pay-per-click. Sam says he’s thrilled to align with the agency Overdose Digital to drive ecommerce engagement in what he describes as “a perfect relationship of Overdose’s personality and Cheese Therapy’s personality that I think is also going to work extremely well.”
Marketing, for Sam, is mainly about looking inward at the people behind the brand, or, going out and finding people who align with the brand.
What’s next for Cheese Therapy?
The next phase of Cheese Therapy looks exciting and there’s much to salivate over: coffee, wine, chocolate…
Expanding into coffee just before Christmas 2020 was a move once again driven by an aspiration to acknowledge and support local producers. With most coffee being imported from Colombia and Ethiopia and little awareness around the great coffee grown in Australia and in the South Pacific, an idea brewed for Sam: “It just doesn’t make sense to fly coffee beans in from 15,000 kilometers away when we actually have them in our backyard.”
So, he went out and met with coffee farmers in Byron Bay, Atherton Tablelands, and also in Vanuatu, and got them on board. Cheese Therapy now showcases some of the great coffee grown in Australia and the Pacific with its ‘A Cup Less Travelled’—coffee beans with less mileage.
Adding coffee to the mix was a hit so the following month they expanded into small family-owned wines.
Sam explains how due to a political wrangle with China, the wine industry had been turned on its head. Large producers, who could no longer sell to China, began overriding the local market—pushing out the little guys. With the added problem of Covid-disrupted tourism reducing traffic to their cellar doors, small vineyards needed help—and accordingly, the BFF of small producers, Sam Penny and his Cheese Therapy business, were quick to offer a hand.
With Cheese Therapy’s product range starting to look like a lineup of the ultimate comfort—or therapy—foods, there was one category missing: chocolate, so, they added a range of artisanal chocolate.
“Cheese, chocolate, wine, coffee. I’m basically building my lifestyle here,” says Sam with a big grin.
An artisanal marketplace
With all the categories selling so well, Sam and Helen began to recognise they were no longer just a cheese business––they’d become a destination for artisan produce. Realising this was the impetus for a new evolution of the business: they’ve began working on turning Cheese Therapy into a marketplace.
The artisan producers “are small mum and dad businesses with so much heart in their product, if we can help them with their sales and marketing through our marketplace, it’s going to give them a huge leg up.” It will enable them to capitalise on the loyal customer base and tremendous site traffic of Cheese Therapy, as well as from Sam and Helen’s ability to share the stories of the producers.
There will be a huge benefit for Australian consumers too by having that one place to access a range of very special products.
Sam, who’s no stranger to enthusiasm, is fizzing over with excitement––he cannot wait to share the stories of the dozens of producers––what they do, their produce. “It is going to be unbelievable. Every single day at the moment, I have eight meetings with artisan producers, all half-hour chats with them, just to hear their story.”
To build the marketplace, they’ve teamed up with a Melbourne-based Marketplacer and are getting ready to launch in September (2021). Shopify Plus is the front end, through the Overdose team.
Finding the heart and soul in food
In an environment where buying food is dominated by the big players (it’s largely a duopoly situation in Australia), the grocery aisle is often a uniform, price-driven, bland place—the heart and soul are missing. And that’s precisely why Cheese Therapy has been so successful—they’re showcasing the love behind the food, the passion that’s poured into the making and creating, the enjoyment of eating quality food, and the pleasure of supporting local producers.
When the new marketplace platform comes on-stream, Sam sees it as an opportunity to help communities, both within Australia and abroad. Through the marketplace, they can actually target areas or causes that need help. For example, if there’s another bushfire, they can direct efforts into those particular areas.
He sees it as a way to help those small Pacific nations that are struggling through Covid. Economically, many South Pacific islands have been pushed back ten years, missing out on 95% of their income over the last 18 months. Cheese Therapy is working with Pacific Trade Invest, funded by the Australian Government, to help Pacific Island food producers. “I know that we can bring their produce in, and showcase that to Australians, and I know that Australians will back it—all I need to tell everybody is, firstly, if it’s going to be on our site, it’s going to be bloody good, and secondly, by buying this you’re not just buying, say, a pawpaw jam, you’re buying something that is actually going to provide significant value outside that jar.”
Sam points out that aid doesn’t help small businesses—they need trade. “The more trade we can do with these South Pacific islands, the more money is poured into small local businesses that have to buy the milk from the farmer, they’ve got truck drivers, they’ve got all this money that filters out through the local communities.”
What has been the biggest surprise in this journey?
Sam is still blown away by that initial response when they first launched the Milawa box as a way to help the cheesemaker out after the Australian bush fires. As soon as they put the call out to Australia via their social media asking, “Okay Australia, this is where we need a bit of help,” people immediately got behind it—there were literally thousands of people responding, buying the cheese, sharing the posts. “It made us realise that we can gather the community together when it’s needed. We had forgotten that, when someone needs a hand, Australians are the first to put their hand out and give you help—and that’s the Australian spirit.”
It’s a spirit that also defines Cheese Therapy. Beyond just selling great products, they are an example of how the people behind a business can consciously choose to create something that has meaning and purpose. It’s an example of a business with a heart and soul.