Penny’s Cheese Shop is a pocket-sized fromagerie in Sydney’s Potts Point that is customer-focused, fun-filled and makes the best cheese toasties in town.
“I think I fell into cheese by accident. I remember shopping with my mum and choosing cheese at a local deli when I was young. I loved that we could taste things, and they would remember what we’d previously bought ,” says Penny Lawson, owner of Penny’s Cheese Shop.
The journey to Penny’s Cheese Shop
Working in the hospitality industry to sustain herself through university, Lawson tried her hand at baking and butchery before embracing her love for cheese. However, she says her real passion was ignited after she started working at Milawa Cheese Company in Victoria’s high country.
“I must have been a couple of months into the job when I tasted an Aged Milawa Blue paired with a glass of Brown Brothers Patricia Nobel Riesling, and it was love,” Lawson recalls.
It was six years before she left, and by then she was truly embedded in the industry. Still, Lawson’s journey to start her own business has been a circuitous one. It took a trip to the UK to work at London’s prestigious La Fromagerie and her subsequent return to Australia before she got the inkling to go into business for herself.
“I guess the timing was finally right. I feel like I had expertise in my field. I had enough money to open a business by myself,” she tells Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB).
“I’ve always been a big believer in loving what I do and that comes down to believing in the products I sell. So, to have creative control over everything in the shop makes me proud of the quality. If customers ask if it is any good, I know that it is. I want to represent our local producers (themselves small businesses) and tell their stories.”
A community response
Lawson describes her business as a pocket-sized cheese shop in Potts Point that is “customer-focused, fun-filled and makes the best cheese toasties in town”. She’s not wrong. Anyone who has sampled one of her decadent grilled cheese sandwiches always comes back for more. The fromagerie has a loyal clientele and has managed to stay afloat despite the hardships COVID-19 restrictions have on small businesses.
Remembering back to the early days of the lockdown, Penny recalls her anxiety.
“I was unsure early on if we would be allowed to remain open with the lockdown and I was anxious to keep my staff and family safe, so it was tense there for a bit,” she says.
Fortunately, the local community rallied behind the business, ensuring Penny’s Cheese Shop flourished while many hospitality businesses closed their doors.
“The local chamber, The Potts Point Partnership, supported us by emailing updates, including when there was a local virus cluster. They created flags to show we were open and trading. Their dissemination of information was very helpful. Especially when there were so many mixed messages. And our customers supported us by continuing to show up every day.”
Restrictions meant only a few shoppers could be allowed into Penny’s store at a time, resulting in long queues around the block. Lawson tells KBB she is hugely grateful for the support. Yet keeping the doors open hasn’t been without challenges.
“We’ve struggled with logistics and the cost of things. Ordering of some items became tricky. For imported cheese, some comes in by air and the prices skyrocketed. I pivoted and started buying more Australian cheese, which wasn’t hard for me as I always supported our local producers. Even then it became difficult to get some of my mainstays as other businesses switched over too.
“It has been a busy time for local cheesemakers. One of the best things about being a cheesemonger is telling the story of where the cheese came from. We know the producer’s name, we know when the cheese was made, we know what it tastes like, how to use it in cooking or match it with fruit or wine or beer. The personal story creates a better tasting cheese!”
Decisions backed by data
At a time where every penny counts, keeping abreast of the business cash flow during lockdown was essential. Having access to real-time financial data from Xero means Lawson has made more informed decisions about her business during this challenging time.
“As such a small business, I can read a lot of information from week to week just by checking what’s on the shelves and selling. And although I’m very low-key on the tech, I use Xero to help me keep track of things.
“Xero has helped in how user-friendly the platform is. It keeps me on top of outstanding debtors and seeing how we are tracking in the day-to-day. I can immediately see the position of my finances. It’s good to know that it is instantly at my fingertips.”
Lawson says deciding whether or not to remain open during the coronavirus crisis was tough. However, a conversation with a customer helped sway her decision.
“When we went into lockdown last year and I was unsure of whether we would be allowed to remain open (or should remain open), I spoke with a nurse from up the road at St Vinnies. He said it was very important for me to stay open and to support the people in the neighbourhood. After all, I might be the only person they speak to in a day.
“Every other transaction can be done online or at self-checkout, but human connection was key. Checking in on people and providing good cheese and bread meant that they were still having a little piece of familiarity in a shifting world.”
Fortunately, Sydney’s lockdown was short-lived. Still, Lawson says she felt guilt at being able to continue to trade when so many of her colleagues were unable to, and other businesses in the area were closing their doors.
“But it felt important to keep some normalcy and be able to have human to human contact,” she says.
“We are more than just a cheese shop – we are part of a community.”
Find out more about Penny’s Cheese Shop here.
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