Rich Swiss Develop Taste for UK Cheese Man’s Smelly Wares
Accidental entrepreneur Michael Fontana-Jones is making stinky British cheese pay in a crowded market: Switzerland, a country renowned for domestic varieties such as holey Emmental and nutty Gruyere.
Last year his British Cheese Centre in Zurich imported 16,000 kilos (35,000 pounds) of British cheese compared with 700 kilos in 2008, the year after he started. He sells Stinking Bishop, voted England’s smelliest cheese and supplied to the household of Prince Charles, for 79 francs ($91) per kilo. He gets 100 francs for Ragstone, a soft raw goat’s cheese. Gruyere, a traditional Swiss cheese, retails for 19 francs per kilo at supermarket chain Migros.
The industrial strength of Switzerland, home to some of Europe’s biggest companies including Roche Holding AG, Nestle SA and Novartis AG, gives its citizens the highest average gross monthly wage in Europe of $7,766. In neighboring Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the average is just $3,917. Lower income tax rates than in most other European countries mean Swiss consumers are able to spend more money on costly goods, enabling entrepreneurs like Fontana-Jones, 52, to sell his wares for more than he could at home.
Fontana-Jones wouldn’t try to sell his cheese selection “in Germany, France or Spain because it’s too expensive,” he said at his shop in a trendy Zurich market frequented by bankers and farmers. “Zurich is not a price-conscious city,” he said, adding that clients will sometimes spend 25 francs per person for a cheese course at a dinner party. British-born Fontana-Jones says the five-person business has been profitable since 2010.
Switzerland’s own cheese tradition makes it a challenging market for importers, according to Daniel Laetsch, a Swiss Brigadier-General and commander of the Swiss army’s general staff school who buys several varieties of British cheese from the shop. Swiss people can be “quite conservative,” he said.
The country’s 8 million people consumed on average 20.8 kilos of cheese each in 2012, according to the Swiss milk producer’s association. In the European Union, per capita cheese consumption is 16.6 kilos according to Clal, a dairy consultant.
While Fontana-Jones is surprised by the popularity of his cheese, noting the Swiss spend as much as 50 francs on an average purchase, he acknowledges a minority fails to appreciate his efforts to bring British cheese culture to their country. “One guy said: ‘this is outrageous, how can you sell British cheese in the land of cheese.’ He walked away, tutting.”
Stinking Bishop was judged Britain’s smelliest cheese in 2009, according to its maker Charles Martell. Since youngsters have the best sense of smell, the judging panel was composed of 12 schoolchildren. The rind of the cheese is washed in Perry, an alcoholic drink made from the fermented juice of pears, to give it a pungent aroma. “I didn’t think we would win the title as some of the entries were inedible cheese which had gone rotten,” Martell said by email.
Conservatism among some Swiss is increasingly threatening Switzerland’s image as a place that’s open to business from all over the world. Almost 12 years after opening borders to European Union workers, Swiss voters backtracked last month, backing an initiative to impose limits on immigration. That has soured relations with the EU and prompted companies including the world’s biggest foodmaker, Nestle, to warn of a potential harm to its business.
For Fontana-Jones, Switzerland’s economic cooperation with its European neighbors has been crucial. The beginning of his cheese venture coincided with a 2007 EU-Swiss trade pact that abolished customs duties on cheese. With no import taxes, he began making solitary trips to Britain, visiting farms to fill his van with cheeses before taking a ferry to France and driving through the night to reach Switzerland.
Shortly after he started his business, word began to spread that the so-called cheese man was selling Britain’s finest offerings at markets around Zurich. He has since broadened his product selection to include British crackers, chutneys, beer and scones, and said these extras now make up 40 percent of sales.
One of his specialties -- called Scottish Fondue -- combines melted cheese with dark beer and whiskey. Fontana-Jones also does private cheese-tasting sessions for gentlemen’s clubs composed of “bankers and well-off guys from all forms of life” who want to eat something special.
The Swiss are willing to spend money on novelties if products are of high quality, Fontana-Jones said, a virtue that helped to build a world-class economy in a mountainous country of few natural resources. “Entrepreneurs here aren’t necessarily competing on price,” he said. “They’re competing on quality.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Thiel at firstname.lastname@example.org Nick Leiber