By NEIL RIDDELL
A budding entrepreneur who quit his job as an accountant and moved to the isles last year with the intention of setting up his own cheese-making business is one of three parties to have expressed an interest in the empty Skeld Smokehouse buildings.
Jay Hawkins, 39, who arrived from Bedfordshire with his wife Dilys Evans and their two sons last September, has registered a firm called Shetland Cheese Ltd. Mr Hawkins has put in place an arrangement with Shetland Farm Dairies to supply the milk he needs and is now seeking out suitable premises in order to progress with his dream of creating the first ever commercial cheese-making enterprise in the isles.
While at pains to stress he did not want to upset the local community and has also been looking into other possible vacant buildings, he feels the smokehouse in the West Side would be ideal for his business because it already has around 90 per cent of the required infrastructure: food grade flooring, ventilation, drainage and storage coolers. Mr Hawkins thinks it would be a “great opportunity” to bring money and some employment into the Skeld area.
There is also a community-backed group looking seriously at the idea of turning the factory into a shop and cafe/restaurant complex, which Shetland West councillor Gary Robinson said was “possibly the frontrunner” at this stage, while an unnamed third party has also expressed an interest.
Mr Hawkins initially got the idea for a cheese-making company when he was on a family holiday in the isles and asked to sample the local cheese, only to be told there was no such thing commercially available. He quit his job with Grant Thornton and went on a cheese-making course in Nantwich, Cheshire, before coming here. He is currently working for the amenity trust providing maternity cover as he tries to get his business up and running.
It would be Mr Hawkins’ intention to initially employ two members of staff, hopefully rising to five employees within three years, for a business which he believes could swallow up as much as 6-7,000 litres of milk from the local producers every week and provide a welcome boost to the farm dairies – they have had to resort to dumping milk at times because the demand from supermarkets for local milk is not high enough.
Since January he has been working from his home in Twatt, Bixter, on some basic recipes for artisan Shetland-flavoured cheeses made using traditional techniques, including a cheddar-style product, as well as a creamy brie type, in small batches which have been hand-wrapped in cloth for maturity. He said product trials at a local church and the Scalloway Hotel had been successful.
Although he would need a “high end” product which could be sold at delis in England and Scotland, he is also looking to provide a mid-market, good quality cheese for independent retailers throughout the isles and at least one of the town’s two supermarkets and is hoping to corner as much as 10 per cent of the cheese market here.
Keen to try and hook up with as many small local firms as possible, Mr Hawkins has had discussions with The Hand-made Fish Company over the prospect of smoking some of the cheese he produces, as well as with Valhalla Breweries in Unst about the idea of a special beer-washed product.
Jimmy Mercer, one of those involved in the co-operative which has a steering group of 15 locals, said they were planning to meet with Mr Hawkins to discuss his plans and see whether there was any way of incorporating the two separate ideas, but at the moment their plan would anticipate using both buildings in full.
The steering group is now in the process of drawing up a business plan which they hope to have completed within the next two or three months. As well as having a shop – on a similar model to the community cooperatives being run in Aith and Ollaberry – and a combined cafe/restaurant, they envisage turning the older of the two buildings into a heritage centre and finding room for a hairdresser, a children’s play area and a hardware/agricultural supplies outlet.
Back in November questionnaires were put out to 129 households from Semblister to Culswick and over 60 replies backing their ambitious plans were received, while Mr Mercer said others have subsequently made it be known that they are behind the project – which could have scope for three full-time and seven or eight part-time workers.
“The idea behind this whole proposal is to provide a community centre for the area again and to make the venture viable by maximising revenue while minimising expenses … to create something for the locals but also for tourists to use,” said Mr Mercer.
“The marina has been developed and the caravan park; what we completely lack is shops for 10 miles – the nearest restaurant is about 20 miles from here. The council are not willing to build any new buildings – there’s a bit of an opportunity just now and we’re really not wanting to miss it. This is a pure community venture, democratically done with ownership by the community and any profits made going back to the community. We really know very little of the Jay Hawkins proposal but will be arranging to meet with him to discuss it.”
Mr Robinson said he was looking forward to seeing some more firm details in the near future but that he was impressed with the two outline plans which had already been made public. He said: “The one at the forefront at the moment is the one headed up by Jimmy Mercer, because it’s the only one that’s going to utilise all of the smokehouse buildings, both old and new, but I am aware of other interest that has been expressed in it.
“One of the strongest things we felt was that the best purpose that it could be put to would be some kind of food processing because it was completely up to standard, but whether or not another tenant could be found for the other part of the building, I don’t know. I do feel sort of torn – the community business is of and for the community, the other one is the sort of food processing business we would dearly like to see going in there [and it would have] possibly more opportunity for employment.”
The council’s assets and properties manager Alan Rolfe confirmed there had also been interest from an unnamed third party since expressions were invited back in February and the council is now awaiting more detailed business plans. Mr Rolfe is optimistic that, once concrete plans have been submitted by those interested in taking out a lease, the building could be occupied before the end of the summer.