Retail wasn’t in the plans when Evert and Jannie Beyer went into the cheese-making business.
But when the pandemic struck, it proved to be a lifeline.
The couple emigrated from the Netherlands in 1994 and began milking cows in 2000. They took over Crystal Springs Cheese in 2005, moving the business from Bluffton to a location just north of Lethbridge.
“We started making feta and Gouda and we did that for the longest time,” said Jacco Beyer, one of the couple’s sons, who is the production manager for the operation.
Feta continues to be their main product by volume but after acquiring Bles-Wold yogurt brand from its Lacombe owners in 2018, the family began selling both yogurt and cheese curds at grocery and specialty stores across the province.
It proved to be a pivotal decision — but in a way they never expected.
“When people stopped going to restaurants, dairy consumables at the retail level went up 25 to 30 per cent,” said Beyer. “Those products (curds and yogurt) do better for us than bulk wholesale. So while we saw a large shrink in volume with the wholesale, we also saw a large increase in the retail.”
And it wasn’t just the sales that boosted the company’s fortunes. The yogurt coolers in grocery stores are dominated by the big players who not only offer cheap prices but can pay for prominent shelf space, shunting the little guys to one side.
But that didn’t count for much when panic buying saw shelves stripped bare. The key became how quickly you could deliver new product to stores, and Crystal Springs was able to do that.
“I think we were able to restock a little faster than some of the yogurts that were coming from out east,” said Beyer.
“We got a little bit of a boost that way. Some people who might not have bought our product just bought it because the other yogurt was gone. And then it stuck because our sales picked up and they didn’t drop back down.”
There’s been an even more dramatic surge in sales at their retail store on the family farm, which carries an ever-growing lineup of cheeses, such as cheddar, havarti, Swiss, Asiago, and Monterey Jack. The store has become a local attraction and sales have doubled, said Beyer.
“The store has been very busy. People enjoy shopping there because it’s very easy to social distance. Usually, there’s only one set of people in there at a time. If there are more people, they can wait outside. We do things like grab the cheese from the freezer for them. People really appreciate that.”
The family was initially reluctant to move into retail but are now thankful they did.
“The retail business softened the blow a lot for us. We’re still crawling back up there. A lot of restaurants are still slow,” said Beyer.
“We are grateful for all the support we’ve been getting locally, that’s for sure. It’s also inspired us a lot.”
Because of requests from their customers, they’re making more types of cheeses to launch this fall.
“In the end, we played around with making different kinds of cheeses and making more of the same cheeses that we make so we have more inventory to do launches in the fall,” he said.
Earlier this month, concrete was poured for a new patio, an extension of a café they have at their store.
“It’s a slab of concrete with chairs on it, and people are sitting out there already. They quite enjoy it. They quite enjoy being out in the country.”
And the Beyers are enjoying having people come to their farm.
“We have been having a lot of fun with retail,” he said. “You see reward for your work instead of piling up a lot of boxes and cases.”
Three out of five Beyer siblings are actively involved in the operation, along with their parents.
Crystal Springs Cheese uses about 200,000 to 300,000 litres of milk a month. The family has its own dairy herd, but also sources milk from local farmers.
“We always use our own milk for our yogurt, our own specialty cheese and anything that has our name on it,” said Beyer.
Most of their herd is now producing A2 cows’ milk, which can be consumed by people who have a sensitivity to A1 proteins found in cows’ milk. The milk is used in all yogurt production, as well as Gouda, Swiss and Asiago.
“A2 milk has been around for a while, but it’s relatively new in Canada and there are only a few people doing it,” he said.
Once the family realized the power of the retail world, and how much they could be doing, they hired more staff. At the end of 2018, they had just one part-time office manager and Beyer worked the production floor with two or three assistants. Now there are usually 10 people on the floor, two to three in the office, someone managing the store and someone on the road.
But it’s the connection to customers that has really come to the fore during the pandemic.
“Everyone has been talking about local,” said Beyer.
“The retail market is a really good way to get your product out there. We’ve seen the support that people have for both local products, and farm-based products.”