Where cheese meets technology
By Annabel Stockham
Sep 30, 2021
Two magical worlds colliding, creating something beautiful. Cheese...and Technology
Back at day dot of cheesegeek, sat around a kitchen table surrounded by cheese, we tried hard to nail down why most people still only ate cheddar and brie. Our overarching aim was very clear - we wanted more people to eat better cheese, and have a bloody good time doing it. This looked great on paper but how in practice were we going to make this happen? Cheese has been around for donkey’s years (since around 6500BC, since you’re asking) ...the hard bit has been getting more people to feel connected with it on a deeper level. With over 750 varieties of cheese being made in the UK now though, it dawned on us the time was ripe for this to change. “Bring in tech (and more cheese)” we said triumphantly.
The modern cheesemonger
We have never been more blessed with the technological opportunities we have today. Phones constantly within reach, on demand products and services, streamlined apps, personalised purchasing journeys, subscription software...great cheese just needed the right tools to get it in the mouths of more people.
And there we have it, a pairing that nobody in their right mind would put together. But that’s what we’re doing. Cheese and technology, or as we now know it: cheesetech.
What do we mean by cheesetech?
On the surface, it means our amazing website that gives a great feel for what we’re all about and makes purchasing cheese easy. It also means our amazing delivery tech that ensures all cheese is received in perfect condition, just how it should be. And it is our wonderful app (launching November 2021), the first of its kind, that means great cheese can now be ordered with a few clicks, in a few seconds, from absolutely anywhere.
But if you lift the bonnet, you’ll see the engine we built that makes cheesegeek tick. We called her CASSIE (Cheese Allocation System...SIE), and she is the really hardcore tech.
CASSIE manages all of our orders, logs our customer preferences, knows what is in season and holds our cheese universe. She holds a multitude of data points on each - from the basics of where it comes from and what style or strength the cheese is, all the way through to the month it tastes best and how our customers have rated it.
Great, I hear you say, we have a database which holds...data, and you’ve given it a name. Well that’s just the start. The magic happens when we ask CASSIE to allocate cheese.
When I say ask, every morning she wakes up and gets to work on all the new orders that have come in over the last day and ask a bunch of questions to give a perfectly balanced selection. Some of our cheeseboxes have set products and she knows which cheeses to add in here but for our subscriber selection (The Elvis and The Jimi’s) and The Lionel and The Tina one-off boxes she will put together a unique selection for each box based on the following criteria:
- What cheese has this customer received before?
- What cheese do we currently have in the fridge?
- Is this cheese in season?
- Does the overall box have a balanced selection?
- Does the customer have any dietary requirements? i.e Vegetarian, Gluten Free etc
- What order should these cheeses be eaten in to maximise enjoyment?
- Has the subscriber ‘bespoked their box’ (requested no blue cheese for example)?
- And much more!
As soon as our lovely cheesemakers deliver their latest batch through the doors of cheesegeek HQ, CASSIE gets to work dishing out the deliciousness so our customers can experience artisan cheese at its freshest.
When we initially got into thinking about cheesetech our first question was what did we need aside from simple data retention? Of course it would be easy to store order details such as shipping addresses and gift messages but we really had to think about the most important thing going into those boxes - Cheese!
Many of the boxes in our range don’t have a set selection of cheese (of course some do as we’ve put together some incredible pairings with various wines, beers, charcuterie etc that we couldn’t keep to ourselves) and instead our wonderful customers put their trust into us to send them out a varied and balanced selection of the finest cheeses the UK has to offer (and sometimes a little slice of Europe too). There are so many styles and varieties and we want to make sure as many of these are showcased as they can be
It isn’t as simple as entering cheese into a spreadsheet and letting a system divide up what we have to our customers - we pride ourselves on the fact we care for the cheese as much as the cheesemakers do in order to have it delivered in perfect condition.
This means all of our daily orders are chopped and wrapped by our despatch team on the morning of them being collected in the afternoon by our overnight delivery courier. Gone are the days of tired cut cheeses on a cheesemonger’s counter that have have been open for too long and are starting to get a bit sad.
This means that we would need our system to know what we have in the fridge that is ready to go and work out the selections from this and taking into account any variations set by the customer (vegetarian only, no goat’s cheese, no blue cheese etc) and making sure the right number of cheeses and the right styles are going out to everyone.
The true joys of artisan cheese are what make it more difficult than most other products into fitting into certain boxes
- It has a shorter shelf life (this can be massively impacted by seasonality, ripeness and batch) and once you cut a piece of cheese you start the countdown clock so you can’t just chip away at a large wedge over time - once it’s been cut it needs to be sent out ASAP to make sure it’s enjoyed in it’s finest glory
- Every cheesemaker has their own distinct style, and while you find that generally most cheddars come in wheels of 10-20kg and most soft cheeses are made to smaller formats under 500g, this isn’t always the case! Cheese moulds, herd and dairy size and cheesemaker capacity all account for the weird and wonderful shapes and sizes of UK artisan cheese.
- It’s not just wheels too, some cheeses are square, some are cylindrical, some are even shaped like little spaceships! (these are not the easiest to divide up into perfect little portions) so when it comes to asking a computer to take all of these different things and try and squeeze them into the same format it’s not the simplest task.
The majority of the little wedges sent out are around 120g - this means we can squeeze 5 superstars into the Jimi, Elvis and Lionel selections for more variety.
However, we also cut 200g wedges and occasionally go even bigger for some bespoke orders to 500g, 750g and 1kg. Covering all these bases means each cheese can have various numbers of different size pieces and trying to work out what you can get out of a wheel in a day is a little like a puzzle! The last thing we ever want to do is waste cheese so we aim to get the most we can out of any cheese every day (and we go through about 70 different varieties daily at a minimum).
Alongside this, we have to take into account what is ripe on any given day, making sure that our customers then have enough time to enjoy their cheese once it’s delivered.
In the cheese world, winter and particularly the weeks around Christmas are hugely busy whereas demand always drops off between Spring and Autumn - one of the main things we are trying to do at cheesegeek is to get people eating more delicious cheese all year round - there are cheeses for every season and so many different ways to enjoy it that we would love to help support what is currently such a seasonal food into something more sustainable for the future. We try to have the right amount of cheese in stock at all times of the year and even when it is quieter offering the same broad selection. This takes a little jiggery pokery from CASSIE to look forward and see what we might need at any one time.
Our upcoming app update means that subscribers will be able to see what they will be receiving a few days in advance and even swap out some cheeses to suit their tastes - now that is geeky! We're working with a world-class team at Hedgehog Lab, the number 1 global app developer, to build a market leading tool that puts users first.
Technology with a human touch
Our operations assistants give the allocation the once over before the cheese whisperers get to chopping and wrapping all the cheese for the day’s orders, checking that CASSIE is doing the right job but also adding in that human element that no amount of tech can bring:
- Has a cheesemaker just called us to say they have a batch that is just out of this world and we need to get this out to our customer ASAP?
- Is this a customer that we know is a lover of Lancashire or a sucker for Stilton?
- Do we know that a certain batch is taking just that little longer to ripen this week and needs more time?
- Has this customer contacted us with a special request for example pregnancy-safe cheese?
- Will this cheese just go a little too gooey in transit as there is a heatwave this week?
So, we have the perfect collaboration between tech and ninja cheese instinct, and hey presto, we have perfectly balanced, unique selections for cheese lovers across the country.
What does the future hold for cheesetech?
At cheesegeek HQ, with the help of our coding wizard Billy, we have just updated how CASSIE works and fine tuned it to some more exciting capabilities which will help get more amazing cheese out to more customers across the UK!
The next phase is work with our brand new and improved app and website functions to use previous customer ratings as part of the allocation process...as a subscriber, if you’ve rated, say Tunworth 5/5 (why wouldn’t you, it’s a worldie), CASSIE will rummage around the data and pick out the other 1000 people who have rated Tunworth 5/5. She’ll look at which other cheeses these 1000 people have rated highly and allocate your next cheesebox with this data in mind. Mouth wateringly smart. Tunworth not in season right now? No problemo...because CASSIE knows a whole bunch of cheeses that fit the same profile as Tunworth...so we know you will probably love them too.
We are putting the human element of knowing these cheeses inside out into data format which allows CASSIE to ‘get to know’ the cheeses and creates connections in the whole database. As time goes on, CASSIE will continue to become smarter. She’ll have more and more data points to call on and more customer ratings to assess. The more we feed her, the quicker and more effectively she will work.
Ultimately, this means that subscribers should enjoy their cheese even more, because they are getting cheese delivered (cheese they had probably never even heard of before, and would certainly not have known to pick out from a line-up) that fits with their taste profile. And that’s what we’re here to do. Get more people enjoying great cheese. Our groundbreaking, unrivalled tech, is what makes those dreams come true.